What began as an effort to save a herd of deer from starvation has developed into a battle over the morality of killing animals for sport. The battle is being waged in the vicinity of the 1,400-acre Crane Memorial Reservation near Ipswich, Mass. Reservation trustees and state wildlife managers had planned to hold a five-day public hunt last week at this seaside, wooded sanctuary to reduce the burgeoning deer population.
Officials decided to hold the hunt after an eight-month study documented concerns that the deer population had grown to twice what the land can accommodate.
''It (the deer population) is just like a volcano. It is getting bigger and bigger,'' says Wayne MacCallum of the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
The trustees of the sanctuary were concerned that a severe, snowy winter might result in mass starvation for the estimated 125 to 180 deer in the reserve. They decided the herd should be reduced by 75 deer.
But when a New England animal rights group learned that the trustees had authorized hunting on lands that had been protected for 31 years, the group launched a protest to block the hunt. Some members even threatened to dash through the woods ahead of the deerhunters and their loaded shotguns.
As a result of the protest, the trustees canceled the hunt and decided to form a new committee to study the deer problem again. The committee is expected to include one or two representatives of animal rights groups.
Says Priscilla Feral, New England director of Friends of Animals Inc., which is leading the protest: ''We don't believe the deer population has to be controlled by shooting them at all.
''We are arguing that natural mortality should prevail. Nature can keep a natural balance without help from hunters,'' she says. ''The weak and the old will not get to the food supply and that is the way nature has ordained it.''
Ms. Feral adds, ''Starving to death is not necessarily stressful or painful to an animal.''
Wayne Mitton, regional supervisor for the trustees, disagrees. ''We have seen that and we don't think this is a humane way,'' he says of doing nothing for the deer and conceding the possibility of starvation. According to Mr. Mitton, 22 deer were killed in the reserve last winter, most of them by dogs after the deer became weaker from a lack of food.
''I think that not having that hunt is the worst thing that could happen to that deer population,'' says the state's Mr. MacCallum, who participated in the deer study. ''Eventually they will eat themselves out of house and home and you will see a tremendous die-off.''
Both sides have rejected proposals to trap and relocate the deer because such efforts are expensive and have had limited success elsewhere. Providing food for the deer is out of the question, experts say, because that would only encourage an even larger herd.
The debate in Ipswich comes with the opening of deer season as an estimated 11.4 million hunters across the country load up their rifles. Of the nation's 16 million deer, about 3 million are expected to be killed this year.
Wildlife managers say that without deer hunting, herds across the country face possible starvation late in the winter.
The chances of seeing a deer, let alone shooting one, vary from state to state - not to mention the expertise of the hunter. (Sixty-four percent of all hunters in North Dakota shoot at least one deer, while in Massachusetts just over 4 percent of hunters actually bag a deer, according to federal statistics.)
It is not for lack of a target. There are said to be more deer in the United States today than existed during Colonial times. The deer boom has come in large part as a result of the virtual extinction of the deer's natural predators - the timber wolf and the Eastern cougar.
''The big problem in managing deer herds is that there are no natural checks now. What they are doing is using the hunter in the place of the wolf or the cougar,'' says Lonnie Williamson of the Wildlife Management Institute in Washington.
Each year, Massachusetts issues a specified number of permits, based on sizes of deer herds, allowing hunters to shoot does. Similar systems are followed in other states. In addition, states closely monitor herd sizes and the number of deer killed each season to ensure a better balance between deer and available food.
''I like to think of it in terms that we are keeping the deer population in harmony with its environment,'' MacCallum says.