Have deer been over-counted?
JOLIET, Illinois––Video surveillance of ongoing deer culls in Will County, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, has unexpectedly called into question not only whether the culling is humane, but whether the target areas support anywhere near the claimed numbers of deer.
Opposition to deer culling––in the Chicago area and nationwide––has historically focused on the cruelty of the culling methods. Finding that deer numbers may be substantially lower than the agencies promoting a cull have claimed is a relatively new twist in the script.
Should the finding be validated by hard data, it might reflect a range of possibilities, from unique conditions in the Will County Forest Preserve to the growth of the deer culling industry into a predatory interest group.
45 days & nights
“From December 11, 2014 to February 5, 2015,” Showing Animals Respect and Kindness founder Steve Hindi told the Will County Forest Preserve District board of commissioners on March 12, 2015, “SHARK placed a number of video cameras in Will County forest preserves that were part of the deer kill program. What we documented raises numerous questions about not only the way the program operates, and the treatment of the deer, but why there is a deer killing program at all.”
As Hindi anticipated, the hidden cameras showed suffering deer.
“One of our clips documents a deer who was shot, and was still moving as she was dragged away,” Hindi described to the commissioners. “Another clip shows a deer running from a site after being shot at. Was she hit and injured, or missed entirely? No one knows. The shooter searched for the deer, but mainly in the opposite direction” from the way she ran.
Continued Hindi, “We video-documented blood trails that clearly show animals were injured but not killed,” since blood ceases spurting after the heart of an animal [or human] stops beating.
Hindi also described and presented video showing “deer who were shot but not necessarily killed, left unattended for extended periods, ranging from three to five minutes, to––in one case––more than an hour.”
Minimal food, but deer avoid bait
But Hindi’s most remarkable finding from 45 days of video, covering most of the winter of 2014-2015, was that “In an environment when the food supply is bare minimal save for the bait sites,” where the deer are shot after several nights of baiting, “few if any deer show up. The bait sites are the equivalent of the only restaurant in town. Nevertheless, there were almost no customers. Even when the corn piles were later augmented with lettuce and carrots,” to try to attract more deer, “there were still very few deer. Locals have told us there are very few deer,” Hindi said, “and our documentation supports their eyewitness accounts.”
Added Hindi, “The shooters were supposed to only shoot deer over bait, but this was not always the case. Especially later in the program, the shooters were roving in their vehicles, with spotlights, apparently looking for any available strays to shoot.”
Recounted Chicago Tribune reporter Susan DeMar Lafferty, “The Will County Forest Preserve District began an annual deer kill in 2010 and has had it every winter except for 2012-13 when there were concerns about epizootic hemorrhagic disease among the deer. A total of 620 deer have been killed since the program began, according to the district, including 201 in 2014-2015.”
Invasion of privacy?
Continued Lafferty, “Upon hearing Hindi at the district board meeting, Will County Forest Preserve executive director Marcy DeMauro questioned the legality of the cameras, which she was previously unaware of, calling it an ‘invasion of privacy,’ given that the public uses the preserves.”
Responded Hindi, “The deer belong to all of us. They are held in the public trust, live on public lands, and are managed with our tax dollars. We believe an independent review is in order to look at the disturbing issues raised by our video documentation.”
Hindi and SHARK have confronted the “invasion of privacy” issue before, in connection with a deer cull conducted near Akron, Ohio in 2004 by the Connecticut-based nonprofit deer culling company White Buffalo.
Summarized Toledo Blade staff writer Tom Henry, “SHARK obtained footage of the Akron cull by sneaking about 10 cameras into Cascade Valley Park before the shooting began. The cameras were hidden near bait stands that had been set out to attract deer.”
White Buffalo founder Anthony DeNicola found some of the cameras and “admittedly deleted footage, saying he did so to protect rangers he’d trained from retaliation,” Henry continued. “SHARK took White Buffalo to federal court, claiming its cameras were illegally seized and damaged. Even though it received a favorable ruling in the case, White Buffalo settled its dispute over the video cameras for $17,500. DeNicola said his insurance company offered the settlement to avoid the cost of more litigation.”
What has changed in 22 years of culls?
The Will County controversy recalls one of Hindi’s first uses of hidden-camera video, in 1993, to halt deer culling in the DuPage County Forest Preserve, also in the Chicago suburbs.
In that episode, Hindi and the Dupage County Forest Preserve commissioners were agreed that there were too many deer in the six-square-mile Waterfall Glen preserve, agreed that the deer could not be relocated, and agreed that deer roaming out of the preserve were a hazard to cars and perhaps to passing trains as well.
Hindi and the Dupage County Forest Preserve commissioners further agreed that the deer were eating songbirds and other brush-dwelling species out of cover. They even agreed that the situation appeared to have no quick, humane, and inexpensive solution.
What Hindi and the Dupage County Forest Preserve disagreed about was the commissioners’ choice among the available unsatisfactory options. First, pursuing a strategy recommended by the Illinois Department of Conservation, the commissioners recruited volunteer sharpshooters who reportedly killed 97 deer. When the volunteers failed to reduce the deer population to the target level, the commissioners brought in paid killers who set up baiting stations and entangled whole families of deer in rocket-propelled cargo nets, then dispatched them with captive bolt guns, used mainly in slaughterhouses.
