It has become a battle of one group's good intentions vs. another group's good intentions in the woods of northeastern Massachusetts. On one side are state's wildlife managers, who say the deer at a seaside wildlife sanctuary near Ipswich are eating themselves out of house and home. They say the deer population should be reduced through controlled hunting to prevent mass starvation.
On the other side are animal-rights groups, who say hunting is morally wrong. They say mankind should leave nature alone and allow it to strike its own balance between deer population and food supply.
In the meantime, at the 1,400-acre Crane Memorial Reservation, where some 200 hungry deer suffered through the winter, the first buds of spring are sprouting on shrubs that have been eaten bare by browsing deer. So far, reservation officials report finding the remains of 16 deer who apparently starved during the winter.
But the question of how best to manage - or not manage - the deer at the Crane Reservation will not be answered until at least next fall. That is when yet another study of the reservation deer population is expected to be completed.
The Trustees of Reservations, the conservation group that owns the property, has contracted with a Cornell University biologist, Aaron Moen, to assemble a computer model of the deer herd, the property, and the food available to the deer. The study, to be completed in October, will be used to help make a final decision about the herd.
The issue of the Crane deer has become a rallying point for animal-rights and antihunting groups that see the possibility of a hunt on the property as an encroachment into a domain where hunting has been prohibited since the 1930s.
Last fall, after an initial study, the trustees determined that the best answer was to hold a five-day hunt to thin out the deer population. Potential hunters were screened to ensure a degree of expertise. Seventy-five deer were to be killed.
But on the eve of the hunt, animal-rights activists belonging to Friends of Animals Inc. threatened to run into the woods ahead of the hunters to scare the deer away. The hunt was called off at the last minute, and the trustees agreed to reassess their decision.
The deer were left alone for the winter. State wildlife biologists point to the 16 dead deer as proof of their earlier warnings about starvation. They stress that the winter of 1983-84 was a mild one for Massachusetts.
Animal-rights groups say that starvation is preferable to ''artificial'' killing by hunting.
John Grandy, a Humane Society biologist, says that the very act of hunting helps trigger an increase in the birthrate of deer, thus requiring even more hunting. He says that if all hunting were prohibited, the deer herd might naturally stabilize itself.
''Perhaps it is the very act of sport hunting that creates the problems that hunting is meant to control,'' Dr. Grandy says.
Hunting has not been permitted on the Crane Reservation since the 1930s, but poachers hunted deer illegally on the property until a few years ago, according to Wayne Mitton, regional supervisor for the trustees.
Though state wildlife biologists know that less-healthy deer reproduce at a slower rate than healthy deer, they do not know if such a slower reproduction rate will maintain a stable deer population over a long period of time. ''We don't have any case-history experience to predict if that would happen,'' says Wayne MacCallum of the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Mr. MacCallum says that in the absence of natural preditors (the wolf and the eastern cougar are virtually extinct in the Northeast), deer herds tend to build up over a period of time, creating the danger of mass starvation from a lack of food.
To counter this, Massachusetts wildlife managers rely on licensed hunters during annual hunting season to thin out overpopulated deer herds.
''It is unusual in Massachusetts to have any deer die of starvation,'' MacCallum says.