Deer overpopulation: Hunters caused it. What can we do about it?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1993:

DUPAGE COUNTY, Illinois––It isn’t deer
overpopulation that has the Dupage County Forest
Preserve commissioners, Steve Hindi of the Chicago
Animal Rights Coalition, Don Rolla of the Elsa Wild
Animal Appeal, and local hunting groups all at four-cor-
nered loggerheads. It’s what to do about it.
They’re agreed there are too many deer in the
six-square-mile Waterfall Glen preserve: 537 at last
count, even after 253 were culled last spring. They’re
agreed there’s nowhere to relocate them. They’re agreed
deer roaming out of the preserve are a hazard to cars and
perhaps to passing trains as well. They’re agreed that the
deer are eating songbirds and other brush-dwelling
species out of cover. They’re even agreed that there prob-
ably won’t be any ideal solution––quick, humane, and
inexpensive.

Ruling out hunting as too slow and potentially
too dangerous in the limited area, the commissioners last
spring accepted a strategy recommended by the Illinois
Department of Conservation. Volunteer sharpshooters
reportedly killed 97 deer. When that also proved too slow
to get the numbers down to the desired stable population
of 120 before summer, wildlife agents set up baiting sta-
tions and entangled whole families of deer in rocket-pro-
pelled cargo nets, then euthanized them with captive bolt
pistols intended for use in slaughterhouses. Deer hunters,
irate at being excluded from the killing, pushed a non-
binding resolution through the Illinois legis-
lature that designates “hunting a legitimate
tool of wildlife management,” and says “no
law should be passed that limits the taking
and consumptive use of wildlife other than
laws for the protection of species” that are
either endangered or traditionally not hunt-
ed. Considering the net-and-bolt killing
eminently inhumane, Hindi meanwhile
organized protests demanding that the com-
missioners take another approach––prefer-
ably birth control. Rolla studied various
alternatives, finding none he liked.
“Using contraceptives is a good
idea,” Rolla told ANIMAL PEOPLE, “but
they won’t be ready for a year or more, and
they are for maintaining populations at an
optimum level, not reducing them. Letting
the deer regulate themselves, and starve if
the food runs out, is illogical in a forest pre-
serve surrounded by urban areas, because
deer will move out into the neighborhoods
before they actually starve, and if the situa-
tion goes far enough to cause starvation, the
habitat will be severely degraded for other
species.” Reluctantly, Rolla endorsed
sharpshooting, for much the same reasons
that most shelter directors accept euthaniz-
ing homeless dogs and cats, and accepted
the captive-bolt method as next best alterna-
tive, if it could be done with humane super-
vision. He also proposed that the deer popu-
lation be left above the level the commis-
sioners wanted, and suggested that the Elsa
Wild Animal Appeal could buy special
reflectors that might help keep the Waterfall
Glen deer from getting into busy roads.
So far, the beleaguered commis-
sioners and Department of Conservation
haven’t wanted witnesses––not Rolla, who
has long tried to ban leghold trapping and
certainly not Hindi, known for militant tac-
tics. Hindi is upset with Rolla for what he
sees as excessive willingness to compromise.
Hunters warn darkly that despite appear-
ances, Hindi and Rolla both just want to
stop hunting, period. Rolla unhappily notes
that only days after he was acclaimed a hero
for hauling badly needed emergency supplies
to flood-stricken animal shelters in the Iowa,
he became a pariah.
The Waterfall Glen crisis is not
unique. There are about 300 such “deer
islands” in suburban areas across the eastern
half of the U.S. and Canada. Conservation-
ists and activists rattle off the names like a
list of battlefields: Air Force Academy,
Angel Island, Blacklick Woods, Block
Island, Bluff Point, Brown County State
Park, Catoctin Mountain, Fire Island,
Gettysburg, Irondequoit, Mason’s Neck,
Pehquonock. Pennypacker, Plum Brook,
Princeton, Quabbin Reservoir, Ravenna
Arsenal, Ridley Creek, River Hills,
Rondeau Provincial Park, Sharon Woods,
and Yale Forest, to name just some where
deer overpopulation has produced protracted
conflict, exploding into lawsuits, demon-
strations, and arrests.
Many of the sites once were his-
toric battlefields. Others overlap or include
wooded campuses. A handful were actually
hunting preserves, deliberately stocked with
deer decades ago––and then sold for devel-
opment.
They have in common that they
became unsuitable habitat relatively recently,
after absorbing deer from a burgeoning
national population. The deer at such sites
are not there, as hunters would have it,
because hunting isn’t allowed; they’re there
because of intense hunting that ironically
made deer too abundant, encouraging some
to wander into closer proximity to humans
than was natural just a few decades ago––or
to stay there, in the case of the ex-preserves.
For nearly 30 years hunters and
public officials across North America have
pointed to the rising whitetailed deer popula-
tion as purported proof of the success of
hunter-driven wildlife management. It was
32 years ago, in 1961, that the Ohio
Division of Wildlife had to cancel deer sea-
son because of scarcity––and that was the
last time deer season was cancelled in any
major hunting state.
