A New Deer Advocacy Paradigm
Guest columnist Lee Hall makes the case for government to quit hunting deer and start respecting natural predators
(See also Coyotes: nature’s animal control officers, by Merritt Clifton.)
Forcible deer control gets broad support from all levels of government and from many conservation organizations—all reacting to a perceived crisis of deer overpopulation in North America. But the environmentally reasonable response to a growing deer population depends on the natural relationship between deer and the predators they have co-evolved with.
Wolves, the obvious candidates, are now gone from the eastern continent south of Ontario. But Eastern coyotes, believed by many predator ecologists to be coyote/wolf hybrids, are established in the mid-Atlantic states. Their predation powers are notable: deer flesh constitutes a remarkable one-third of Eastern coyotes’ diets. And in the suburban midwest, an Illinois Natural History Survey study of fawn survival found that coyotes killed 20 to 80% of the fawns in various populations.
“As a top predator,” writes wildlife biologist Stanley D. Gehrt, “coyotes are performing an important role in the Chicago region. Increasing evidence indicates that coyotes assist with controlling deer and Canada goose populations.”
Coyote role rarely acknowledged
So far, this important role is rarely acknowledged. In Pennsylvania, hunters and trappers legally kill some 40,000 coyotes per year. And though bobcats are also deer predators, several eastern states enable trapping and hunting of them as well. More than a thousand bobcats are now killed annually through Pennsylvania’s winter hunting and trapping season.
Meanwhile, habitat fragmentation in suburbia sets the stage for concentrations of deer in ever-shrinking green spaces—where their numerical density is then cited as proof of their overpopulation. Presaging deer-control plans are official declarations that deer inflict expensive damage on crops, trees, gardens and cars. Deer are cast as pests to be tracked down and shot in residential areas and parks.
Consider Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System. Since 1999, more than 2,500 deer have been killed there through official culls. Predictably, this approach is energy-intensive and costly wherever it is instituted, including smaller towns. The village of Cayuga Heights, New York, for example, projected a ten-year deer-control initiative that would raise residents’ taxes up to 5% per year. Violent deer management also takes a toll in feelings of good will and community cohesion.
The federal position
Federal parks might seem to be havens for deer and other free-living animals. Yet several run night deer culls—including Valley Forge National Historical Park, a five-square-mile piece of land in the traffic-heavy suburbs of Philadelphia, and Rock Creek National Park, a woodland preserve winding through the city of Washington, D.C.
In 2009, Valley Forge managers resolved to forcibly reduce its deer population, which it recorded at 1,277. That was down from a peak of 1,398 back in 2003, according to government figures that raise questions as to whether the Valley Forge deer needed to be managed at all.
But the Park Service, accusing the deer of unacceptable damage to the park’s woodland biodiversity, resolved to limit the population to 185 or below.
In November 2009, facing a lawsuit to overturn its plan, the Park Service called off the cull; but by the following winter the managers had regrouped and resolved to carry it out. Night shooting at Valley Forge began in November 2010. The Rock Creek management deployed a similar plan in 2014, claiming that to take “no action” would mean “decreased plant diversity, increased invasive exotic plants, and reduced forest regeneration, which would adversely affect a large percentage of habitats for other wildlife (e.g., ground-nesting birds, frogs, snakes, and turtles).”
Yet emerging research may challenge the science that suggests deer ravage forest ecosystems. To some extent, high numbers of deer might attract a greater number of species, as deer droppings enrich soil, with ripple effects throughout the food web, starting with earthworms, spiders, ants, slugs, snails and insects, snakes and salamanders. If so, patience with nature’s processes may enable us to avoid forcible deer control and its negative consequences.
The official reasoning for the National Park Service stance also includes factors unrelated to protecting biodiversity.
The Valley Forge plan observes: “The presence of deer on neighboring properties has been linked to loss and damage of ornamental vegetation.”
The Rock Creek plan states: “An overabundance of deer could lead to increased browsing of landscape vegetation on neighboring properties, having a negative economic impact on those landowners.”
And so on. In 2013, the Park Service announced sharpshooters would kill more than 2,800 white-tailed deer over a four-year period at the Antietam and Monocacy Civil War battlefields in Maryland and the Manassas battlefield in Virginia, citing not only biological diversity but also the “damage to crops and associated vegetation that are key components of the cultural landscapes of the battlefields.”
“Best available science”
As coyotes could safely and beneficially fit into the park ecosystem, an approach using best available science—which the National Environmental Policy Act requires the government to apply—would support these predators, and help us to know if they would succeed as well as they have done in Alabama, South Carolina, and elsewhere to naturally curb the deer population.
But the National Park Service maintained in its Battlefields plan that coyotes are simply scavengers, with no consistent ability to curb deer populations. Coyotes are hunted and trapped in both Maryland and Virginia, and the plan does not address those practices, although they impact the biological balance of the parks at issue.
