Deer hunting kills birds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1997:

deer to suit hunters may be the major cause
of vanishing songbirds.
“We’re talking about vireos, warblers,
ovenbirds, all birds who use that bottom
five feet” of the forest ecosystem,
explained National Zoo wildllife biologist
William McShea as far back as 1992,
assessing deer damage to the Shenandoah
Valley, in Virginia. “These birds are all
declining in eastern forests.”
But that’s a message the National
Audubon Society avoided last December 12
at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge
near Tinicum, Pennsylvania. Unveiling a
new national program to encourage bird
habitat conservation, the speakers addressed
“habitat loss” and “fragmentation,” blaming
development rather than deer nibblings.

Yet between second growth overtaking
abandoned farms and suburban shade trees
maturing, the volume of wooded habitat in
the northeast is up 33% since 1970––now
standing at 200 million acres.
The speakers blamed outdoor cats,
too. But the best available data, as ANIMAL
PEOPLE reported in March 1996,
indicates that the outdoor cat population is at
worst stable, and has probably declined
sharply over the past five years, just as
songbird loss has become most evident.
The impact of deer on bird habitat
isn’t any secret. Philadelphia-area naturalist
Chris McCabe pointed it out last September
while showing reporters the deer overpopulation
problem at Wissahickon Park, in
northeastern Philadelphia. The National
Audubon Society list of 72 Important Bird
Areas in Pennsylvania, announced at the
December 12 ceremony, is a virtual catalog
of deer proliferation hot spots, including the
Tyler Arboretum and Ridley Creek State Park
in Delaware County, south of Philadelphia,
where deer season was extended to January 11.
The Tyler/Ridley park hunts are not
to be confused with a much protested series of
hunts held at Tyler State Park, north of
Philadelphia––but saving bird habitat is a stated
reason for those hunts, too.
Similar observations and recommendations
come from other states. The Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources, for instance,
cited “a reduction in the number of ground
nesting birds, which once were present on the
site” in recommending a deer cull at Fairy
Chasm Nature Preserve in Mequon. The
Mequon aldermen recently appropriated
$10,000 for sharpshooter deer culling nearby.
Loss of bird habitat is among the reasons,
too, that Cleveland Metroparks and the
Cuyhoga Valley Deer Task Force are reportedly
planning a deer cull of perhaps unprecedented
scale for later this year. Explained reporter
James F. McCarty of the Cleveland P l a i n
D e a l e r last October, “The deer have stripped
the woodlands of shrubs and saplings up to
four feet above the ground, driving away wood
warblers, thrush and small mammals.”
“Without controls,” wrote LeAnn
Spencer of the Chicago Tribune in February
1995, “scientists warn that deer––an estimated
21 million of them––can devour thousands of
acres of valuable foliage that provides shelter
for hundreds of bird species.”
Deer up = birds down
The U.S. deer herd is now up to 26
million, from about 18 million in 1989, even
though record numbers have been killed
through hunting, culling, and deer/car accidents
during the past two years. Songbirds are
apparently declining as quickly as the deer herd
grows. The 1995 Audubon Christmas Bird
Count found a 50% loss of neotropical migratory
songbirds in the eastern U.S. since 1975,
quite a jump from the 30% loss noted by the
1989 North American Breeding Bird Survey.
Using ambiguous terms like “habitat
loss” and “fragmentation” makes few enemies,
and roving cats’ friends are few, but Audubon
wouldn’t have made many friends in
Pennsylvania by knocking hunting.
Pennsylvania sells more than 700,000 deer permits
per year, more than any other state but
Michigan––and may lead the U.S. in deer damage
complaints, which provide the pretext for
more hunting. Because of the complaints, the
Pennsylvania State Game Commission has had
orders from the legislature since 1992 to cut the
post-hunting season deer population in the
greater Philadelphia area to five per square
mile of wooded habitat. This is being accomplished
mainly through expanded doe-hunting.
Of the four Philadelphia-area counties,
Chester is closest to the goal, with 13
deer per square mile of wooded habitat, down
from 61 in 1988. Deer population density has
fallen from 59 to 20 per square mile in
Delaware County; from 52 per square mile to
21 in Bucks County; and from 34 to 15 in
Montgomery County. At that, roadkill counts
indicate there are still almost two does per
buck, making rapid repopulation possible.
