JEKYLL ISLAND, Georgia — Jekyll Island's governing board voted Tuesday to spend four years and $150,000 to study whether the state park's maritime forests are threatened by too many hungry deer.
The decision extends a reprieve the island's abundant white-tailed deer won a year ago when the Jekyll Island Authority sidelined a proposal to hire sharpshooters to thin the population. Researchers from the University of Georgia plan to study the health of plant species on Jekyll Island until early 2020 before making any recommendations.
Jekyll Island officials have been grappling with the deer issue for years after population surveys estimated the park has far more deer than it can sustain — and a report concluded the only viable solution was to kill some of them. Many island residents were horrified, saying any lethal measures would only bloody Jekyll Island's reputation for wildlife preservation.
Ben Carswell, conservation manager for Jekyll Island, said Tuesday the UGA study won't focus solely on deer; it also will look at whether such factors as fire and soil moisture are putting stress on the island's plants and forests. He said the overall number of deer seems to have held steady since the issue first arose about five years ago.
"I would say the population of deer on Jekyll is very high," Carswell said. "But I would not say it's in danger of exponentially growing."
Plant species Carswell said he's concerned about include the pignut hickory. Fewer than 12 of the hardwood trees can be found on Jekyll Island, he said, and they may struggle to survive if deer are eating their saplings.
Bonnie Newell, a Jekyll Island resident who opposed the sharpshooter proposal, said she's glad park officials have agreed to a multiyear study before taking any action regarding the deer. She said she expects the findings will show deer pose little threat.
"They're not going to find anything," Newell said, adding that deer have plenty of food this winter. "Have you seen the acorns on the island? There's an abundance of acorns."
Richard Royal, chairman of Jekyll Island's governing board, reiterated Tuesday that no decision on whether or how to curb the deer population will be made until after the study is finished.
Jones Hooks, the park's executive director, said the board could find itself confronting the same decision it faced a year ago about whether to hire riflemen to thin the herd.
"We could have that decision," Hooks said, "or we could have something totally different."