Considering the net-and-bolt killing eminently inhumane, Hindi organized protests demanding that the commissioners take another approach––preferably deploying contraceptives, a deer population method which then was new and controversial, but now has an increasingly well-established history of success, albeit that contraception does not bring deer populations down visibly and immediately.
The Waterfall Glen crisis was among the first of dozens of comparable local controversies. As many as 300 similar “deer islands” exist in suburban areas across the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada.
Conservationists and activists rattle off the names like a list of battlefields, which many once were, or have become as result of protests and lawsuits once the deer culling, among them Air Force Academy, Angel Island, Antietam, Blacklick Woods, Block Island, Bluff Point, Catoctin Mountain, Cuyahoga Valley, Fire Island, Fort Smith, Jekyll Island, Gettysburg, Irondequoit, Manassas, Mason’s Neck, Monocacy, Pehquonock, Pennypacker, Plum Brook, Princeton, Quabbin Reservoir, Ravenna Arsenal, Ridley Creek, River Hills, Rock Creek, Selleck’s Woods, Sharon Woods, Shawnee Mission Park, Valley Forge, and Yale Forest.
Many “deer islands” are on partially wooded campuses, in suburban parks, in golf courses and cemeteries, and at protected historic sites. Some were once hunting preserves, deliberately stocked with deer decades ago, later sold for development.
Such locations have in common that they became unsuitable deer habitat relatively recently. The deer are not there, as hunters would have it, because hunting is not allowed; rather, deer are there because intense hunting in surrounding areas helped to make deer too abundant, encouraging some to wander into closer proximity to humans than was historically natural.
For more than 50 years now, hunters and public officials have pointed to the rising North American deer population as purported proof of the success of hunting-driven wildlife management. No state with a high hunter population has had to cancel a deer season to preserve the herd since Ohio did in 1961.
During the next several decades most states with deer undertook extensive deer habitat improvement programs, for example burning off forest to encourage the new growth deer most like to eat, and paying farmers to leave some field crops favored by deer un-harvested.
Most important, every state with deer has for more than 40 years enforced some form of “buck law.” Pioneered by New York in 1912, “buck laws” encourage hunters to shoot mainly bucks, which has in turn stimulated competition among hunters to kill deer with ever larger antler racks.
Before “buck laws” came into vogue, deer management was a conspicuous failure. Massachusetts limited deer hunting to fall in 1696. Similar season limits were adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies before the American Revolution. Bag limits followed.
Yet the U.S. whitetail population had dropped to an estimated 500,000 by 1900. The mule deer population was probably no healthier, since mule deer did not expand their range into former whitetail habitat.
“Buck laws” boost deer populations by following the paradoxical maxim that, “The more you kill, the more you get.” If most bucks among the deer herd are shot each fall, the surviving bucks don’t have to compete with as many others for mates, and can mate more often. Fewer bucks competing for food means a better diet for does, translating into more multiple births, a higher birth weight, and better odds of fawn survival.
Where the whitetail gender ratio is even, as in Llano County, Texas, in 1961-1962, the birth rate drops as low as 30-40 fawns per 100 does. Where “buck laws” have existed longest, and have been most vigorously enforced, as in Michigan and New York state, the birth rate tends to exceed 130 fawns per 100 does.
Connecticut, the last state to introduce a public hunting season and a buck law, had only 3,000 deer when deer hunting resumed in 1974. The current Connecticut deer population is believed to exceed 126,000.
Double the deer in 30 years
Hitting 15 million circa 1990, the total U.S. deer population is now above 30 million, according to Al Cambronne, author of Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance & the Essence of Wilderness (2013).
Virginia whitetail deer roam the eastern two-thirds of the U.S.; mule deer dominate from the Rocky Mountains west.
Currently no state that has Virginia whitetail deer does not have reducing and limiting the growth of the deer herd as a stated management goal, even where the management plan is still likely to accelerate herd growth.
The same is true of many states with mule deer, including California and Washington, though wildlife agencies in some states with heavy hunting pressure, notably Colorado, perceive a shortage.
More hunted than ever––& culling too
Hunters have killed deer in unprecedented and usually rising numbers throughout most of their range for the past 40 years, even though the number of active hunters has fallen by more than half over the same time.
Yet despite the hunting toll, and even though mule deer are now down about 10% nationally from the estimated peak population reached circa 2005, the populations of both Virginia whitetail deer and mule deer remain higher than at any time before recent years in their existence as a species.
Thus agencies responsible for managing wildlife and habitat resort increasingly often to culling deer.
Virginia whitetail deer culls are currently underway, planned, or have recently been conducted in at least 20 states, including many of the states with the most hunters: Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Mule deer have been culled in at least four states.
Urban deer herds
East or west, culled deer populations are usually not the same deer who are hunted. Rather, they are urbanized deer, whose forebears migrated into suburbs and even large cities years ago, in part to escape being hunted.
