Looking over the American landscape, it’s hard to think of a more insidious threat to forests, farms and wildlife, not to mention human health and safety, than deer.
Yet when it comes to reducing this costly infestation, too many elected officials sit on their hands or deflect effective control measures. There were about 1.09 million deer-vehicle collisions from June 2010 to June 2011, State Farm Insurance reports, with average property damage of more than $3,000 per accident. Add to that a billion or so dollars for agricultural damage. Deer carry ticks that spread Lyme disease. And their voracious chomping has resulted in "ghost forests" — particularly in the Northeast.
If a forest is healthy, it will support about 15 deer per square mile, and many scientists say that a degraded patch can’t be restored unless the population is about five per square mile. Compare that target with the actual deer densities: Some areas of the United States have 40 to 50 of them in a square mile, with much higher estimates in some Eastern suburbs. In New Jersey, one-third of the remaining species of native plants are endangered, largely because of deer. Many warblers, thrushes and dozens of other ground-nesting birds lose the protection of native plants, and some species of native pollinators — butterflies, moths, beetles — vanish.
For conservationists and landowners, the main defence is to put up fences and other barriers, which make American exurbs look like minimum-security prisons.
Right now, they have few alternatives. The hunters who are supposed to control the deer want to keep the numbers up so they have a better chance of shooting a buck. They support changes such as the New Jersey measure to allow bow hunting closer to houses, but they generally oppose efforts to reduce the deer population.
Some affluent communities have turned to professional sharpshooters. These services help and are usually well-regarded, but they are expensive and work best in small areas. The operations wouldn’t be cost-efficient in restoring forests of 40 square miles or more.
The same is true for mass contraception, which has long been billed as the magic bullet to deer overpopulation. Even if the drugs were perfected and approved, the task of vaccinating hundreds of thousands of deer would be time-consuming and expensive. And even if money grew on trees, herds couldn’t be reduced fast enough to solve the problem.
What would make a difference? A few modest incentives, for starters. Expand requirements that hunters kill a doe for every buck they take. In some places, landowners receive a lower property tax assessment if they use forestry practices that protect natural resources. The culling of female deer should be a priority for such benefits. Farmers have so-called depredation permits, which allow them to kill deer year-round on their land; give property owners who qualify for the forestland assessments the same out-of-season rights. If hunting is not possible, fences protecting fragile forests should count toward the lower property taxes.
Local officials help educate residents who jump at the gunshots they hear on the first day of hunting season. But the physically fragmented suburbs are not as biologically important as large forested areas, where deer-culling programs have the most impact.
The most promising reform could be legalizing the sale of venison and hides to small manufacturing enterprises. If the state allowed a commercial market for deer products, more deer would be killed. Farm markets can sell local beef, so why shouldn’t they be able to market local venison?
Opponents of the idea say that if deer had a dollar value, poaching would increase. But those who get licences for commercial harvesting wouldn’t want to risk losing those permits by flouting rules for getting the dead deer to certified butchers.
Since New Jersey permitted the hunting and commercial sale of some turtles, their population has plummeted. It seems arbitrary that government would allow a market for snapping turtles, which are more likely to become scarce, but for not deer, a mass menace.
The answer goes back to politics. Legislators kowtow to hunting groups, who oppose the commercialization of deer because they don’t want the competition to interfere with their recreation. Except for some wildlife groups and relatively powerless citizens who care about forests, no one is pushing this solution. Can we at least start the conversation?
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