Thursday, September 11, 2014

Oh Deer, One Naturalist's Perspective

I might be what one might term as an "animal lover."  The current critter count includes five six orphaned squirrels, four orphaned opossums, a non-releasable blind skunk and a non-releasable brain-damaged opossum, three abandoned cats, and one adopted dog.  Oh yes, and a yellow-bellied slider looking for a home (if anyone has space for a good-sized turtle with a lifespan of several decades, let me know...).  I have been known to drive "rescued" fawns around the park for hours, looking for their mothers from whom they'd been kidnapped by well-meaning but uninformed park visitors, and then driving them several hours to a licensed rehabilitator when the mother could not be located.  I am, on the other hand, a bit of a realist as to how nature actually works. I think baby mosquitoes are adorable, actually, but that won't stop me from dumping them out of my birdbath before they can grow up to bite me or anyone else. Sometimes the mice/earthworms/crickets are friends, sometimes they are food for the hawk, snake, turtle, and frog (I try not to turn friend-mice into food-mice. The food mice come frozen, generally.  Snakes, however much we might wish it to be otherwise, just do not eat plants, or even hamburgers).  You could quibble over the details, but on the whole, I suppose I qualify.  And as an animal lover, I firmly believe a deer hunt is the most compassionate, beneficial thing we could do for those very animals that I love, including the deer.  A little counterintuitive?  Here are a few points that might help clarify:

1.  I'm not a vegetarian.  Although I try to cut back on meat when I can for environmental reasons (eating lower on the food chain uses fewer resources, 100 pounds of grass to produce 10 pounds of cow, livestock waste does sad things to our waterways, that sort of thing) and seek out humanely-raised meat when time and budget and availability allow, I am fully aware that some days it is highly likely I am eating an animal that suffered deplorable conditions at a factory farm, that may have died inhumanely, and by purchasing such meat I could also be supporting deforestation of rainforests and other devastating environmental impacts.  As an omnivore, I don't have any sort of moral footing to oppose the hunting of cage-free deer that have lived their whole lives in the wild, that will die relatively humanely (and argue that as you will, death for a wild animal of old age is rarely a quick and easy thing - for a deer it generally means starving to death once their teeth are too worn down to chew), the hunting of which will help return an ecosystem to balance.  (For all of you vegetarians out there, I salute you!  And thank you, for your kindness to our planet.)

When I was a child, I used to play a game with my friends where we rescued the wild animals from the evil hunters.  Of course, I hadn't actually met a hunter or been to any sort of hunt.  I grew up, and now I have.  I don't like hunting, personally, just as I don't like most organized sports or cilantro, but I realize my brain is not everyone's brain and I am happy to know there are people who like these things and do them well and ethically (yes, there are bad eggs and hunting practices I give the major side-eye, but that's not what I'm referring to here and not in any way shape or form what we want at Eagle Creek), and I am happy to let them do it.  They fill the role of the wolves, the mountain lions which no longer roam our forests, keeping the deer population from increasing to the point where they eventually start dying from starvation and disease, and taking down countless other species along the way.

A population-control deer hunt is not a free-for-all, not a trophy hunt (deer are not at all monogamous, so removing one buck, or even many bucks, has little effect on the population - it just takes one buck to father several dozen offspring).  It doesn't leave traumatized fawns crying for their mothers like in Bambi - this is why hunting season doesn't begin until November, when young deer are fully weaned and the does are not pregnant yet.  It does give those fawns a better chance to survive; I feel most sorry for the youngsters in overpopulation conditions, especially during the winter when they are just a little shorter than the adults, and are unable to compete to reach the last bits of browse.

2.  I'm an animal lover, but I'm also a gardener.  When I started at Eagle Creek Park as a wide-eyed seasonal naturalist, back in 1994, I learned my way around the nooks and crannies of the park by hiking with the Sunday Morning Birdwatchers, led by the Amos Butler chapter of the Audubon Society.  I learned my birds, of course, but also plants and flowers from the other nature-lovers on the hike, and even then the deer were beginning to have a negative impact on the flora of the park.  The birders talked every spring about the lady slipper orchids; we would go out seeking the places where they once grew, but we never found them.  I never did get to see any, at least not at Eagle Creek.  They're one of the first to disappear when deer populations start to get out of balance.  The snow trillium was still there, however!  A tiny white trillium that is one of the first to bloom in spring, as early as February sometimes.  When I came back as a full-time naturalist in 2001, I looked for it every spring, but never found it again.

Now as a gardener I struggle to find plants for wildlife plantings around the Earth Discovery Center - the butterfly garden is brightly colored and a visiting butterfly will find plenty of nectar, but only through the graces of non-native annuals like zinnias and tropical milkweed, one of the few things the deer will not touch (yet.  Even my native common milkweed has been deer-nibbled, toxic as it is).  My native New England asters and purple coneflowers have been nibbled to stubs, and manage a flower or two at best.  The ironweed, cup plant, Joe Pye weed, and my beloved queen of the prairie do their valiant best, springing back again only to get browsed over and over.  In my yard at home, deer-free, I see their potential realized- springing to their full exuberant 6-foot-plus heights and hundreds of flowers covered with bees and butterflies and buzzing with a whole plethora of happy pollinators.  In the park, in the wild areas not planted and supplemented with well-behaved non-native nectar species or guarded by fences and deer-repelling sprays, the pollinators are losing out.

