Deer pose a danger to North Pinellas drivers during breeding season

PALM HARBOR — Tangled in the fence were the back hooves of the deer, his front legs in the grass off Stag Thicket Lane.

The 10-point buck had tried to jump into Brooker Creek Preserve, the 8,500-acre expanse of swamp and flatwoods that are home to hundreds of wild whitetails. A hole in the pasture fence had caught the deer's hoof mid-leap.

Steve Poling, a homeowner here for 20 years, saw the deer Monday morning. One leg was broken, the bone piercing through fur. The other was broken or dislocated in the struggle to yank free.

Poling cut a wire snagging the hoof. The 200-pound deer crumpled to the ground and dragged itself into the weeds. A sheriff's deputy lowered a shotgun and fired twice. By noon the deer was gone.

There are plenty of deer in these woods, in this county filled and overbuilt and split by busy roads. You can see them by the dozen in the open forests of north Pinellas County. Some even think there are more this year than last.

But as sprawl and suburbia have tiptoed into their habitat, and as deer have grown more familiar with their human neighbors, the interactions have sometimes become dangerous. Deer can be seen grazing in front lawns, jumping privacy fences, walking along medians or crossing highways like U.S. 19.

No season is worse than breeding season, running now through December, in which love-struck bucks chase does in heat. Called the rut, the season sees bucks fighting over mates and following does blindly into traffic.

"The bucks become total idiots," said Vernon Yates, director of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation, a Seminole animal shelter. "All the boys are out there chasing the girls … and the majority of them get popped."

Ronda Musca, who lives in the East Lake neighborhood of Boot Ranch, counted nine deer hit by cars during two weeks last fall. Already this year she has picked up on deer-crossing "hot zones" at Tampa and East Lake roads.

"There's nothing worse than seeing a deer look at you when it's suffering," she said. "It's just heartbreaking."

Deer-vehicle crashes are a billion-dollar danger, causing soaring property and insurance costs and about 200 deaths a year, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Between 2009 and 2010, insurance giant State Farm counted 14,000 of the crashes in Florida, accounting for about 1 in 1,000 drivers.

November, the peak of the rut, is the worst for accidents. But deer crippled by crashes have already begun appearing on the side of the road.

Rick Chaboudy, a co-founder of the Suncoast Animal League, said the animal rescue has taken in three fawns — Mabel, Molly and Martha — injured or left motherless due to a crash. One was only two days old when she was found hobbling near Keystone Road.

Other deer, he said, have suffered concussions. One dazed buck struck by a car stumbled into a Boot Ranch Publix in 2009, two days before Christmas. The deer ran past holiday shoppers in a checkout lane, slipped on the tiled floor and crashed into a display of pet supplies. Chaboudy released it into the Brooker Creek Preserve.

Chaboudy said every year seems to bring more and more deer as predators like alligators, bears and panthers disappear. Paul Cozzie, director of county parks and conservation resources, said herds wander John Chestnut Sr. Park, spanning 250 acres off Lake Tarpon.

Yates, who fields many of the county's calls to remove dead deer, said he doubts the population has changed. Many bucks are just poking their heads out now as the velvet sheds from their antlers — the first sign of breeding season.

He has been called to cars running into deer, deer running into cars, deer stuck on decorative wrought-iron fences and deer who have slammed into subdivision walls.

Some deer are buried, Yates said. Others freshly killed are dropped into a wheelbarrow at his shelter and fed to his 32 tigers, leopards and cougars. "Natural cat food," he said.

There isn't a lot that can be done to keep deer from crossing the road. But in parts of Brooker Creek Preserve, crews will soon weave green aluminum strips in the holes topping the fence.

Lisa Baltus, the county's environmental program manager, said that could keep deer like the 10-point buck from getting caught while jumping.

"Nobody seems to know why they keep getting stuck," Baltus said. "Maybe it's just something in their DNA."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Deer pose a danger to North Pinellas drivers during breeding season 09/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 5:05pm]

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