By Jack Kloepfer
Years ago I put that question to a respected Yellowstone
wildlife biologist and former Wisconsin state game manager. He responded
that human hunting will never control white-tailed deer populations.
That response sent me on a quest for knowledge and answers to the ever-expanding
white-tailed deer population in North America. I soon found out trying
to obtain unbiased and objective info from game managers and sport hunters
was futile if not downright sacrilegious. Over the past ten years I’ve
gathered information by working as a volunteer on wildlife conservation
projects and deer census in North America and South America, talking
to field biologists and reviewing findings of wildlife studies. Additionally,
I found a good deal of useful information in the book "The American
Hunting Myth" by Ron Baker. Lastly, I analyzed principles of basic
wildlife biology. The following is a summary of my findings and conclusion.
Many hunters, to their credit, honestly believe they
are practicing conservation by "thinning the herd", as
they call it. After all when you kill something it no longer exists,
CHALLENGING THE ASSUMPTION:
Yes there is an immediate reduction of animals but
what about the long-term reproduction response to hunting?
by Kimberly Duke - Kimberly was shocked
to find a killing field of deer after hunting started. This
allowed hunters to kill more. The poor deer below were hacked
apart and left to rot, so hunters could overkill.)
Why do states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan,
PA, GA and TX which have the most hunters also have the most deer?
Why have deer populations in these as well as other heavily hunted
states steadily risen in the past three or four decades? More importantly,
what are the environmental consequences of high deer populations?
The answer my Yellowstone wildlife biologist friend gave me soon
became clear because sport hunting is simply not supposed to reduce
deer populations. It is a business. Why kill the goose that laid
the golden egg? Game managers are not going to manage away their
livelihood. Rather than reduce hunting, game management will seek
to expand hunter opportunities by extending seasons and opening new
areas to hunting. Game management is designed
to insure a bumper crop of replacement "targets" each fall.
Lots of "targets" means lots of hunters. Lots of hunters
mean revenue for the state and federal wildlife management coffers.
Consequently, deer populations are tied to and explicitly managed
by permits. That is the nuts and bolts of deer management in America.
The problem with the agenda is that it is working too well. Many
game managers will freely admit that white-tailed deer exceed prudent
carrying capacity in many areas. This is often used as a ploy to
promote hunting, but often when we tamper with nature it can backfire.
Hunting and management policies have created an overabundance
of deer by the manipulation of deer biology. White-tailed deer have
a natural sex ratio that is approximately 51% male. This is one of
nature’s important control mechanisms. Deer are polygamous, meaning
males will impregnate multiple mates. When fewer doe permits are
issued, more females survive to breed. The higher percentage of females
in a herd compromises this important control mechanism.
After the availability of a mate, the primary factor
of reproduction of wildlife is the availability of food. Historically,
game management has maximized deer habitat by the slash and burn
technique. This promotes the vigorous growth of new shoots of grasses
which deer love. In the past, some state game departments have actually
planted wild corn patches to encourage deer populations. Winter feeding
programs have also been used to promote deer. I have witnessed both
planting and winter feeding programs in the 1970’s in McHenry City,
IL. Human intervention with the natural process is a contributing
factor to deer abundance. Weather, primarily severe winters and drought
can play an important natural check of deer.
A basic factor of reproduction of any organism is the
principle of overcompensation for losses. Hunting creates a sudden
drop in herd density which will activate the overcompensation mechanisms
in deer. Deer will overcompensate to hunting stress by having more
twins and triplets causing an explosion of fawns each spring. Reproduction
rates are also encouraged by the increase of space and food available
to the survivors of the hunt. Conversely, in non-hunted environments
reproduction rates would not be stimulated causing fewer females
to become pregnant and single births become the norm.
A study in the Shenandoah National Park has shown that
a high number of large herbivores, like deer, have negative effects
on ecosystems by crowding out smaller animals ad reducing biodiversity.
Studies in the northwestern U.S. are showing that white-
tailed deer have become so numerous in some areas they
are crowding out mule deer. While "crowding out" is a subtle
phenomenon, it is a very real danger to biodiversity and long-term
well being of our biosphere.
REFUTING THE MYTHS
Some pro-hunting advocates will promote doe hunting
only to control populations. In practice this has rarely worked.
Although a few suburban hunters would shoot does, most deer hunters
disdain killing females. Killing does contradicts the most sacred
white-tailed deer hunting doctrine of bagging the largest buck with
the largest rack. Few hunters would pay a taxidermist good money
to mount a doe head above their fireplace. Mistakes as well can be
made. Often in the field it is not easy
to determine whether you are shooting a doe or a buck. Some bucks
are antlerless. Often bucks with small "spikes" are taken
for does. For some urban hunters, it is difficult to determine the
difference between a cow and a deer.
Additionally deer, in search for mates and food, will "fill-in" or
migrate to areas which have been "thinned." Radio-collared
deer have been known to migrate 20 miles.
Many proponents of hunting attempt to rationalize sport
hunting by saying human hunting takes the place of natural predators.
While it is true many areas of our country lack natural predators,
which is due to over hunting and government predator control programs,
it has never been conclusively proven that predators control ungulate
populations. In fact, prey numbers may have a greater influence on
predator numbers. This is commonly referred to as the bottom to top
control mechanism. The 30-year study of moose and wolf population
dynamics show that wolf populations may actually be driven by moose
populations. Carcass studies in the Yellowstone wolf project show
the average wolf-killed cow elk is 14 years old, far past the prime
breeding ages of 2-9 years. These studies, as well as others, clearly
show predators have little effect on ungulate populations.
Predators will primarily kill the older, injured and
sick animals. Recently a Yellowstone wildlife biologist witnessed
a wolf make three unsuccessful charges into an elk herd. After the
third charge, the exhausted wolf stood panting as three large bull
elk charged from the herd surrounded the hapless wolf and attacked!
The battered wolf narrowly escaped with his life.
The theory that the presence of predators markedly
reduces ungulate populations has little scientific basis. Before
human intervention carnivores and herbivores evolved for eons in
a life-sustaining harmonious relationship.
I believe the reduction of hunting stress, allowing
natural population checks like natural sex ratio, normal birth rate,
weather and disease, a natural predator/prey interaction, as well
as immunocontraception in selected sites would be sufficient to maintain
a reasonably stable and environmentally sound deer population. The
immunocontraception program – the administration of a contraceptive
vaccine by darting – developed by Jay Kirkpatrick, Ph.D., of the
HSUS has proven to be 90-95% effective in reducing pregnancies in
wild horses. The vaccine is currently being adapted for use in deer.
Immunocontraception holds great promise for use in island populations
of deer, residing in urban nature centers and conservation sites
where hunting would be ineffective, inappropriate and dangerous.
It would be environmentally beneficial to scale back
hunting to a level which would not increase reproduction rates, end
control of predators, and institute a management philosophy based
on science and restoring ecosystems.
It is said that everything in America is driven by
politics and money, and game management is no exception. Wildlife
policies are primarily established for the benefit of special interest
groups, such as sport hunters, with little input from the general
public. This is done at great cost to predators and non-game species.
The good news is that there is a growing appreciation for wildlife,
and an increase in environmental consciousness. This ethical and environmental
awareness portends a bleak future for sport hunting in America. I believe
the idea of using sport hunting as a conservation tool will become
as obsolete as using the Pony Express to deliver mail. Hopefully, the
changes will not come too late. Nineteenth Century philosopher Arthur
Schopenhauer’s concept of the three phrases of truth are: First it
is ridiculed. Second it is violently opposed. Finally it is accepted
as being self-evident.