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Amherst's bitterly debated bait-and-shoot program has quietly been under way for three weeks, with police already killing 40 to 50 deer, a Town Board member said Thursday.

Amherst police and government officials had kept a tight lid on information about the deer-killing program, determined to ward off publicity and potential interference by animal-rights activists.

Board member Michael G. McGuire also said the program may conclude for this year in another week or two, if temperatures start to climb.

Town Supervisor Thomas J. Ahern said he wanted police "to do the operation and get done. And I suspect they are very close to being finished."

As temperatures turn warmer, McGuire said, "the quality of the meat isn't as good."

In addition, he said, the deer are not as responsive to bait when the new vegetation of early spring begins to appear.

McGuire was the first town official to confirm that the program was well under way and to disclose its results.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued the town a permit for the program, allowing volunteer police sharpshooters to attract deer with corn and other bait and then kill up to 300 deer by the end of April.

"It will probably end before then, because deer won't come to the bait," said Police Chief John B. Askey. "They'll start eating grass."

McGuire also said Thursday that about 200 deer in Amherst have been shot by hunters since last November -- another number previously unreported. Most of the 200 were killed on farm and nursery property where hunting is authorized by special nuisance permits, also issued by the DEC.

Last year, hunters shot 207 deer in the nuisance-permit phase of the program. Slightly fewer than 500 were killed by vehicles. Just 57 deer were killed under nuisance permits in 1993.

The new baiting and shooting has been limited to rural areas north of North French Road, where an estimated 60 to 70 percent of the town's deer are located.

Small groups of the volunteer marksmen have shot the deer on several occasions late at night and in the early morning, according to officials.

Officials at the DEC, which acts as a consultant for the program, felt the bait-and-shoot program was difficult to conduct with such mild temperatures. The deer are lured more easily in the winter when there is snow cover and not enough vegetation for them to eat.

"I think they (Amherst) have realized they're not going to shoot 300 deer this spring," said James R. Snider, a senior wildlife biologist with the DEC.

Concerns about "tainted" venison are also heightened when warmer temperatures speed up the decomposition process, according to state wildlife specialists. Deer slain in the Amherst program are field dressed, processed and delivered to the Food Bank of Western New York.

Ahern reiterated his stance on the deer issue, saying the rising number of deer-car collisions forced the board to go ahead.

"It's my understanding that the Town Board has discussed this issue for seven years," Ahern said. "It has been studied by the Conservation Advisory Council, the deer subcommittee and the current Town Board. As soon as we can find other methods (of limiting the number of deer) we certainly will utilize them."

"I just want to get back to the business of running the town," Ahern said. "But a majority of last year's meetings dealt with deer and mosquitoes."

McGuire's estimate Thursday that 200 have been killed since November -- and that bait-and-shoot accounted for only 40 to 50 -- is indicative of the town's stepped-up campaign to make nuisance permits the primary tool in bringing down Amherst's deer population.

A year ago, a state DEC count from an airplane put the town's deer population at about 1,500. That total later was described by wildlife specialists as "conservative."

Even if the program does end soon, it more than likely will be used again in the fall or winter.

"To really do it properly it should be done a minimum of two to three years," McGuire said.

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