Along the quiet, leafy trails of the Greenwich Audubon sanctuary - 285 acres nestled in one of Connecticut's most exclusive suburbs - a fierce battle is brewing about nature, and how best to maintain its balance.
The struggle has pit conservationists against animal rights activists and exposed the challenge of how to help nature thrive in cities and suburbs.
At the center of the dispute are white-tailed deer - emblems of American wildlife and prolific, hungry critters who can gnaw through oak saplings and wildflowers at alarming rates. The Audubon sanctuary, located near two highways and dozens of elegant white clapboard mansions, has one of the highest concentrations of the deer in Connecticut.
That has led to significant degradation of wildlife on the property. Gone completely are the oaks and hickory trees. It's impossible now to find the delicate lady-slipper and trillium. Finding their habitats chewed up, a number of bird species have also flown away, including the ruffed grouse, the ovenbird, the towhee, and the black and white warbler.
So for the first time in its history, and after two years of studying alternatives, Greenwich Audubon sanctioned a deer hunt on its property for members of the Greenwich Sportsmen & Landowners Association.
No guns are allowed - only bows and arrows. And the resulting venison is being donated to the local food bank, with 500 pounds so far going to help feed the hungry.
"The bottom line is that this sanctuary is being degraded as a result of an overpopulation of deer," says Tom Baptist, the executive director of Audubon Connecticut.
"Humans have eradicated the predators and predatory pressures which once kept deep populations in check," he says. "This is simply an effort to restore the balance so the full range of plants and animals can prosper here."
But animal rights activists, like Priscilla Feral, the president of Friends of Animals in nearby Darien, don't buy that argument. To them, the hunt is not only a cruel sport, but, they argue, adds to nature's imbalance by leaving a larger proportion of does, who then reproduce at a more rapid rate, undermining the overall goal.
"We're talking about a sanctuary that was created with membership donations," she says. "It's supposed to be a refuge. You don't start shooting deer and call it a sanctuary."
At first, Friends of Animals urged Audubon to cancel the hunt, and they offered to give food banks vegan meals if they'd reject the venison. Audubon refused, and the offer didn't float very well at the food banks, either, which are eager for any kind of help.
So now, they've turned to urging people to withdraw their support for Audubon.
"The Audubon Society is a very wealthy so-called nature group that has become a hunt club," she says. "It's certainly in our interest to tell people that send checks to charities not to support them, unless they're hunting proponents."
For sportsmen, like bowhunter M. Robert Delaney of the Greenwich Sportsmen & Landowners Association, the controversy is frustrating at best. As a conservationist, he believes the animal-rights activists have lost their sense of balance in ideology, and he believes they have very little understanding of nature and its demands.
"They talk loud, but they don't do anything," he says. "If you look at ... where they spend their money, they don't make any contributions to any animals or habitats. They use it to get a lot of media attention."
Ms. Feral calls that nonsense. And she disputes the studies that conclude that managing deer populations has helped natural areas to rebound. "This is just an excuse by hunters to say they're doing some kind of civic duty, when what it really is recreation."
Audubon's Tom Baptist, who's been walking the trails at the Greenwich Audubon Sanctuary since he was an 11- year-old, trusts the studies that have been done, and is confident the hunt will help the habitat. He's hoping that the controversy dissipates, and that lady-slippers will bloom again, some day soon, near the sanctuary's leafy trails.