Hunters holding 75,000 total permits killed
13,000 deer within the four-county area during
1995, a 17% success rate, and though final
totals haven’t been announced, apparently
killed about as many in 1996.
Animal advocates hate the bloodbath.
Yet hunters, though taking what they can get,
vocally worry that doe-shooting now will mean
fewer targets later––even though shooting does
at the present just-over-1/1 ratio to bucks poses
little risk of ever restoring the gender balance
that will in turn stop producing more deer each
year than were shot the year before. Currently,
Pennsylvania hunters kill about two-thirds of
the state’s buck population each fall, but only
25% of the doe population. Similar ratios prevail
in Michigan, New York, Ohio, and most
other states where wildlife managers point to
expanded doe hunting when accused of deliberately
increasing the herd.
Since 1961, when the Ohio deer season
was cancelled because there were too few
deer, wildlife agencies and hunting publications
have pushed compliance with buck laws,
preaching “The more you shoot, the more you
get,” so long as the targets are bucks instead of
does. Shooting two-thirds of the bucks in the
woods each fall, but sparing does until recent
years, hunters around the U.S. gradually
skewed the gender ratio of the wintering herds.
The sharpest skews were Pennsylvania and
Michigan, where the statewide ratios circa
1990 were as lopsided as 20 does per buck. If
every doe twinned, up to 40 fawns could be
born each spring per 21 adult deer; even at a
normal rate of twinning, 30 fawns would be
born per 21 adult deer, insuring rapid herd
growth and lots of spike bucks to kill each fall.
As recently as 1988, the Michigan
Department of Natural Resources published a
handbook explaining how it boosted deer herds
to a third beyond overwinter carrying capacity,
to provide maximum hunting opportunities––
and hunters defended themselves against critics
by pointing to deer proliferation as purported
“proof” they weren’t endangering any species.
The Michigan deer herd hits two million each
fall, well above the official estimate of optimum
size at about 1.3 million. The “optimum”
emerged from the winter of 1995-1996, after
475,000 deer were shot and 200,000 starved in
deep snow, but lasted only until spring
birthing, when the preponderance of pregnant
does among the survivors soon boosted the
herd size back to two million plus.
Conservationists may sometimes finger
deer for bird loss, but never deer hunting,
perhaps because the National Audubon Society
values hunter members, good relations with
pro-hunting politicans, and a longstanding
political alliance with the National Wildlife
Federation, the umbrella for 49 state hunting
clubs; because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service, responsible for maintaining populations
of endangered birds, is largely supported
by taxes on sales of hunting equipment; and
because state wildlife agencies, with few
exceptions, are proportionately even more
dependent on the sale of deer permits.
Thus, though the argument that deer
must be killed to save birds might prove more
persuasive than any other to animal advocates,
the organizers of hunts and culls rarely put it
This might in turn be because animal
advocates would then demand that any deer
killing undertaken on purported behalf of birds
be permanently effective in knocking down
deer numbers, by simultaneously restoring the
long-lost natural one-to-one gender ratio.
Many deer hunts and culls in recent years have
looked to animal advocates more like underhanded
ways of expanding deer hunting than
genuine habitat restoration efforts––with reason.
Confronted about deer overpopulation,
wildlife managers and other hunting boosters
typically blame “antis” who post their land;
and frequently so-called “population control”
hunts exascerbate the problems they were supposedly
meant to solve.
Donna Robb, then freelancing and
now reporting for the Cleveland Plain Dealer,
investigated such a case in 1990 at the Plum
Brook NASA Research Center––a 5,400-acre
facility fenced so that deer can’t get in or out.
“In a 1987 public hunt at Plum
Brook,” Robb found, “611 deer were killed:
435 bucks and 176 does.” Even if the gender
ratio hadn’t been skewed before, this skewed
the ratio among the 639 survivors toward
females by at least 2.4 to 1. “The 1990 prehunt
population was 2,250,” Robb continued.
“The herd nearly quadupled in three years.”
Wrote Wisconsin Division of
Natural Resources biologist Keith McCaffrey
in a 1994 report, “Because of the prolific
nature of deer herds in urban environments,
maintenance of the population as a goal will
likely require removal of a number of deer
equal to two-thirds of the established
goal––each year.”
That’s exactly what hunters have
been doing to “maintain” the buck population
for 35 years. Had the buck and doe populations
remained approximately equal all those
years, herd growth to the present levels
couldn’t have happened.
