The Deer Herd

Wildlife managers are increasing the size of the deer herd to provide more recreational opportunities for hunters and justifying this by maintaining that the deer will starve unless they are harvested. Scientists should question this misguided view.

Deer hunting, deer managing, controlling and maintaining what wildlife managers refer to as the deer herd is not simple tasks. We hear stories about deer browsing in the suburbs, deer being hit by cars, and, “If we didn’t have deer hunters, deer would starve each winter.” Our sources of information for these suspect truisms are state-level departments of fish and game, environmental conservation, or parks. Our wildlife opinions are controlled by their pro-hunter perspective. I suggest a healthy dose of skepticism.

For example, it appears that deer numbers are manipulated solely to benefit hunters; the impact of this favoritism falls most heavily on the deer and on non-hunting humans.


Depends on Who You Ask

In New York State (NYS) in 1971, hunters killed 50,000 deer, and by the late 80s, they were killing 200,000 deer annually. What does that mean? Depends on who you ask. Some say it means the number of deer quadrupled in 16 years. Others think we’re utilizing the resource more efficiently. But what’s that mean, utilizing the resource more efficiently”? Does it mean that the deer herd could handle more cropping, so state managers have allowed more to be killed, annually? But how to determine the “right” number? The game is managed as a renewable resource, to be cropped efficiently. If only the bucks are shot, then there are more females left to bear more young, so you get a larger crop of deer. This policy, used in New York for nearly 20 years, makes it possible that the deer herd has increased four-fold in that time. But game managers don’t want to admit to this increase. Why not?

Well, maybe it doesn’t matter much. It could be that there are so many deer, the amount of hunting has little to no effect. How can we find that out? We know that when deer are not hunted, they often live to be 15 years old; but the average age of deer in hunted herds, such as those in New York, is about 3 years. From that, you could conclude that hunting is having a significant effect on the age distribution of New York’s deer herd.

Between 1988 and 1989, there was a 6 percent drop in hunter-killed deer in New York State, down to 181,879. And this decline took place even though hunters were allowed two deer instead of one.

Compared to the 500,000 deer management permits issued in 1988, 258,624 were issued in 1989. Could it be that the number of people interested in deer shooting as a form of recreation is declining? If this is so, it is at a time when New York State deer managers have created a situation where there are more deer than ever that have to be shot!


Deer-vehicle Accidents

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), for better or worse, has done a great job of creating a highly reproductive herd of deer. Consequently, recent years have seen a marked increase in deer-vehicle accidents, as many as 40,000 in a recent year in New York State. The National Safety Council estimates that such collisions kill up to 350,000 deer each year, and more than 100 motorists die in these collisions; another 7,000 people are injured, and property damage reaches millions of dollars.

Hitting a 150-pound deer can stop a car dead in its tracks, which says nothing about what it does to the deer. Usually, the driver is caught totally by surprise. The animals don’t look both ways before crossing and are scared by the headlights. The only evasive action a deer might take is to leap over the car, accounting for all the deer that seem to come out of nowhere, hitting the windshield! Only when you’ve had a deer come through your windshield, can you know how difficult it is to keep control of the car when you’ve got a wild animal’s hooves and antlers flailing in your face? If you’re thinking this only happens occasionally, think again. In some states, almost 20 percent of the deer population is killed each year in car accidents, according to the National Safety Council.

Wildlife officials from New York and New Jersey all the way to Colorado report an increase in deer-related auto accidents. The consensus was that the increase in deer populations nationwide is a result, in part, of relatively mild winters. An analyst for the Michigan State Police Traffic Services Division said that accidents with deer are on the increase because more people are moving into rural areas.

Most states are slow to recognize that the problem is human made: deer herds managed for maximum size, sharing habitat with country-craving people. Some states are beginning to test the possibility of reducing the size of their deer herd by increasing the number of deer hunters can take, or by lengthening the hunting season.


Wildlife Managed for Hunting

State-level managers must radically reduce the number of deer, and be willing to reduce the number of females. But that’s unacceptable to the hunting public, which sees deer control as a threat to its nearest and dearest values. They want as many do as possible to maintain the high reproductive output. I differ: this unnaturally high birth rate has been created by outrageously flawed wildlife management methods that maximized the number of deer country-wide, beyond all reasonable bounds.
I don’t believe that deer have ever starved to death on a regular basis. Sure, there are some bad winters, but by and large, the entire problem of having to shoot deer to manage them for their own well being is hunters’ propaganda promulgated by organizations funded by hunters or by state-collected hunting revenues. Such organizations include most of the game management and fisheries departments on both the national and state levels.

These departments wield a lot of power. They have been able to manage wildlife while achieving their own goals, often harming wildlife in the process of mounting public relations campaigns that over the years have brainwashed us. Hunting is recreation, and for many, it’s good business. It gets people outside, it gives them an opportunity to drink and tell stories, to have a cheap vacation, and rustle up some free food in the process. All other reasons are rationalizations or just plain lies.

There are laws protecting people from shooting each other, and while it may not be safe to go outside during hunting season, hunters don’t seem to mind. People who enjoy a good walk in the woods, however, are warier. There are laws protecting certain other species from being shot by hunters, too, but we know that many get shot anyway. As the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. However unintentionally, the wrong birds get shot every day. And it’s not just birds. I heard about some deer hunters in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State who shot a mountain lion in 1968. There hadn’t been a confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in the Northeast in years, although there recently have been a number of reported sightings cropping up in New England and adjacent Canada. So what happens when hunters run into this rarity? They shoot it, which explains why there aren’t any mountain lions around, and won’t be as long as hunters continue to shoot whatever they feel like shooting.

