sunday times: problematic charisma

June 26, 2005

in Environmental issues

There’s a good piece in the current (Jul-Aug) issue of Audubon Magazine on the chronic White-tailed Deer overpopulation problem. Ted Williams points out what is obvious to most wildlife ecologists: that deer populations are allowed to grow until they destroy the ecosystems they depend on.  Research is overwhelming and unequivocal: when deer are present in high densities, they alter the landscape so severely that plants disappear, some never to recover, setting off a chain reaction that echoes through the system, resulting in drastic reductions in biodiversity.  For example, the article states:

In Warren, Pennsylvania, a 10-year study by the U.S. Forest Service determined that at more than 20 deer per square mile, there is complete loss of cerulean warblers (on the Audubon WatchList as a species of global concern), yellow-billed cuckoos, indigo buntings, eastern wood pewees, and least flycatchers. … In heavily settled parts of Pennsylvania, where hunting pressure is light or nonexistent, it’s not unusual to have more than 75 deer per square mile.

The only realistic way to control deer populations is with guns. Like it or not. Contraceptives are expensive and ineffective for the management that needs to take place.  Trap-and-transfer is inhumanely stressful, and often fatal, to deer, and only transplants the problem somewhere else.  The problem with killing deer — either through increased bag limits or, in populated areas, with sharpshooters — is that a segment of the public does not want to or will not comprehend the ecological damage deer inflict and does not want them hunted.  In an interesting twist, described in this article, hunters are initially happy with increased hunting opportunities, but when the deer in an area “wise up” and become more elusive, and the density decreases to the point where the animals actually have to be hunted, rather than shot from a comfy seat, some hunters pressure game commissions to increase the herd.  Because hunters provide a disproportionate amount of funding for game commissions and state agencies that manage deer, their demands are often heeded.

This illustrates what I consider one of the most frustrating conservation dilemmas ecologists face, especially in urban areas: how to convince people that some species that are nice to look at must be controlled and managed, usually by killing some, so they do not do incredible damage to already strained ecosystem. In addition to deer, I encounter the same type of resistance to lethal management of Mute Swans and resident giant Canada Geese.  I’ll be visiting those issues in the future. Some further deer resources below the fold.

Just a few resources on the overall impact of deer on ecosystems.

Managing White-tailed Deer in forest habitat from an ecosystem perspective.

Ecological impacts of high deer densities. Teaching issues and experiments in ecology, volume 2.

Cote, S. D., T. P. Rooney, J.-P. Tremblay, C. Dussault, and D. M. Waller.  2004.  Ecological impacts of deer overabundance. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 35:113-147.

Jones, Edwin J., S. Reidel, L.M. Houser eds. 1997. Wildlife Society Bulletin, Special Issue – Deer Overabundance Vol 25, No. 2, Summer 1997.

 


{ 3 comments }

afarensis June 27, 2005 at 9:25 pm

Interesting post. One of the suburbs here in St. Louis is facing that problem. The deer are running rampant and creating quite a few problems. The municipality started thinking about hunting them and the outcry, by well meaning individuals, was tremendous. It never occurred to me that hunters were part of the problem.

Pandu December 7, 2006 at 9:50 am

and…

human "populations are allowed to grow until they destroy the ecosystems they depend on. Research is overwhelming and unequivocal: when" humans "are present in high densities, they alter the landscape so severely that plants disappear, some never to recover, setting off a chain reaction that echoes through the system, resulting in drastic reductions in biodiversity…"

jay April 9, 2008 at 5:07 pm

There's nothing better than getting out in the woods for awhile, especially when you cross the path of a huge 12 point buck.

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