Deer Can Be A Scourge

A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing?

     What if there was an industry that was slowly eroding our natural heritage?  Say, this industry was in the process of stealing our natural biodiversity, altering ecological processes, and creating large, homogenous, and simplified landscapes.  This industry also undermined existing traditional industries, displacing them with inferior low-skill, low-wage jobs?  Worse yet, what if this “industry” was owned by the government?
     I suspect that if citizens knew such an industry existed they would take-up a hew and cry such is rarely heard in these United States.  The environmental injustices, social inequity, and economic demise would command the eradication the profaning industry. 
     Yet, such an “industry” does exist. 
     Science has clearly shown the gradually diminished character of our natural systems due to the inexorable force of this “industry.”  Forests are losing their capacity to support full species complements and many are reduced to less productive alternative states.  Recovery in some areas, if possible, may take decades, if not centuries.  We are losing populations of endangered and threatened species to this foe.  Entire suites of wildlife buckle under the pressure.  Other industries have suffered losses each year to the tune of billions of dollars.  Lifestyles of millions of citizens have diminished and out-of-pocket expenses climb.  Diseases associated with this industry are on the rise. 
     The impact on our environmental, social, and economic landscapes is dramatic, yet not as well documented as critics would like to see.  Some need to witness irreversible collapse before even considering counter actions.  Public agencies, with the statutory authority to act responsibly, quail at the hands of those who control the industry.  Politicians turn a blind eye because “doing something” would anger a powerful constituency. 
     Meanwhile, we all gradually, almost imperceptibly, move towards the brink of disaster. 
     Ecologists and natural resource managers have documented this damage over several decades in many ways through numerous studies.  Research programs continue to identify and define the ways this corrosive industry is affecting our ecosystems.  The evidence is compelling. 
     Economic and financial impacts have been collected from damage to personal and corporate property.  Losses in agriculture, forestry, and horticulture come to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.  Many homeowners have spent hundreds of dollars to compensate for the impact of this scourge.  They have also lost capacity to enjoy their own property. 
     Social impacts and quality of life are more difficult to assess.  However, it is clear that most people fail to recognize the threat occurring all around them.  It’s invisible to most.  This subtle erosion of our collective ecological and economic wealth is barely acknowledged and that is, perhaps, the most insidious aspect of this growing industry. 
     What is this industry?  You may be surprised at the answer.  You may even dismiss the problem as the trite illusion of a minority.  Some may even be angered.  The industry is well-cloaked in the mystique of public endearment; the anti-Christ of the natural world. 
     The “industry” is the overabundance white-tailed deer populations.  Ouch!  I can almost hear the immediate roar of objection and flood of heckling.  I can also hear, faintly, the growing few that see the light. 
     Deer populations have exploded under the protective umbrella of historical wildlife recovery efforts, altered land use, and the love affair by humans that was epitomized with Walt Disney’s Bambi.  The enemy is not a belching manufacturing industry or promiscuous government structure.  It’s quiet, cute, and beloved by many.  There is no Rachel Carson or Edward Abbey call to arms.  There are no political marches on Washington, D.C.  However, the threat is real and growing. 
     Indeed, deer were once quite rare in the Lake States and across North America.  Habitat alternation and relentless unregulated hunting pushed the whitetail near extinction.  Only vehement cries of early conservationists and hunters, and the subsequent government regulations and recovery programs, brought populations back.  North American whitetailed deer management has been one our greatest success stories.
     And now, it is turning into a quagmire of disaster.   Too much of a good thing really is possible.
     Too many hunters still cling to the outmoded mantras of deer recovery; “Shoot only bucks,” “There aren’t enough deer,” and “Feed them during the winter.”  These are jingles from a time when deer were scarce and from folks who refuse to face the facts. 
     And, these folks are not just hunters.  These attitudes, combined with a gross misunderstanding of deer population dynamics and habitat relationships, have created a powerful lobby in our state wildlife management agencies.  And remember that deer license fees pay for the salaries of a lot of wildlife biologists.