In the interim, most states with
whitetails have undertaken extensive deer
habitat improvement programs, including
burning off forest to encourage the new
growth deer most like to eat, making the
presence of a winter deer yard a criteria for
protecting or purchasing land, and paying
farmers to leave some field crops favored
by deer unharvested. Most important, since
the early 1970s every state with whitetails
has enforced a strict “buck law.” Before
the passage of buck laws, deer management
was a conspicuous failure. Closed seasons
were introduced by Massachusetts as far
back as 1696, and adopted by 12 of the 13
colonies before the American Revolution.
Bag limits followed. But by 1900, the U.S.
whitetail population had dropped to an esti-
mated 500,000. Buck laws, pioneered by
New York in 1912, codified the practice of
killing males only, leaving the does to bear
fawns, whose female fawns grow up to
bear still more fawns.
Hunting creates deer surplus
Today, Ohio and many other
states might have to think about cancelling
deer season because of a growing surplus,
manifested in sharply jumping numbers of
deer/car collisions and complaints about
crop damage, as well as damage to the
habitat of scarcer species. The U.S. white-
tail population hit 15 million circa 1990,
and is now as high as 20 million.
Not killing deer to limit the popu-
lation may sound like a paradox, but the
whole philosophy of deer management as
practiced today is also a paradox: the more
you kill, the more you get, so long as most
of the dead are bucks. The surviving bucks
don’t have to compete with as many others
for mates, and they 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 sex ratio is
even, as in Llano County, Texas, in 1961-
1962, the average rate of reproduction is as
low as 30-40 fawns per 100 does. In New
York state, however, it’s currently 130
fawns per 100 does, and there are a mini-
mum of 600,000 does among the state popu-
lation of about a million deer, also including
400,000 bucks. New York hunters will kill
circa 220,000 deer this fall. That means
next year’s population could be 8% higher
than this year’s.
In neighboring Ohio, Division of
Wildlife biologist Bob Stoll estimates that
the state had 150,000 deer in 1981, 235,000
in 1991, 325,000 in 1992, and 400,000
now. Hunters killed 126,113 deer in Ohio
last year, including a projected 65% of the
buck population––normal
for the past
decade, resulting in a statewide sex ratio of
three does to one buck. At 1.3 fawns per
doe, the Ohio deer herd could double in a
year and hit a million in two years.
That’s why the Division of
Wildlife is trying to sell 180,000 “second
deer” permits this fall, which allow hunters
to kill two deer apiece instead of just one, if
at least one of them is female.
Deer overpopulation is even more
out of hand in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
The Pennsylvania sex ratio became as lop-
sided as 28 does to one buck before the leg-
islature mandated a 6.5% population cut.
Pushing doe hunting, the Pennsylvania
Game Commission actually got hunters to
kill 198,065 does last year, to 163,159
buck––but the buck toll was estimated at
80% to 90% of the buck population.
Pennsylvania now has about 975,000 deer in
the state, and the sex ratio statewide is 20
does to one buck. By this time next year, at
1.3 fawns per doe, the Pennsylvania deer
population could be 1.4 million. The
Michigan Wildlife Division, meanwhile,
boasted in a report to Michigan United
Conservation Clubs in 1988 that although
the natural carrying capacity for deer in the
state is circa one million, it had “managed”
the population up to 1.3 million, creating a
huntable surplus of 300,000. By 1989,
though, the distorted sex ratio had boosted
deer numbers to 1.7 million and officials
became openly anxious.
Similar effects are evident virtual-
ly everywhere else. Connecticut, for
instance, had only 3,000 deer in 1974,
when it became the last state to introduce a
public hunting season and a buck law. By
1979, Connecticut had 22,000 deer; by
1987, 30,000; and it has 40,000 today.
Still, hunters are demanding more deer. In
Vermont, hunter pressure cancelled all doe
hunting from 1987 through 1991, even
though state biologists warned the deer pop-
ulation was already high for the carrying
capacity, and forced the state to accept a
plan to push the buck kill up 25% by 1995.
In Georgia, where the sex ratio is now six
does to one buck, the possible conse-
quences haven’t even been debated in public
yet to any significant degree.
One way or another, deer numbers
must level out at carrying capacity. And
hunting won’t do it, so long as hunters have
the choice of killing bucks and want a rack
of antlers as a trophy––or have control of
wildlife management. Tests of a dart-inject-
ed deer contraceptive vaccine conducted by
the National Zoo in Washington D.C. over
the past year show promise, according to
vaccine developer Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick of the
Deaconess Research Institute in Billings,
Montana––but only “for the humane popula-
tion control of urban deer where hunting is
not legal, wise, or safe,” Kirkpatrick states.
Already the National Rifle Association has
mobilized against any suggestion that the
vaccine could be used to replace hunting.
Part of the longterm solution to
deer overpopulation probably lies in natural
habitat evolution, from the second growth
that covers much of North America to more
mature forests. The most important part,
though, is reclaiming management authority
from the bang-bang boys. And whether the
struggle is over battlefields become parks or
over statewide management plans, it’s real-
ly just begun to get nasty, with no outcomes
likely to delight anyone.
––Merritt Clifton
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