Seven Beaufort County communities have received the state's permission to reduce their deer population.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources will allow culling of about 200 deer in Belfair, Colleton River Plantation, Hilton Head Plantation, Indigo Run, Leamington, Palmetto Bluff and Sea Pines. The deer are killed at night by sharpshooters using spotlights and sound-supressed firearms.
The plantations obtain permits from DNR to kill a certain number each year, based on surveys of their deer populations and car accidents involving deer.
Culling begins in the fall and must end March 1. The hunting season for sportsmen ends Jan. 1.
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The communities pay to have the deer meat processed, and it is then donated to area food banks.
The number of deer-culling permits issued has declined since the program began in the 1990s, as more communities have entered a "maintenance mode," said Charles Ruth, state deer project supervisor.
At its peak in the 2001-02 season, the department issued permits to about 20 communities statewide. Last season, the state issued nine, and eight were issued this year, Ruth said.
Communities that have culled in past years are expected to kill fewer deer this year to maintain the herds, Ruth said.
Leamington will cull deer for the first time. Attempts to reach the Hilton Head community's general manager were unsuccessful.
Culling is intended to slim the deer population in overpopulated areas where they are more prone to eat garden plants, be involved in vehicle wrecks and spread tick-borne illnesses.
Culling has reduced the county's deer population from an average of one deer for every 3 to 5 acres to a more sustainable one deer per every 20 to 30 acres, Ruth said.
"It's been effective. The deer are healthier, and it has been done safely," he said.
Deer culling began at Sea Pines more than a decade ago following extensive litigation between the property owners' association and animal-protection advocates. State courts ruled in favor of deer population control by private communities.
At its peak, the community had permission to cull 300 deer, but it removed only 40 last year and has permission to kill up to 50 this year after seeing a reduction in deer-related wrecks, Sea Pines wildlife biologist David Henderson said.
In 2000, there were about 60 deer-car crashes in Sea Pines. As of Wednesday, there were nine for the year and six in 2012, Henderson said.
"The deer herd, once you walk away from it, can increase by 20 to 25 percent a year," Henderson said. "We have estimated a population of 200 deer in Sea Pines. To keep that number, we'll have to remove about 50 deer a year. Deer in the area are healthy, with few predators -- the automobile being the top one."
One northern Beaufort County community, however, says it has seen similar success by nonlethal means.
Fripp Island was the scene of a joint experiment by Tufts University and the Humane Society of the United States from 2005 to 2011 that used contraceptives to manage the deer population.
Doe were tranquilized and then injected annually with a hormone to control reproduction. The process can cost about $1,000 per deer annually.
The island's deer population dropped to about half its size from when the program began, according to a 2011 progress report submitted to the DNR by the humane society. Birth rates were low compared to nearby Hunting Island, which was used as a control site, according to the report.
Currently, deer contraception is only allowed in university studies and in federal research since none of the chemical injections are government approved.
Fripp Island general manager Kate Hines hopes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will approve their use, as it does for wild horses.
"The program proved itself," Hines said. "Numbers aren't explosive but are beginning to creep up again as the contraceptive treatments wear off, and feel we're a good site for it because we're so isolated. The deer can't wander off elsewhere, and we're too crowded to allow hunting or to bring in sharpshooters.
"We also like our deer too much to get into that."
Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.