Occasionally suburbs expand into deer habitat so rapidly as to maroon deer in islands of undeveloped woodland. More often, deer establish themselves in a suburb long after the initial construction phase, arriving when ornamental shrubbery and tree canopies have matured enough to provide cover and food.
By now most communities within the continental U.S. and southern Canada have homegrown deer herds. Like most deer, urbanized deer seldom roam more than a mile from where they were born–but they were born among human dwellings and busy roads, and tend to have much less fear of humans than the typical feral cat.
Apart from culling, cars are their major predator. Coyotes prey to some extent on fawns, but tend to scavenge urban deer who have been hit by cars much more than hunt deer.
Pumas quietly hunt mule deer in the outer suburbs of most major cities from Denver west, and even some of the inner suburbs of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle.
Pumas of Rocky Mountains ancestry meanwhile appear to be expanding their range across the upper midwest, following the abundance of whitetails, according to DNA studies of pumas recently shot in Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, and Nebraska.
Stereotypically, pressure to cull deer begins with gardeners complaining about deer nibbling their flowers.
Certainly this happens. In one lastingly notorious case, Dorothy Richardson, 75, of Euclid, Ohio, was in 2009 fined $500 and sentenced to do 80 hours of community service for beating a fawn to death with a shovel.
Health & safety concerns
More often, governments believe serious human health and safety issues are involved when they invest in deer culls. Traffic safety is often a first consideration. Circa 1990, deer/car collisions killed about 100 Americans per year. A quarter century later, as many as 1.3 million deer/car collisions kill close to 200 people per year, injuring thousands more.
Concern has also risen about the role of deer in spreading tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease and Ehrlichiosis. So-called deer ticks are actually carried mostly by mice and other small rodents, but deer––and birds, according to recent research published in the journal PLOS ONE by University of California at Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Erica Newman––tend to translocate the ticks into new habitat.
Finally, increasing deer numbers are a genuine songbird conservation concern. Forest cover in Virginia whitetail deer range has increased by about 33% over the past 40 years, between the growth of suburban tree canopies and the reversion of marginal farmland to woodlots, but migratory songbird populations in the same habitat are down by half. This is because the declining songbirds nest in understory, rather than treetops––preferentially in shrubbery just a little bit higher than deer normally browse. When hungry deer stand on hind legs to browse higher, the birds lose their homes.
“Too many deer”
The central issue, from an ecological perspective, is not “too many deer,” but rather “too many deer in problematic places.”
If the situation was truly overpopulation, in the sense of overburdening the habitat, deer would starve by the thousands every winter, as occasionally occurred decades ago, when the winters were more severe and browse was less abundant, especially urban and suburban habitats.
Under conditions of authentic deer overpopulation, does would no longer be twinning. Within less than a year, with or without human intervention, deer numbers would drop back to carrying capacity.
Normal deer carrying capacity in favorable habitat tends to be from 15 to 25 per square mile. Densities of up to 70 deer per square mile are often occur in suburban “deer islands.” This could not occur if the deer were not finding food enough to sustain population growth.
Taking the long view
So what can be done, besides culling?
Quite a lot, if activism takes a long view of the issues. Activism against urban and suburban deer hunting and culling has so far been almost entirely reactive, beginning after licenses for special deer hunts have already been sold, or contracts have already been signed to hire deer culling agencies.
At this point, intervention has little chance of success, in part because hunting or culling typically comes in response to political mobilization by people who feel there are too many deer, some of whom––such as victims of traffic accidents and Lyme disease––have compelling grievances.
The most opportune time for activism against urban and suburban deer hunts and culls is actually before grievances against the deer mount, or after the deer population has been temporarily reduced by a hunt or cull, when the aggrieved parties are temporarily satisfied, taxpayers are paying the bills for the killing, and there may be a chance to introduce contraception to keep the deer population at a low level.
Only deer can prevent forest fires
Better educating the public about the ecological roles and behavior of deer can also avert considerable deer/human conflict––and buy time for contraception to work.
For example, up to 70% of all deer/car collisions can be avoided if drivers are taught to always slow down if they see a deer near the roadway, and look for a second deer who may be about to step into the road. This is because deer tend to follow their mothers for a year or more after birth, even after reaching adult size, while mature bucks tend to live in small bachelor herds until mating season.
If the elder lead deer crosses a road safely, any deer following behind will take that, not the absence of traffic, as the cue to step out.
Perhaps the least appreciated role of urban and suburban deer populations is their part in fire prevention. With due respect to Smokey Bear, Bambi is the animal champion of fire defense.
The browse lines created by deer, alarming as they are to birders, are natural firebreaks. Without understory to serve as kindling, helping flames to leap into tree canopies, grassfires reach the damp humus layer beneath the trees and die. Even when the humus layer is dried by prolonged drought, there is seldom fuel enough in it to ignite bark and wood.
There is conservationist concern that deer in some habitats are stripping out so much understory as to inhibit forest regeneration, as well as songbird nesting, but wildfires do similar damage. If deer numbers are within a healthy range, browsing merely ensures a forest of diversified age.
(See also “Chicago pioneered urban wildlife habitat conservation,” http://wp.me/p4pKmM-1hC.)