JEKYLL ISLAND, Georgia — Jekyll Island will hold its fire on a proposal to have sharpshooters kill deer at the state park, and instead will study whether the abundant deer population is damaging the island's maritime forests.
The Jekyll Island Authority Board voted unanimously Tuesday to gather more information, months after a staff report last July estimated the island has far too many white-tailed deer and recommended using professional riflemen employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce their numbers. Many residents were horrified and said resorting to lethal methods would bloody Jekyll Island's reputation for wildlife conservation.
Board members said the new study will be conducted in partnership with academic researchers, but gave few other details. They made it clear that deer are out of the crosshairs for now.
"No population control is going to take place while the study is underway," said Richard Royal, the board's chairman.
White-tailed deer have become so visible in the trees lining Jekyll Island's roads and golf course fairways that they've become something of a tourist attraction. The Jekyll Island Authority has been wrestling with whether to take action since 2011, when a survey suggested there were too many deer to support a healthy population.
Jekyll Island staff have estimated the island has 76 to 146 deer per square mile. Ben Carswell, the island's conservation manager, has told the board he's concerned deer are putting too much strain on plant species by eating up to 5,000 pounds of vegetation a day. A small sample of Jekyll deer examined by veterinarians more than a year ago found several were malnourished.
Opponents of the sharpshooter plan solicited opinions from outside experts who suggested Jekyll Island deer appear to be self-regulating their numbers by having fewer offspring. Some residents also warned that killing deer would offend those who treasure Jekyll Island as a critter-friendly place that operates a sea turtle hospital, uses radio transmitters to study rattlesnakes and has road signs cautioning motorists to slow down for terrapins.
"I think they got the message," said Bonnie Newell, a nurse who has lived on Jekyll Island since the 1970s. "It would have been very bad publicity for them."
A big part of the upcoming study will be examining places where deer feed on the island and whether the animals are devouring some plant species faster than they can reproduce, said Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority.
How long the study will take is anybody's guess.
"Nobody put a timeframe on anything," Hooks said.