Unbrowsed New England asters at my home garden:  over 7 feet tall and full of countless bees and other pollinators, including three monarch butterflies in this photo.  This species is particularly important for monarchs because it blooms so late in the season, providing vital nectar-fuel for monarchs on their long migration to Mexico.

Deer-browsed New England aster in our butterfly garden at Eagle Creek, barely a foot tall.  Although New England aster will regrow after being browsed, it comes back shorter and with fewer flowers.  Ours has been so severely browsed this year it completely failed to flower.

An attempt to grow some native beneficial plants at Eagle Creek - in order to keep them alive they have to be caged.  This may help on a very tiny scale, for educational purposes, but obviously is not a way to provide wildlife habitat on a useful scale.

 A few orchids, a few forest wildflowers, less diversity and short nibbled plants in prairie and meadow and butterfly garden, what's the big deal?  A lot harder to garner sympathy for a green plant than for a big, furry mammal with liquid brown eyes and long eyelashes, but the roots of those green plants entwine with fungus and trees, they are nests and homes and food and nutrient pathways and countless other connections we have only the faintest glimmerings of understanding.  The deer don't browse the milkweed (at least not much) that Monarch caterpillars need, but that's only part of the equation - the adult butterflies need nectar, and that means variety, many different species of flowers blooming all summer and into fall - the New England asters also are only one piece of the puzzle.

The leaves of our native plants support countless native caterpillars and insects, which in turn feed baby wrens and bluebirds, robins and sparrows, cardinals and nuthatches and all the other wildlife bug-eaters (invasive non-native honeysuckle and garlic mustard can provide a lot of lovely green, but they are barren as far as wildlife food and homes without their host of bugs and ecological connections from Europe and Asia, where they originated).  One gone, two gone, three's a game of Jenga, pulling out pieces until something topples and we lose a species forever.  Everything in nature is connected, more than we can ever imagine.  We may not see or understand all the connections, but as Aldo Leopold wrote, "to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." If we do nothing, if we do not tinker with the deer situation at Eagle Creek, we're going to lose a lot of cogs, a lot of wheels.  We have lost several already.

3.  I'm an animal lover, but I love ALL animals, and most especially the weird and peculiar, the slimy and unloved.  There are plenty of people who will speak for the deer, but who will speak for the red-backed salamanders and snails and millipedes?  The wood thrush and the ovenbird?  The countless other creatures, walking sticks and red velvet mites, western chorus frogs and short-tailed shrews, the meadow jumping mouse and brown creeper, little cogs, little oddbucket wheels, beloved only by eccentric park naturalists and ecologists and very small children, each of them miracles in their own right, essential mechanisms to the ecosystem.  All of these species depend on a healthy, diverse forest understory.  A trained eye looking at Eagle Creek will find only things growing that deer will not eat - spicebush and paw paw, white snakeroot and invasive honeysuckle and garlic mustard, or, like my butterfly garden, woodland plants nibbled into shadows of their potential selves, like the shortened Jack-in-the-Pulpits of spring. The browse lines throughout the park are epic, once you know what you're looking at, and every time I see it my heart breaks for the forest and everything that lives there.  The wood thrush isn't the most spectacular of birds, but it has a lovely subtle beauty, and the call cannot be compared.  I first learned that call at Eagle Creek many years ago, but now I can't remember the last time I heard a wood thrush.  Many factors could be at play, including that I'm not able to get out on the trails as much as I once was, but  decimation of the understory by deer browsing is a likely culprit.

4. Oak trees.  According to Doug Tellamy's keystone book "Bringing Nature Home", an oak tree supports the caterpillars of over 500 moth and butterfly species.  In addition to its more well-known role of providing acorns and shade and shelter, those caterpillars are tasty and nutritious snacks for baby songbirds (even the seed-eaters mostly eat bugs and caterpillars when they are babies).  For supporting wildlife, an oak tree is one of the best species to plant (the big selling point of the non-native Bradford Pear, by comparison, is that they have "virtually no insects that will eat the leaves" - since they're not from around these parts the local insects haven't had the thousands of years necessary to adapt to the plant's chemical defenses.  Great if you want perfectly round unblemished leaves.  Not so great for hungry baby birds.)

Here's what happens to an oak tree planted at Eagle Creek Park:

Oak tree leaves are full of tannins, bitter and difficult for most mammals to process - that the deer resort to eating them in the park at all is indication of how little high quality food they can find.  Nibbled as high as a deer can reach, this little oak is still hanging in there - this one was planted as a sapling, old enough to maybe survive and overcome, but what chance would a sprouting acorn have?  And even this one is highly unlikely to survive unless fenced and barricaded - male deer seek out trees of just this size, convenient to rub the velvet from their antlers in late summer and fall.  Most of them end up bent, broken, or girdled - striped of their outer layer of bark until nutrients and water can no longer flow from root to leaves:

What is the future of the forest at Eagle Creek, without the oak trees?  We can put up fences, barricade and protect a few, but not a whole forest's worth. One hundred years from now, what acorns will become the new generation of mighty oaks, if the deer nibble them all to twigs?

