- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

High-tech and low-tech have combined forces at the government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure the 578-acre Gaithersburg campus maintains a balance between the forces of nature and the march of civilization.

Nature in the form of 200 resident white-tailed deer is kept under control through a specially developed immunocontraception vaccine injected seasonally into the female deer.

At the same time, the periodic hiring of trained border collies helps chase several hundred turf-minded Canada geese from their favored sites so they won’t dominate areas frequented by NIST employees, especially during the birds’ breeding season. Geese excrement also had been polluting ponds and storm drainage systems. (The only real technology employed in this method is the vehicles that bring the dogs to the site.)

Both species of wildlife are increasingly the bane of residents in the Greater Washington region living close to woodlands and small open bodies of water. Lessons learned at NIST are expected to benefit suburban homeowners and institutions such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is planning to move to White Oak near Rockville, according to NIST spokesman Michael Newman.

“There always will be some [geese] population here as long as we have grass for them to eat and ponds for them to swim on,” says Rhonda Hurt, NIST’s full-time wildlife manager. “So you want to solve wildlife problems? You blacktop the whole place.”

“The thing is keeping [the problem] to a manageable level,” Mr. Newman says.

First, NIST tried discouraging the geese by spreading flavors they are supposed to dislike; another method used a chemical sprayed on the grounds meant to distract the geese to keep them from settling onto the property.

In the end, chemistry didn’t work, but the dogs and ordinary corn oil did. The corn oil is used to treat eggs in nests to keep embryos from developing.

“We used to have between 1,200 and 1,600 geese here every day. Even though we are keeping [200 to 300], we eliminate a future population that would spread throughout the country,” Mrs. Hurt says. “Montgomery County last year started a program to treat nests in parks this way.”

Collies from a Leesburg, Va., company called Geese Police are hired at staggered times on different days — so the birds don’t become conditioned to a schedule — to simulate predators. The geese retreat in response, at least temporarily.

The deer are another matter entirely, being greatly prized by sportsmen as well as people who embrace what Mr. Newman calls the “Bambi factor” — sensitivity among those wanting to keep the animals from harm.

Beautiful as grazing deer may be, their presence close to major highways and NIST’s own roads puts them in danger, at the same time the deer are a menace to automobiles in their path and liable to cause serious injury.

So seven years ago, the Humane Society of the United Statesbecame a partner with NIST to apply a vaccine that had been developed in the 1970s by research veterinarians and reproductive physiologists. The vaccine keeps animals such as deer and horses from reproducing in numbers that become detrimental to humans and the species themselves. Because of safety concerns alone, culling herds by hunting isn’t always practical.

One of the key scientists involved in the vaccine treatment program is Allen Rutberg, a research professor in the department of zoology at the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy in North Grafton, Mass. He expects that results published online recently by the journal Biological Conservation will convince peers of the success of a program that, to date, has been termed an experiment.

“The technology unquestionably is there,” he asserts. “We have now shown pretty conclusively that you can reduce deer populations in places where there are problems. It’s a great technique in places that are suburban but not wild. In my fantasy, there will be companies or county employees, or park employees, who do this as part of their job. Because deer are a natural resource, it could be county agents or private contractors getting permission from state agencies who might administer it.”

The next step, a big one due to the expense and rigorous protocol involved when testing a vaccine or drug given to a potential food source, is winning approval of regulating authorities to market the vaccine. The vaccine is now being used on an experimental basis. Ironically, one of the most demanding of these is the FDA. Gaining state agencies’ permission, Mr. Rutberg says, has been difficult previously even at an experimental level.

Using the vaccine is personnel-intensive and requires the ability to be able to shoot a dart containing the vaccine at a distance of up to 45 yards. An initial dose and then a booster dose must be given every year. But deer mobility, plus their tendency to spook easily, makes the animals hard targets for darting and charting.

“When we started, we could treat them at 15 yards,” Mrs. Hurt says. “It gets more difficult the more times you treat them because they become acclimated to the timing and site of darting.”

NIST and Humane Society personnel spend six weeks in the fall inoculating the does, nearly all of which previously have been tagged and numbered for easy identification. As a result, NIST’s deer population is down from a high of 350 when the program began in 1996.

The vaccine, known as PZP for porcine zona pellucida, is a protein that recognizes a sperm on a female pig’s egg. Injected into a deer, the protein becomes a foreign body and creates an immune system response around the deer’s egg. The deer sperm thinks it is a pig’s egg instead of a deer egg and won’t fertilize it.

The method has been proven to be reversible, allowing deer to reproduce after withdrawal of treatment, although there remain a number of unknowns, such as why the vaccine does not always work on some deer.

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