Skip to comments.Out of Control, Deer Send Ecosystem Into Chaos
Posted on 11/11/2002 7:43:01 PM PST by Pokey78
The deer population on New York's Fire Island has been effectively reduced by contraception. A dart is used to vaccinate does.
FRONT ROYAL, Va. In Posey Hollow, tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dr. William J. McShea was inspecting a forest primeval 10 acres of oaks, wild yam vines, seedlings and shrubs that made an ideal home for nesting songbirds and scurrying small mammals.
But he had to look through an eight-foot deer fence to see it. Where he stood, the forest was trimmed from eye level to earth as if by an army of obsessive landscapers. Mature trees stood unharmed, but oak seedlings were nipped in the bud. The only things thriving were Japanese barberry and other nonnative flora, plants that deer cannot digest.
In the last decade, from the Rockies to New England and the Deep South, rural and suburban areas have been beset by white-tailed deer gnawing shrubbery and crops, spreading disease and causing hundreds of thousands of auto wrecks.
But the deer problem has proved even more profound, biologists say. Fast-multiplying herds are altering the ecology of forests, stripping them of native vegetation and eliminating niches for other wildlife.
Varmints of old were mainly predators, Dr. McShea said, but this is the age of the marauding herbivore.
"I don't want to paint deer as Eastern devils," said Dr. McShea, a wildlife biologist associated with the National Zoo in Washington, "but this is indicative of what happens when an ecosystem is out of whack." The damage is worse than anyone expected, he and other scientists say.
In the West, mule deer and blacktailed deer sometimes cause problems, but it is mainly in the more densely suburbanized East and Midwest where whitetails are causing the most trouble for people and ecosystems.
Research like that under way here, where several deer-free plots have been studied for more than a decade, has shown how deer can profoundly change forests.
In Wisconsin, deer have prevented restoration of native white cedar, whose seedlings they eagerly seek out. In Minnesota, hemlocks are nibbled away before they can grow. Near New Haven, one biologist has found foot-high cedars that turned out to be 12 years old but were as stunted as a carefully pruned bonsai.
The damage "drives me to my knees," said Dr. Gary L. Alt, a wildlife biologist and lifelong hunter on the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "We've got to balance deer with habitat," Dr. Alt said. "If we don't, everything will be lost. The deer population will not be healthy and scores of other species will suffer."
Except in a few favorable situations, sharpshooting, trapping, birth-control darts, repellents and other tactics are not having a big impact, he and other experts say.
Expanded hunting, considered by many experts to be the best hope of controlling numbers, has its limits as well. For example, most hunters, and most states' hunting regulations, still favor shooting bucks, even though the best way to control populations is to kill females.
Some states are changing regulations in ways that could cut deer numbers, but hunters are resisting. Others are expanding seasons and the number of deer a hunter can kill, but federal wildlife officials note that hunters are a graying population, with fewer each year to make a dent. In any case, controlled hunts staged in suburbs often run up against strident opposition from animal welfare groups.
Faced with ever-rising deer numbers and few solutions, some biologists are advising people to focus more on changing their own behavior and attitudes than on hoping for a sudden answer to the deer problem.
"People should finally get used to having deer around and adjust to that," said Dr. Allen T. Rutberg, a senior research scientist with the Humane Society of the United States and a professor at the Tufts University veterinary school. "They're going to be a fact of life, like drought and storms."
Drawn to the Suburbs
People long ago wiped out the wolves and other predators that kept deer populations in check. Then suburbanization created a browser's paradise: a vast patchwork of well-watered, fertilizer-fattened plantings to feed on and vest-pocket forests to hide in, with hunters banished to more distant woods.
"Deer are an edge species," Dr. McShea said, "and the world is one big edge now."
Deer pose problems because they are both loved and loathed Bambi to children and Godzilla to gardeners.
Web sites devoted to deer are as diverse as whitetailsunlimited.org and deer-off.com.
Deer generate more than $10 billion a year in revenue related to wildlife watching and hunting, federal wildlife officials say. But they spread Lyme disease and livestock ailments. They are struck by cars, trucks and motorcycles more than a million times a year, with the accidents killing more than 100 people annually and causing more than $1 billion in damage.
The human toll makes deer deadlier than sharks, alligators, bears and rattlesnakes combined.
They also devour plantings, saplings and crops, causing nearly $1 billion in farm, garden and timber damage, federal officials say. One deer can consume a ton and a half of greenery a year.
Estimates range widely, but there were probably at least 20 million whitetails across a wide swath of North America several centuries ago. Even Thomas Jefferson had to defend his Monticello vegetable gardens with a 10-foot-tall planked fence.
