Hunting deer to control their numbers might actually be making deer more numerous.
By Paul Glendenning
Published December 13, 2006
Deer have long been a symbol of the holiday season. From Santa's reindeer to winter landscape art, deer inspire a feeling of freedom and delight among people young and old.
At the same time, deer are among the most controversial Canadian wildlife species given their success overcoming the adversities of human development. This success has put deer into a conflict with drivers and farmers. The most accepted solution is to have them hunted down.
This year's hunting season will kill an estimated 20,000 white-tailed deer in Ontario. Yet crops continue to be damaged and car collisions are still on the rise.
Hunting is not just an insufficient solution. It may actually be part of the problem.
Proponents of deer killing, apparently aware of how distasteful their actions are, try to cloak their hunts in the guise of conservation. Some use the excuse that they are saving fawns from starvation. Others point to conflicts with deer and claim there are too many of them.
Many, especially those with the Bambi complex, refuse to even call it killing, instead preferring euphemisms like culling, removing or taking.
For millions of years, deer have managed to survive and thrive without the assistance of humanity. Even natural predators like wolves do less to control population than they do to raise the level of health by killing the old, the sick and the unwary.
What truly controls deer numbers are habitat and nutrition. When the land can no longer sustain them, their health fades and new births decline.
Modern hunters' preference for impressive trophies creates further problems. By killing off mature bucks who are the most likely to weather the lean winter season, much is lost.
A mature buck becomes very intolerant during breeding season, limiting the number of young to his own offspring. These animals also maintain a natural hierarchy that lends stability and reduces conflict among the herd.
When the bucks are killed, sufficient food is left over for females to withstand the rigors of having young. This temporary bounty helps females surpass natural barriers and give birth more often than their habitat normally allows.
Combined with rapid habitat loss, this drives deer into conflict with farmers and drivers.
In the long run, the only true beneficiary of these increased births is the hunting industry. Unfortunately, it is their "expertise" that is often used when creating deer management programs.
There are, however, non-lethal alternatives to reduce deer conflicts that can benefit everyone if used more frequently.
For drivers, a combination of technology and vigilance can greatly reduce collisions between cars and deer. Because deer can appear almost anywhere, driving at reasonable speeds does much to help avoid collisions.
Vigilance is particularly needed during hunting season as deer can be driven to cross roadways fleeing hunters. A reassessment of road planning could also help reduce habitat fragmentation.
Reflectors and deer warning systems also help make roadways safer. Warning systems, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to install, can be very effective.
There are currently systems that can alert drivers via cameras and lights to deer presence, and a new, made-in-Canada system that warns deer of vehicles. This system was developed in Saskatchewan and detects the presence of traffic. It drives wildlife off the road ahead by using lights and sounds.
Farmers are always struggling with nature and are susceptible to both environmental change and unwanted visits from deer. Because of this, many farmers are among the foremost advocates of deer hunting.
But actual deer damage is mostly light to moderate and has less impact on the larger farm styles prevalent today. It can still seriously affect small farmers, however, and orchards are also vulnerable to grazing.
Many alternatives for farmers abound, from numerous styles of fencing to lights, netting, dogs, ultrasound devices and noisemakers. Some solutions, like using unfavourable odours, are temporary and need variation to remain effective. Others, like planting thick hedges and unpalatable plants, are permanent but costly.
One answer to this may lie in greater support from the government to subsidize such expenditures.
No single answer will immediately solve all conflicts between people and deer, but a better understanding of deer, greater use of mitigation measures, and tolerance instead of quick and profitable killing would help achieve greater balance.
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