For the second time in a year, a study has confirmed what Jekyll Island visitors and residents can easily see from the roadsides and golf course fairways: the island state park has an obvious abundance of deer.
Ben Carswell, conservation manager for the Jekyll Island Authority, said Wednesday his survey clearly shows too many white-tailed deer on the island — anywhere from 95 to 196 deer per square mile. Veterinary experts at the University of Georgia examined six deer and found some signs of malnourishment, though two of the animals seemed perfectly healthy.
Despite the findings, Carswell isn't recommending any actions to control the deer population, which likely would require using hunters or professional sharpshooters to thin the herd. Island residents howled in protest when a prior report last year suggested open the island to bow hunters. They warned killing deer, so abundant they have become a tourist attraction themselves, would tarnish the park's reputation for wildlife conservation.
"I don't feel like it's an extremely urgent thing," said Carswell, who presented his findings to Jekyll Island's governing board Monday. "I don't feel like we're being cruel to the animals by letting nature sort of take its course in this case."
Carswell's survey team counted deer by using a spotlight while slowly driving island roads over three nights last fall. His results indicated a much larger population than the state Department of Natural Resources found using the same method year earlier, when it estimated there were roughly 80 deer per square mile. The agency's 2012 report suggested a sustainable number would be about 30 deer per square mile.
However, the deer don't seem to be posing much of a risk to tourists or Jekyll Island residents. Georgia State Patrol records show people reported roughly 10 collisions with deer each year for the past three years, Carswell said, noting the island's low speed limits likely keep crashes to a minimum.
Hunting has long been banned on Jekyll Island. But there aren't many non-lethal options for managing deer populations. Georgia law prohibits trapping deer and transporting them elsewhere. Some states have approved use of a drug that works as deer birth control, but it has to be given to female deer as an injection — making it costly and difficult to administer to large populations.
David Egan, an island resident and leader of the Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island, said state officials are probably wise to avoid doing anything unless the deer are causing critical problems.
"The solution of culling the deer here by sharpshooters or bow hunters or whatever is just a public relations disaster waiting to happen," Egan said.
Carswell suggested to Jekyll Island's governing board that it order more research to find out whether deer are consuming too much of the island's vegetation, from sea oats growing from the dunes to acorns and live oak saplings needed to sustain the island's maritime forest.
Such a study would likely take a minimum of two more years, Carswell said.
Jekyll Island Authority spokesman Eric Garvey said the board would likely welcome further study before taking any action, "especially one that would involve culling the herd or killing some of the deer."
"That would, I think, be considered a serious step," Garvey said. "And they're comfortable that time is being taken to look at the issue."