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.
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 gone...it'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: