by Greer E. Darden
When most Americans hear the word “deer,” the first thing that comes to mind is a familiar Disney character we all know and love as Bambi. In 1942, this movie gave its audience a new way to view wildlife, by turning common forest dwellers including deer, rabbits and skunks into cute cuddly woodland friends. Many of us remember the tragic scene that touched our hearts, when the evil hunters shot down Bambi’s mother.
Now one of the positive sides to this movie’s release was that it prepared Americans for the 1970’s environmental conservation movement thirty years later. This movement was spurred by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and resulted in the formation of some of our most commonly known governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Protection Agency. These movements also created a buzz in the political world, with the implementation of new policies like the Clean Air Act in 1973.
Since the 1970s, conservation efforts and natural resource management have grown. Wildlife managers in North America have been very successful in increasing populations of species that were once threatened and have managed to stabilize others. However one species whose population has recently spiraled out of control is the white-tailed deer, a.k.a Bambi and friends. Because of their natural abundance, deer were fiercely hunted in North America for food, pelts and sport. However, since the development of big cities and urban suburbs in the northeast U.S., hunting has been a recreation left mainly to those in the southern states. In Jim Sterba’s article for the Wall Street Journal, he stated that “the white-tailed deer population of the U.S. is now estimated at somewhere between 30 million and 45 million. Proponents of allowing wild venison sales say the six million whitetails that licensed hunters will kill this season aren’t nearly enough to contain, let alone to reduce, this population” (2013).
In dense urban metropolitan areas like Washington D.C., deer numbers have become a major problem. Not only do they destroy people’s gardens, but the local natural vegetation as well, and in cities natural vegetation is becoming increasingly scarce. With heavy flows of traffic, deer collisions and deer-caused accidents have also increased tremendously. Deer carry diseases like lime disease through ticks that can be transmitted to domesticated house pets, and from there on to humans. These effects are not only a nuisance, but are also very costly for both residents and city officials.
As a D.C./Maryland native myself, I have witnessed these issues firsthand. I attended St. John’s College High School on a campus that stretches thirty acres in northwest Washington, nestled right next to Rock Creek Park, one of the first federally managed parks established in 1890.
Stretching a little over four square miles, very few cities have parks to compare. I remember one evening, having to stay late after school, I was returning to my car when I saw a big figure ahead of me. It was already dark outside but I could quickly make out what it was. There standing right in the middle of my school’s front parking lot was a gigantic stag, and he was looking straight at me. I stood there for a few minutes, waiting for him to run off, but he chose not to. Instead he continued to stare at me as I slowly and cautiously walked around him and to my car, trying not to spook him in any way. All I could picture was this deer charging at me, antlers drawn. But luckily, I got to my car safely.
In 2013, the spring of my senior year, it was announced that there was to be a deer hunt in Rock Creek. The National Park Service had arranged for sharpshooters to come into the park and eradicate the deer. The deer were simply consuming too many seedlings before they could grow, threatening the survival of the Park’s forest. This sparked debate and protest among my classmates and throughout the city of Washington. On one hand there were activists who enjoy the deer and protested the hunt, exclaiming that it was violent and barbaric. Some residents enjoyed the fact that they could live in a city and be exposed to the wildlife at the same time. On the other hand there were many residents who had had enough and supported the hunt to reduce the population. As a wildlife lover myself, I remember being torn between the two sides. I did believe that the deer population was a problem but at the same time the thought of the deer getting shot down brought me right back to being five years old watching Bambi in my family’s living room.
Activists against eradication strongly believe that there are alternatives. They have hope that with advancing technology, scientists will find another option. Contraceptives have been one way that wildlife managers have reduced populations. The effort is to lower the numbers by reducing the reproduction rate. For deer the method has been to plant the contraceptives in sugar cubes and leaving them out for the does (female deer) to find. Some of the downfalls to this method include the possibility of these contraceptives being ingested by other non-target species and the fact that they are too costly and haven’t been effective enough to dramatically reduce the numbers.
One of the most popular ideas for a solution to the deer problem is to implement a commercial deer harvest, meaning harvesting the meat for market sale. This was the solution for a similar problem in New Zealand, where they had seven species of wild deer whose populations were growing out of control. Researchers noticed that the increase in the deer population was dramatically altering the natural ecosystem and vegetation. According to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation website, deer forage selectively so there are certain types of plants and shrubs that they prefer over others. An overabundance of deer could potentially alter a whole forest by permanently removing select species. They have been controlling deer populations by eradicating them from certain areas of the islands, as well as giving out free permits and opening the area to both sport hunters and commercial hunters.
In the United States, however, it is illegal for hunters to sell their game for profit. This law was passed to protect other native species from being hunted to extinction, such as the American Bison which was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s. The laws were passed as part of a campaign in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to end the devastation of wild native populations by commercial hunters. However, currently 85% of the venison sold commercially in the United States is imported from New Zealand (Sterba, 2013). Why are we importing deer from other countries when we have more than enough right here in the U.S.? That is the question many people are debating. Is commercial harvesting the answer?
Kevin Ringelman is a Wildlife Ecologist, as well as my Wildlife Management professor here at LSU in the School of Renewable Natural Resources. In one of our recent class group discussions we were able to talk about the deer population and possibilities for management plans. Professor Ringelman pointed out that even though the commercial deer harvest has been successful in New Zealand and the option does look attractive, that does not necessarily mean it will work in the United States. For one thing, the area and population size is much different. The United States is much more densely populated than the small islands of New Zealand. Another big concern that he mentioned is that if we do start a commercial trade in the U.S. and we are successful in reducing the deer population, what then? Once there becomes a market for something it is very hard to stop it, especially in populated cities where people start businesses and start making a living out of the venison market. What if the market becomes too popular and the population becomes too small? These are all questions that Ringelman believes are vital questions to ask before supporting an idea this drastic. The debate continues, as eradication methods like sharp shooters still continue in the north and the northeast.