Then came an era of unbridled hunting for commercial venison sales and the widespread displacement of forests by farms, and by the 20th-century, deer were nearly eliminated from every corner of their range. So, prompted by pleas from hunters, state officials worked hard to restore deer. For example, the deer now clearing brush in Posey Hollow descend from stock trucked to Virginia decades ago from Arkansas.
Such efforts have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. The national whitetail population has risen from a low of about 500,000 in 1900 to something like the 20 million of Jefferson's time.
But they are concentrated in smaller patches of habitat, scientists say. Generally, biologists say, when deer exceed 15 to 20 per square mile, ecosystems begin to degrade, and today deer number in the hundreds per square mile in some places.
Thinning the Herd
In a few places, the animals are relatively easy to kill, deport or sterilize. But these methods have significant limitations.
Contraception, promoted for years by the Humane Society and other animal welfare groups, has effectively reduced some deer populations in places like Fire Island in New York, but usually only where wildlife biologists have permission to go into every backyard to dart all the does in a particular population. Female deer rarely wander far from where they were born, so they are relatively easy to find.
Elsewhere, though, any undarted does are quickly able to rebuild herds. Also, the current contraceptive vaccine must be readministered every year, but each year the darted does become a bit more wary and elusive, experts say.
Sharpshooting by professional marksmen or trained police officers has worked in parts of Princeton, Cleveland, Philadelphia and other communities that accept lethal controls. But in Princeton, the rifle-toting biologists doing the culling could not shoot animals in the most densely populated neighborhoods, so they had to resort to capturing dozens with nets and killing them with a device similar to the gunlike bolts used to slaughter cattle in stockyards.
Biologists have found that trapping deer this way greatly increases their stress compared with a bullet to the brain, and animal welfare groups have aggressively protested the method.
The deficiencies of these strategies have left homeowners and landscapers struggling to keep deer away from their plantings, which are prime deer fodder because they are fattened with ample fertilizer and water.
In wealthy neighborhoods north of New York City or around Washington, it is not uncommon to see high black-mesh fences enclosing entire estates.
Gardeners have tried an array of repellents, containing rotten-egg essence, hot pepper extracts and even lion excrement. They usually work for a while but need to be replenished frequently.
In some areas beset by deer, gardeners and landscape designers are being encouraged to move from defending lush plantings to changing what they plant, in hopes of discouraging hungry deer.
The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven recently published a survey listing dozens of flower and shrub varieties that gardeners in the state found were least likely to be eaten by deer. By switching from sunflowers, tulips and roses to butterfly bush, marigolds, poppies and lavender, gardeners can maintain attractive yards without attracting deer, the study's author, Dr. Jeffrey S. Ward, said.
But biologists and gardeners have learned that if deer are hungry enough they will eat any plant.
A new type of fencing made by a Canadian company, ElectroBraid, creates a psychological barrier to deer by shocking them as they nudge forward with their delicate noses. For the moment, it is only practical in places like airfields, where deer have been struck by more than 500 aircraft over the last decade, including fighter jets and Boeing 737's, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
In many communities, new policies aimed at changing human behavior around deer have met with resistance. For example, in many communities ravaged by azalea-munching deer some homeowners still cannot resist putting out 50-pound sacks of corn to attract the graceful creatures. Many suburbs, including Princeton and Lakeway, Tex., have banned the practice, but some deer lovers unabashedly continue to feed.
"I feed them when I want to feed them," said Judy Samouce of Lakeway, a fast-growing Austin suburb, tucked on the edge of the deer-thick Edwards Plateau. The deer were what attracted her to the area.
There is some progress in places. The death toll on roads and highways in Princeton has dropped sharply since culling began there two years ago. Accidents have also been reduced in Lakeway, which trapped more than 1,400 deer over the last several years and deported them to ranches in northern Mexico, where officials were eager to restore deer populations.
This year, though, Lakeway officials say they are running out of ranches willing to take deer.
Changing Hunters' Habits
In most places around the country, many wildlife experts say, the biggest effect on deer populations will probably come through changing hunting practices.
The Sand County Foundation, a Wisconsin land conservation group, has a decade-old program allowing hunters to kill deer on preserve and private lands, as long as they shoot a doe or two before taking a buck.
"The whitetail deer is a lovely, engaging animal, and it thrills me to see them, even now when they're causing so much trouble," said Dr. Brent M. Haglund, the president of the foundation. But now that numbers are so excessive, balance must be restored, Dr. Haglund said, and the only realistic way to do that is for hunters to replace the country's long-vanished predators.