 5.  And finally, the deer themselves.  The human impulse to compassion for species that are not our own is a good one, a great one, a vital-to-our-own-survival one even, and should be encouraged, but compassion without knowledge can end up shooting itself in the foot (it's the same compassion-without-knowledge that attempts to feed dogs vegetarian diets, "protects" the prairies and forests of the west from fire, not realizing it is an essential part of their survival, "rescues" orphaned wildlife that are not really orphans, cuddles and pets the adorable sweet wild baby rabbit, not realizing it is actually frozen in terror).   

Deer are truly remarkable mammals, able to survive and even thrive past their ideal population levels, eating a hundred different varieties of plant material, switching and adapting to the less palatable varieties as they become more and more crowded.  That we have too many deer at Eagle Creek for a healthy ecosystem is undeniable - if you only visit the park in the day during the summer and aren't familiar with the plant diversity of a healthy forest, it's easy to think all is well, but come around 6pm in February.  In a single drive around the park I counted 98 deer this year, grazing and standing along the roads in the open.  We're not making this "deer overpopulation" business up just for the fun of it. Here's another good overview of the issue, which stretches across many states.

The impacts on the forest and plants and other wildlife are real, significant and severe, and only getting worse, and even though deer are resilient, it has started to impact the deer themselves. The deer at Eagle Creek are...not exactly in prime condition.  If you've only seen slightly skinny, scraggly deer with no other basis of comparison, it's easy to think that's what they're supposed to look like, but again, if you know what you're looking at you can see the signs that the deer in the park are struggling.  They have full round bellies, because they are eating and eating and eating, but the ribs still show because what they are eating has such poor nutritional quality. (I am reminded of a story about one of my relatives, who moved to the country and was excited to own a horse for the first time.  She put the horse out to pasture and thought all was well, but a neighbor had to let her know her horse was starving.  She didn't realize her horse could not live on what grass was in the pasture; she didn't recognize the signs of starvation in a large hoofed mammal because she just didn't have a basis to compare).  

Deer are supposed to be crepuscular creatures, active at sunrise and sunset, not out in the open in midday, frantically scouring mowed areas for any scrap of edible greenery (another naturalist side note: deer are browsers, not grazers - they aren't adapted to eat grass, but they can find tiny forbs,tiny leafy plants in among the grasses).  However, the deer in the park are not to the point where they are dying wholesale of starvation and disease.  Not yet.  I sincerely hope we can do something to bring their populations to a healthier level long before it comes to that. 

It won't be fun or easy. I've already been accused of being a heartless killer, told that friendships are over, listened, at length, to angry rants, insults, and threats.  I was not surprised by this.  I've worked with the public for a long time; deer overpopulation is not a new problem (this post is already long enough - if you've read the whole thing, gold star! but one more quick point.  The two alternatives inevitably brought up are just not practical or even humane: 1. shipping the deer somewhere else - trouble is, deer tend to die, a lot, when you do that.  Deer just don't ship well, and everyone else has the same problem of overpopulation.  2.  Contraception - Bloomington looked into that recently, too. Edit 9/26/14 - in a nutshell, if you don't have time to follow the link and read all the info, the chemicals proposed for deer birth control are either not yet approved (GonaCon) or not commercially available (PZP) for use in Indiana, neither are currently endorsed by IDNR, and even if they were to be approved, they are only considered possible although still highly experimental options for closed, suburban populations, not populations of free-ranging deer in open natural areas like Eagle Creek.  Maybe someday we'll be able to just sprinkle some deer-specific birth control feed around the park once a year, but that day has not yet arrived.  All you young up and coming researchers out there, put your thinking caps on!)  

So, doing the right thing has been hard, but on the other side, I've also listened to words of support of all joys...ecological understanding!  People getting the big picture and seeing the completely critical connections among living things.  It's enough to make any park naturalist's day, yep.  

As unpleasant and distressing as it is for me, personally, to know that a certain number of people will be terribly unhappy with us, I will continue to support a deer hunt, for the good of the park and for the deer.  Although I'm not planning to pull any triggers directly, yes, I will be a killer, although I hope not a heartless one.  Of course, so are we all.  Vegetarian or even vegan, until that happy day when we can all photosynthesize our energy and every other need directly from the sun, life lives off of other life, that is the world we are given. Where we draw that line of which lives to take, directly by our own hands or indirectly by our choices, what we buy, what we wear and eat, where we live, where and if and what we drive, how we vote, where we step, whether we exterminate the spider in our house or coax it into a cup and release it, whether we support a deer reduction for the long term health of the forest, birds, and other wildlife or fight to have Eagle Creek Deer Park full of hungry but adorable deer and very little is up to each of us to decide.  May we always do it in compassion and as much knowledge as we can bear.