For more than a decade, the Lachine Rapids islands have been safe haven for whitetail deer.
Nine camouflaged hunters armed with bows and crossbows arrived at Île aux hérons by boat early Saturday on a government-sanctioned mission to reduce the deer population of the islands, which are in the St. Lawrence River just west of Nuns' Island and south of LaSalle. Nine more will do the same on Sunday.
From an initial three animals that braved strong currents to swim there over a decade ago, the number has grown to 46 according to an aerial survey in 2012, threatening the fragile habitat of plant and bird species that were already there.
The goal of this weekend's "controlled hunt" was to reduce the deer numbers by 10 to 15 animals. If the target isn't reached, the hunt may be repeated in the coming weeks. As of noon Saturday, only one animal had been taken. The licences allow one kill per hunter.
"It's not an easy hunt," said longtime archery instructor Eric Vézeau, who assembled the group specialized in bow and crossbow hunting. "We see them, but we lose them in the brush and they're not in shooting corridors. We want it to be one arrow, one deer, and we're not getting those clean shots. Arrows are $40 apiece, so you want to be sure."
Government biologists estimate that the optimal number of whitetail deer for a land area the size of the islands would be three.
With no predators to fear, the deer have become the aggressors, stripping bark from trees and devouring and trampling vegetation of many types. Almost any plant less than two metres above ground is at risk.
Their actions also are endangering one of the largest nesting grounds in North America for herons, said François Lebel, a biologist with the provincial ministry of forests, fauna and parks.Philippe Crevier, 56, whose family has had a seasonal chalet on nearby Île aux Chèvres for generations, said the bush used to be impenetrably dense. The deer have changed all that.
"There are whole sectors now that have been decimated. As residents, we're happy with the intervention. We care about the site and the environment," Crevier said.
The islands are owned by Nature Conservancy of Canada, a private not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of natural habitats. It acquired them from Hydro-Quebec. Occupants of the 86 chalets on the islands lease their lots from Nature Conservancy.
It came up with the plan for the controlled hunt, but needed the cooperation and approval of federal, provincial and municipal authorities, as well as local residents, before proceeding.
Simply moving the deer wasn't a practical option, since they'd need to be sedated and the mortality rate in such operations usually runs as high as 40 per cent, Lebel said. Sterilizing the females wouldn't solve the existing overpopulation crisis, and adding predators such as the wolf wouldn't work in a populated area.
A controlled hunt, using only skilled marksmen and bow weapons with a range of 30 metres, seemed like the safest and most viable solution, Lebel said.
The provincial government is looking on it as a pilot project and closely monitoring the results. It may be repeated annually on the Lachine Rapids islands until numbers are more manageable and could serve as a model for other municipalities and regions of the province having deer issues, Lebel said.