     Don’t get me wrong about hunting, however.  Hunting is a critical piece in our salvation from the growing deer problem.  It is a wonderful and venerable American tradition.  However, hunters must take-on an entirely different ethos from that of decades past, if we are to face the challenges of overabundant deer head-on.  Wildlife management agencies will need to promulgate creative regulations.  Without a doubt, there will be martyrs in this war. 
     However, the large majority of behind-the-times hunters is not the only culprit in supporting obscene levels of deer.  Consider tourism.  Who doesn’t like seeing deer on their vacation “up north.”  Well, for one, I don’t.  I would rather see a deer as a rarer, more special, event rather than the regular nightmares along roads at dusk or the twilight herds in area pastures.  I would rather see a full complement of spring wildflowers, a more robust forest shrub layer, understory warblers, and successfully regenerating trees.  Increasingly, all that too often exists are unpalatable species (sometimes exotic invasives) and the gnawed remains of what was once a natural forest. 
     It is ironic that this open, park-like appearance is actually attractive to those who don’t know what they’re looking at.  It’s hard to appreciate what’s not there but ought to be.  It’s hard to be concerned about something you can’t see.  This paradox is another excellent example of why visual quality is an especially poor measure of ecological health.  Yet, so much of our natural resource management is impacted by mere appearance, rather than science. 
     Seeing deer has long been one of the highlights while visiting the family cabin, resort, or favorite campground.  More recently, these bucolic visits to nature evolve into second homes and rural McMansions.  They’re riddled throughout the northwoods and along lake shores, and that’s another horror story.  Retirees and urban wealthy have turned many remote areas into rural subdivisions, bringing with them the very values they sought to escape and imposing them on the endemic human population. 
     This influx of property tax wealth has dazzled the eyes of most county commissions and township officials.  However, almost as many officials soon realize that all that glitters is not gold.  Development plans (or lack thereof) frequently backfire and cause more problems than existed in the first place.  It’s the native residents and natural landscapes that suffer.
     In terms of deer, these people have regular winter feeders and nice little “wildlife” food plots.  Wide and deep cowpaths serve the diurnal tide of deer flowing in and out from these unnatural food sources.  These altered migration patterns create road traffic hazards and spread diseases.  Artificial feeding helps maintain herd sizes beyond natural levels.  Inflated winter herds wreak havoc on spring vegetation, when vegetation is most vulnerable. 
     All this so grandma can say; “Oh, look at the pretty deer, aren’t they cute.”  In reality, these deer are disguised so that grandma can’t see the environmental, social, and economic terror that they truly represent.
     Despite all this blasphemous rhetoric about the evils of deer overabundance; these views do not reflect an anti-deer perspective.  As hypocritical as this might sound at first, deer do, indeed, have a valuable place in the environment.  A better balance is the key.  Deer populations are not everywhere excessive, but the impact of the bloated herds continues to grow.  It is here we need more strategic, creative, and adaptive management.
     We might use the analogy of water in a river.  Rivers are great things for many reasons, but when spring floods spill over their banks and wash away towns and villages, the water is no longer a friend.  Whitetailed deer have flooded many of our ecological systems, yet agencies and publics fail to adequately acknowledge the subsequent damage.  The flood of deer is not as dramatic as water along the Mississippi.  There are few quick sound bytes for the evening news.  Rather, the demise is gradual, long-term, subtle, and difficult to fully measure.  The fact that deer also benefit from a “favored status” in the public eye, furthers the case of misperception and works against those trying stem the ecological hemorrhaging.  I fear the legacy we may leave our children and grandchildren. 
     If you’re receptive to the possibility of deer overabundance, I suggest you read the very excellent review by researcher Steeve Cote and others.  You can find the review at [].  There are other conference papers at that website that touch on some of the issues of deer overabundance.  The topic is fascinating and nothing less than the health and integrity of our ecological systems is at stake.  Who would have thought that Bambi would turn against us? 

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