(By the way, mountain lions never attacked people. Just like wolves, although they were both feared and reviled, they never attacked people. Sure, there might be a case somewhere in the annals of wolf and mountain lion lore, but it’s safe to say that Chihuahuas and little pussy cats are far more dangerous.)


Reasons to Extirpate

So, why do hunters still want to kill these animals? Well, the gentleman who claims to have shot the mountain lion in the Adirondacks (I don’t want to give the precise location because someone reading this will hop in his pickup and go out looking for the den), did so because he said it was going to attack his wife. He was up on the ridge looking down at the mountain lion. He could have shooed it away. Instead, he shot it.

Why were all the other cougars shot? (I’ve already explained that cougars and mountain lions and panthers are all words used for the same animal, right?) Because say the hunting lobbyists, they were terrible predators: killed livestock. OK, then why were all the birds of prey shot? Same reply: terrible predators, they killed songbirds.

Hunters are quick to have reasons why something needs to be shot. No one has ever gone back and systematically looked at the reasons used for wiping out many now-vanished species. Passenger pigeons were so common there was no way in the world you could kill them all. Carolina parakeets were terrible pests. (I think that was the reason used.) Great auks were stupid, kind of like the dodo. No one meant to kill them all, it’s just that they were so stupid! These are a few of the “reasons”.

The State of New York has worked diligently to increase the profitable sale of hunting permits. The DEC says that hunters “contributed” over $31 million to the budget in a recent year. The impression given is that these were charitable contributions, but actually, $25.5 million of the total came from the sale of hunting licenses. Another $6 million-plus came from New York State’s apportionment of federal excise taxes paid on fishing and hunting equipment. The NYS Fish and Wildlife Program cost $50 million dollars during a typical year recently. Hunting revenues paid for 63% of the bill, and everyone else in New York, through their taxes, paid for the rest.

Hunting is more than big business: it is politically potent. New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo recognizes that as do the leaders of New York’s hunting and fishing organizations who run the lobby that carries all this clout in the state’s capital, Albany. One of these organizations is the Conservation Fund. This is where the monies go that are generated from hunting and fishing licenses, from fines for fish and wildlife violations, and from the proceeds taxpayers contribute to their tax return checkoff. Another organization is the Conservation Fund Advisory Council, composed of officials from the NYS Conservation Council, the umbrella organization for NYS hunting clubs. These are the people advising the NYS-DEC, telling them what to do and what the wildlife priorities are. Because they control the money, what they want is what gets done.

“Shot for Their Own Good”?

Now, with a few of the basics out of the way, let’s get back to trying to understand what’s behind the stories we all hear about deer, and how they need to be “shot for their own good.” First, when we are told there are too many deer in a particular region, it usually means the state is going to increase the number of permits, so as to kill increased numbers of deer in that region.
Recently, when it was announced by Yale University that it would open up Yale Forest in Ashford, Connecticut to deer hunting, the University said this was to save the deer from starvation. Looking at this case more closely it was determined that the deer were in perfectly good shape, and starving deer had never been a problem at Yale Forest. The real reason was a land use conflict. Yale wanted to increase its timber revenues from the forest. But a professor at the Forestry School said deer were nibbling on tree seedlings. So it was decided that the deer had to go. (However, when another Yale Forestry School professor, Stephen Kellert, was asked about the deer hunt, he said it was like trying to club a swarm of mosquitoes with a baseball bat. Deer removed from one foraging area would be replaced by deer from the surrounding area.)

Deer biologist Jay Macanich asks, if all deer starve unless kept in check by hunters, why are deer doing fine in many non-hunted parks and private lands throughout the country? Actually, a look at the scientific foundation finds little supportive data for the concept that deer starve to death in the winter.

Scientists need to question the mindset that has become entrenched in our fish and game officials, as well as in the minds of most wildlife managers, and even in the forestry departments of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. The data simply do not support the argument that deer numbers rise precipitously above their habitat’s available food supply, leading to dying deer that need to be humanely shot. Also, consider the 15 to 40 percent of hunted deer that are injured by hunters who are poor shots; these deer run off to die.

What about the deer walking around the suburbs? When deer are hunted in the forest, they go elsewhere. In the past when there was a choice, most deer avoided suburbanized, dog-ridden areas. Now with more deer and more sub and exurbs, however, it is common to see deer walking about, nibbling here and there. Mixed reviews from homeowners: most like the deer but don’t want their plants eaten. However, once the first deer find that a suburb is benign, more follow, and more people complain that their gardens and shrubs are being trimmed, weeded, and harvested, but not by the gardener.

Deer prefer remote areas where they aren’t hassled, shot at, and chased down by dogs. But with fewer such areas, compounded with increasing pressures from development, each state with a bevy of wildlife managers whose mission is to beef up the size of its deer herds, it comes as no surprise that deer are increasingly seen as a nuisance.

Wherever deer are common, wherever they are eating the wrong foods or are being hit by cars, it’s always seen as their fault. Deer-car collisions in New Rochelle, NY, were caused by deer “migrating in the wrong direction.” Before believing that this animal is a nuisance that needs to be controlled, keep in mind that this is completely a human-caused problem. Only because hunters demand it, and states go along, do we have more deer than we know what to do with.

This is the wave of the future. Wild animals whose lands were usurped will either become locally extinct or will adapt. The deer are adapting.

With more species on the decline than on the rise, I say, all the more power to the exceptions. If they can make the most out of a less-than-optimal situation, let them. We’re the ones who ought to adapt.

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Article by John J. Christian

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