The cost of doing nothing has risen too far, he said. "Deer collisions are killing people," he said. "That to me is the most legitimate reason to look for sound, sustainable ways to reduce deer density."
In Pennsylvania, where exploding deer populations have erased tree seedlings and trillium and other wildflowers from many forests, game officials have begun reshaping hunting regulations, less to suit the desires of hunters for ever-bigger herds and more to suit the needs of ailing ecosystems.
The main changes are designed to encourage the shooting of does instead of bucks. This initially rankled many hunters.
Dr. Alt, on the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said he used to think his biggest on-the-job hazard was crawling into a den to study hibernating bears. But when he joined the commission three years ago, he said, he was heckled and hounded at crammed public meetings where angry hunters attacked his ecological approach to deer.
Attitudes have started to change, he said. Expanded seasons for antlerless deer, most of them female, are becoming popular and are expected gradually to reverse the proportions of killed male and female deer. Eventually that should stabilize the herds.
But the slow spread of chronic wasting disease, a brain infection of deer and elk similar to mad cow disease, may impede efforts to use hunters to manage deer.
In Wisconsin, where the disease most recently appeared, applications for hunting licenses have dropped 25 percent to 30 percent this year, said Peter J. Gerl, the executive director of Whitetails Unlimited, a national private hunting group based there.
Officials say there is no evidence that the disease can cross to humans. But some have advised people to avoid meat from deer taken in areas where the disease has been found and to use caution in butchering their animals, avoiding contact with brain or other tissues that could hold the viruslike protein particles that cause the illness.
This fall, hunters have been helping Wisconsin officials kill 25,000 or more deer in the zone where about 3 percent of a sample of deer tested positive for the infection. But in the long run, the outbreak could discourage hunting in the state, harming the economy and increasing deer numbers.
Ultimately, even many deer lovers say, more hard-nosed intervention, either aimed at stopping reproduction or increasing mortality, will be needed.
One possibility is an experimental single-shot vaccine that could cause does to stop producing eggs for years, eliminating the need for annual darting. State biologists in Connecticut are trying a new approach, trapping dominant males and using chemical injections to sterilize them. Their hope is that these bucks continue to shield harems of does from competitors in the fall mating season without being able to inseminate the females themselves.
But these approaches will require years of testing.
Dr. McShea is experimenting on his Front Royal plots with an all-of-the-above blend of sharpshooting to cut herd size and contraceptives to keep herds under control.
If it works, he said, he may one day be able to leave behind 14 years of work on an overabundant mammal and return full time to the research that was his focus when he became a biologist: saving rare ones.
Pretty basic game management. The regulations restricting hunting to bucks were established in the early 20th century to build up the deer populations that had been decimated by overhunting. It is time to recognize that while those policies were very successful in restoring deer population, we now need to decrease the deer population. Also, does tend to have meat that is less gamey than bucks.
Why not capture some for zoo animals like lions to hunt?
Apparently herds of illegals have decimated herds of everything else.
They make excellent tamales!
Somehow I don't think the local human population would be particularly keen on this idea.
That hasn't bothered the Government whacos from doing it in some parts of the country. Why should the Eastern part of the country be immune from the enviornmentalists' foolishness.
Let me tell ya a little story... In my neck of the woods, if its got fur or bark they want to save it...no matter and knowing no extreme...
There is an Island at the end of the peninsula on the bay facing the city...
Roughly 2 x 2 miles; it supports a sizable deer population. In fact at one point, according to "experts", it had grown too large for the island...
Quickly catch phrases were floating around the local papers: Sustainable Balance, Habitat Management....yada yada yada
The eco-extremists forced the State of California (its people), to pay for studies, failed sterilization programs, failed deportation programs...
It was a circus.
Legions of college kids with clip boards, activists, and other "interested parties" descended on the island through the course of this colossal failure of a project...a most appalling waste of tax payer dollars...
I knew these waters having grown up on the nearby shore...At the time I lived on the water and was constantly in the straits with my Whaler on the way out the gate...
The most indelible images from the whole charade was the deer they caught yesterday, swimming back across the straits the next day.... Deer have commuted to and fro the island for millenia..What were these nitwits thinking?.
Eventually they all moved on (the eco horde..), and the deer are still doing their thing...swimming the straits when mood arises...dining on the lush park grass in the heat of summer...never have known the hunter....
I hate the mincing of words.....What he meant to say but cant bring himself to is: Kill Some Deer...
Details at: http://www.conservation.state.mo.us/hunt/deer/share
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