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Deer count is overestimated, wildlife watcher argues

YOUNGSTOWN — Mill Creek MetroParks’ deer numbers are wrong, Mickey Drabison of Youngstown said.

He led a group of people on a walk in Mill Creek Park on Feb. 19 to look at the deer population after they heard MetroParks officials talk about overpopulation of deer. The group plans another walk today.

He said the reason for the walks is to show people and let them decide for themselves whether the deer are overpopulating. He said he believes the number the MetroParks has given — 387 per square mile — is not accurate.

He thinks the number is much less.

The group will be back out again today from 10 a.m. to noon for another look starting near the parking areas across from the Mill Creek Golf course, which is on West Golf Drive.

The group previously walked north of the golf course near the Morley Pavilion and the Lily Pond and did not see deer, but Drabison said the area near the golf course has more. He said the area where the group walked Feb. 19 generally has two herds of five deer each. “And another group of six that come up and do their eating.”

He was surprised his group did not see any deer, but noted dogs do scare them off.

Drabison, who lives close to the park, said he has walked nearly every day in the park for the past 10 years. He said he typically sees about 15 or 20 deer in a few herds.

“I follow the white deer,” he said. A white deer named Faith is in that area, he said.

He said 387 deer in a square mile “comes down to 10 herds of 38 deer per square mile. I’ve never seen deer like that in this place. There are deer, but their number is not quite right, in my opinion,” Drabison said of the MetroParks.

“These people out here see it. I see it,” Drabison said of the real number of deer. He said he does not have personal knowledge of the deer population south of U.S. Route 224.

He said he is familiar with area from McCollum Road to Shields Road and thinks there are maybe 100 deer in that area, which is about 4 miles long.

“I could walk you or draw you a map and show you right where they are at. You could go there and see the deer I am talking about. That’s it,” he said. He thinks more are south of Shields Road near the golf course, where he saw a herd of about 16 deer about a month ago.

“That’s the biggest herd I’ve ever seen there,” Drabison said. “The rest are maybe six or seven walking around together.”

ALBINO OR NOT

Drabison said he disagrees if the MetroParks is saying that the white deer in Mill Creek Park are albino deer. “There is not an albino deer in the park. There hasn’t been,” he said.

A leucistic deer can be all-white coat — but commonly retain some level of normal pigmentation in their hooves, noses or in their eyes.

One named Queenie died in 2021 at Schenley Avenue and Bear’s Den Road. Drabison found the deer after it died. He saw her born — one of 11 deer he has seen born in the park. Her death was related to not being able to birth a calf.

“The deer trust me,” he said.

Queenie was not an albino because she had yellow eyes, Drabison said. She was healthy except for a two-week issue with parasites.

Drabison said he believes the presence of a white deer like Queenie does not indicate any genetic issues that would suggest overpopulation of deer, because he believes white deer are “just like the brown deer” in their health.

He’s heard the argument that vegetation is being destroyed by the deer, but doubts that, too. The only type of damage he hears about or observes, he said, is deer coming into yards and eating flowers.

Drabison said he thinks the MetroParks is making plans to reduce the deer population to get money from allowing hunters to reduce the herd.

COUNTERPOINT

Nick Derico, MetroParks natural resources manager, was asked about Drabison’s opinion about the park district’s data on the number of deer.

A key part of data collection was an aerial, infrared survey carried out at night from an airplane Jan. 21, 2022, in Mill Creek Park and Jan. 26, 2022, in the rest of the park’s facilities.

Derico said the type of survey done for the MetroParks numbers has been “used for years, even the late 1900s,” and in the 2000s the park district did the same type of survey.

He said the surveyor who provided the data “went painstakingly for months, going through the data. Each (thermal) signature gets evaluated based on its size, its shape, its habit, meaning if there is a heat signature in the middle of Lake Newport, that’s not a deer. And then deer do give off a distinctive thermal characteristic based on how heat is reflected off of their coats,” Derico said.

He said the thermal imaging camera “can (or) will pick up more than just deer, but each signature was evaluated on its own merit and determined whether it was consistent with a deer.” He said there is a “confidence interval” of 85 percent, meaning the surveyor is “85 percent or more confident in his results,” Derico said.

He said the snow-covered, cold weather the two nights of the survey were ideal for the survey. The surveyor flew at about 1,100 feet, providing “great survey conditions,” Derico said. “We’re confident in the survey numbers. We don’t know what to tell people who don’t believe them.”

Derico noted that people are allowed to be in the MetroParks only during the day, not at night, and deer “are most active in the evening and at dawn and dusk and throughout the night. They bed during the day, typically.” They do sometimes feed even at mid-day but not typically.

“If you are walking in daylight on a trail, as you should be, there are plenty of areas where deer could be obscured from your vision,” Derico said. The way a person might walk in the park “is certainly not a comprehensive look at all areas of the MetroParks.”

When Derico was asked about Drabison’s theory that the MetroParks would reduce the deer herd to make money off of a hunt, he responded: “Absolutely not. Quite the opposite. There is no financial gain for the MetroParks through any of the methods (of reducing the herd.) In fact, it’s cost the MetroParks to gather this survey data and staff time to look into the issue. There is no financial motivation.”

Aaron Young, MetroParks executive director, said that “to imply that we are only looking at the deer overpopulation because of financial gain is simply inaccurate.” Young said the MetroParks will not decide what method would be used to reduce the herd until it hears the input from the public.

The MetroParks is trying to educate the public on this issue through the web site where the public can provide input at www.millcreekmetroparks.org/white-tailed-deer-in-mill-creek-metroparks, Young said.

“The presentation (Derico) gave at the last meeting (Feb. 13) was the culmination of two years of data collection,” Young said.

The MetroParks wants to create a white-tail deer management plan, which exists in many other park districts in northeast Ohio, Derico said.

The MetroParks board again will discuss the issue March 13. Derico will make recommendations to the park board on what to do.

erunyan@vindy.com

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