When Cute Deer Go Bad

New York Times: Weekly Review Section 4, March 20 2005

Forgive us if you are among the millions of gardeners, farmers,
bird-watchers, drivers, fence builders, claims adjusters, body-shop
operators, roadkill scrapers, 911 dispatchers, physical therapists and
chiropractors who know this already. 

White-tailed deer are a plague. 

In their overwhelming abundance, they are prime examples of an ecosystem
badly out of balance. They denude forests, making life impossible for
vulnerable native plants and birds while allowing invasive species to
thrive. While deer profoundly vex suburban gardeners, that annoyance
pales next to the lethal danger they pose to drivers. 

Now, even bird lovers want the deer subdued. The New Jersey Audubon
Society, in a report last week, urged the consideration of lethal means
to solve the problem, arguing that fencing, contraception and other
gentle tactics have proved largely ineffective. The group wants the
government to rethink conservation policies it says are intended to
maximize herds for hunters, and to consider - especially in the suburbs,
where hunting is too dangerous - bringing in sharpshooters.

It may sound harsh, even strange coming from an organization whose
mission is to foster "environmental awareness and a conservation ethic."
But the group - which does not speak for the National Audubon Society -
has it exactly right. 

Deer are simply heeding the biological imperative to go forth and
multiply. With no natural predators, and the suburbs a year-round salad
bar, they have slipped out of their ecological niche - and it's our
fault, not theirs. The deer did not ask human beings to create the kind
of predator-free suburban landscapes in which they now thrive. But the
mountain lion, gray wolf and bobcat are not about to return, and the
houses and highways are staying put. People, therefore, must own up to
their place in a compromised food chain, and assume the responsibility
for managing it well.

Unfortunately, deer contradict our innate assumption that only ugly
creatures can be vermin. As the recent release of the "Bambi" DVD
reminds us, they seem miscast as villains. But wise conservation means
looking at the environment as a whole - from the smallest wildflower on
forest floor to the biggest brown-eyed herbivore. The whole system - not
just the prettiest mammals - needs protection.