This echoes claims in the Environmental Impact Statement for Valley Forge, which describes coyotes as “present in the park” and also acknowledges that bobcats “potentially could be supported by habitats within the park,” yet declares that “these predators have been shown not to exert effective control on white-tailed deer populations.”
Based on this cursory dismissal, the Third Circuit stated in turn: “The NPS adequately considered and appropriately rejected the option of coyote predation because there was not a shred of evidence that such an option could achieve the NPS’s stated goals.”
Yet a substantial body of evidence exists indicates that a balanced ecosystem includes key predators, and that predators control deer.
Simply, best science supports the idea of collaboration between the National Park Service and state game commissions to discontinue predator suppression.
The deer management plan instituted at Valley Forge was drafted to span 15 years: four years of shooting, followed possibly by using pharmaceutical birth-control on deer.
The National Park Service reported killing 1,433 deer over the first four winters of shooting (2010-2014)—substantially more than the 1,277 deer they started with. Assuming predator control has not changed significantly, the record suggests that other deer fill the Park’s forcibly created vacuums, that Park deer are reproducing with compensatory speed, or both.
In 2014, the Park Service announced its plans to continue the Valley Forge shooting for its fifth successive winter.
Science & ethics of respect
“It has been offered that immunocontraceptive vaccines offer significant promise for future wildlife management,” the Battlefields Plan and Environmental Impact Statement states, while appending a lengthy Review of White-Tailed Deer Fertility Control to enumerate various technologies and experiments.
The Valley Forge plan includes a similar appendix, and resolves to use birth control “when an acceptable chemical reproductive agent becomes available.” Possible side effects of pharmaceutical deer control include changes in social interactions, abnormal antler development, inflammation and painful abscesses.
Whether this adds up to less or more cruelty than the use of weapons is beside the main point. The essential issue is whether law and policy will continue promoting artificial, public-pleasing animal populations, rather that guide the public to appreciate natural ecosystems.
The role of natural predation
Appreciating the role of natural predation, rather than developing substitutes for it, carries particular importance as large predators are declining, in North America and worldwide, at rates faster than that of many other animals.
Humans “typically cannot replicate the effects of carnivores on ecosystems,” write William Ripple et al. in Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores. This 2014 article in Science asserts that “large-carnivore conservation might also be seen as a moral obligation—the recognition of the intrinsic value of all species.”
Rather than having deer artificially manipulated by humans, then, the thrust of policy at every level would be to increase the “cultural carrying capacity” both for deer and for natural predation—a key to a fostering robust bio-communities and respecting environmental ethics.
Risk in perspective
Unsuppressed by annual cycles of hunting and trapping, coyotes would need time to resume their roles as organized and effective predators—but the government could play a guiding role. Public funds saved from trapping and killing could be shifted to public education about safely respecting coyotes and other free-living animals.
Instructive examples have arisen throughout the country. While coyotes do present risks, the rare conflict can be prevented.
It helps to put this risk into perspective. The U.S. coyote and domestic dog populations are approximately equal, at about 70 million of each. While only a few coyote attacks occur yearly, and only one person has ever been killed by a wild coyote in the U.S., more than 4.5 million U.S. residents per year are injured by domestic dogs, more than 800,000 Americans require medical attention for dog bites each year, and domestic dogs since 2010 have killed an average of about 40 Americans per year. Pit bulls alone, numbering about 3.5 million, have killed an average of more than 30 Americans per year since 2010.
In 2012, signing the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals, a group of neuroscientists affirmed that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique” in our capacity for consciousness.
To comprehend the consciousness of animals would strengthen environmental ethics, for if “the environment” will be understood not simply as a backdrop to human existence, but also for its inherent value, then we should be concerned with nonhuman consciousness as well as the biological realities that accompany it.
Current laws, rules, and policies recognize undomesticated animals in numerical terms. They unscientifically treat only human feelings (even about their ornamental garden plants) as genuinely noteworthy; and the nonhuman experience typically receives no notice at all.
The current neglect, on the part of government decision-makers, of ethical consideration for living and conscious members of the bio-community is conducive to the erasure of ecosystems.
A new paradigm that respects nature’s resilience and capacity to balance itself makes environmental sense. It makes ethical sense. And it will allow government officials to withdraw from the role of opposing, controlling and silencing worthy environmental advocacy in their communities.
This guest column is a synopsis by Lee Hall of “Beyond a Government-the-Hunter Paradigm: Challenging Government Policies on Deer in a Critical Ecological Era” The full article, published this year by Lee Hall in the Journal of Environmental Law & Litigation, appears here.)
Hall, an adjunct professor of environmental law, has authored numerous books and articles on animal rights, and is currently writing On Their Own Terms: An Animal-Liberation Handbook for Classrooms and Communities. On Twitter: @Animal_Law