Invoking roadkills to warrant deer
killing is apparently easier than discussing the
impact of deer on birds, or alternative solutions,
as average drivers seem more easily
convinced that just killing deer is the answer,
never mind gender ratio.
In the four Philadelphia-area counties,
cars killed about 2,500 deer in 1995,
down from 3,200 in 1994. Elsewhere, the toll
held even or rose.
South Carolina deer/car crashes
jumped from 1,260 in 1986 to 5,546 last year.
Deer/car crashes were reportedly up
15% in Michigan last year––and the 1995
count of 62,535 such accidents, resulting in
eight human deaths and 2,200 injuies––was
double the 1986 count.
In Wisconsin, as of 1978, 12,224
deer/car crashes were reported to police: one
car accident in 20. In 1995, 23,922 deer/car
crashes were reported to police: one car accident
in six. Nine people were killed, 84 suffered
incapacitating injury, and 822 were otherwise
hurt. Half the accidents, 1990-1995,
came from October through December––coinciding
with the rut and hunting season, as 23%
of the total came in November, compared with
27% in October and December combined. The
Wisconsin deer herd reached one million in
1988, and is now up to 1.5 million.
In December 1996, 200 sport
hunters were authorized to shoot deer at Little
Bennett Park in Montgomery County,
Maryland, after 1,600 deer/car crashes were
recorded during the first six months of the
year––up from 1,244 in 1995 and 782 in 1992.
Harm to bird habitat is a concern of
biologists at Eno River State Park in Durham,
North Carolina, but complaints of garden
damage from neighbors and a statewide 35%
increase in deer/car accidents got top billing
when officials recently floated the idea of
stepped-up hunting or culling.
Experiments in immunocontraception
for deer tend to remain the great hope of
opponents of killing, but to date such programs
have received little or no support from
state wildlife agencies, have been banned
through the influence of the gun lobby in
Illinois, and are not proving cost-effective,
largely because of the cost of capturing and
innoculating the deer. A three-year immunocontraception
effort sponsored by the Humane
Society of the U.S. on Fire Island, New York,
is beginning to show promising if limited
results, according to HSUS senior scientist
Alan Rutberg, as the deer population there has
apparently stopped increasing. However,
homeowner complaints about deer damage
remain high, and according to The New York
Times it seems doubtful that the residents will
vote for assuming the costs when the HSUS
money runs out. A five-year immunocontraception
project offered recently to Amherst,
New York, has a better chance of achieving
unequivocal results, and the first-year costs of
$20,000 would be covered by a donation from
businessman Ronald Benderson. However,
approval by all the necessary levels of authority
is still pending, the townspeople complaining
about deer may not be willing to wait five
years for results, and while New York
Department of Environmental Conservation
biologist James R. Snider recently told Dick
Dawson of the Buffalo Daily News that he
favors the experiment in principle, he also
argues in favor of continued bait-and-shoot
and nuisance-permit hunting.
In principle, traditional wildlife
management philosophy holds, it should be
possible to “farm” enough deer to satisfy
hunters, whose license fees will in turn support
programs to save endangered species. In
practice, that seemed to work 20-odd years
ago––when there were far more hunters, were
far fewer species in peril, and there was much
less habitat conducive to the success of deer at
the expense of other species, especially songbirds.
The illusion that traditional wildlife
management was working set up the present
catastrophe. Traditional wildlife managers
now face an irate and impatient public,
harassed by too many deer on the one hand
and fed up with guns and hunters on the other.
Traditional wildlife management
survives through people management, maintaining
a politically potent alliance of the 15
million active hunters with the organizations
representing the 150 million birdwatchers and
bird-feeders; keeping up public concern about
deer overpopulation while distracting attention
from the reasons for it; isolating critics of
hunting by keeping their focus on either saving
the deer or seeking ideal nonlethal solutions to
each individual crisis.
The overlap of humane concern for
deer with humane concern for cats has afforded
traditional wildlife management a further
opportunity to divide-and-conquer, playing up
the effects of feline predation on birds and portraying
the effects of deer on bird
habitat––when the issue is raised––as a consequence
of humane opposition to deer hunting.
The longer this goes on, the greater
the risk that wildlife management will not only
allow but in effect encourage deer to eat songbirds
out of house and home.

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