Several of my friends on eastern Long Island have read my new book, “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds,” and they have asked me to weigh in on your deer wars. So here are a couple of thoughts:
You are not unique. Fights over what to do, or what not to do, about overabundant or nuisance deer (or geese, coyotes, bears, beavers, you name it), or even whether there are too many, are now going on in literally thousands of communities (but they don’t seem to know it or to learn from one another).
In researching my book, I attended a lot of local “deer problem” meetings — unfortunately. The shouting usually starts early, and one common refrain is that people have “no right” to kill, cull, destroy, slaughter, or whatever these beautiful and innocent wild creatures into whose habitat we have encroached.
Some people say bring back “natural predators.” Two big deer predators historically were wolves and cougars. They count on killing deer to eat and would (in my opinion) make lively additions to the eastern Long Island ecosystems.
Another big deer predator worth mentioning is man. In fact, research suggests that since the end of the last Ice Age man has killed more deer than all other predators combined.
Now, about 10 million deer hunters annually kill about 6 million deer and, in many places, mainly traditional rural habitats, do an adequate job of managing white-tailed deer populations. But in suburban and exurban sprawl, this hasn’t worked.
Some history: At the end of the 19th century, the conservation movement put an end to 400 years of the unbridled killing by settlers and commercial hunters of anything wild that they could sell — meat, feathers, fur, and anything for which they could find a market. By 1890, white-tailed deer had been reduced to an estimated 350,000 from a 1492 population believed to number more than 30 million.
Deer were slowly restocked in newly created refuges. In 1906, for example, 50 Michigan whitetails were transplanted to Pennsylvania, which, like many Eastern states, had no deer at all. Wild birds and animals began a slow climb back to plenty under the so-called North American Model in which wildlife belonged to all the people, with equal access for all willing to obey government management rules. It slowly began to work.
Then, after World War II, Americans began sprawling out of cities and off farms. By 1970, we had more sprawl dwellers than farmers or city slickers. By the 2000 census an absolute majority of Americans lived not on farms or in cities but in the vast in-between. Where family farms once thrived, we now have sprawl that has filled up with trees and, increasingly, wild animals and birds.
Deer management in the sprawl hasn’t worked because sprawl man has largely opted out of the predation business. He doesn’t hunt and he doesn’t want others to hunt. In other words, he doesn’t want deer managed. Decades ago, before deer were a problem, he began peppering his landscape with firearms restrictions in the name of safety (sometimes a guise for anti-hunting sentiment). Safety is relative. Hunters kill about 100 or so people annually, usually each other in cases of mistaken identity. Nowadays, deer kill twice that many in vehicle crashes, and send 29,000 people to hospitals.
Bottom line: The historic range of the white-tailed deer is in the eastern third of the United States, where two-thirds of Americans live, most in sprawl. Sprawl man’s prohibitions — laws, regulations, signs, sentiment — mean this: In just the last few decades, for the first time in 11,000 years, huge swaths of the white-tailed deer’s historic range have been put off-limits to its biggest predator.
Put another way, lethal management of deer by man has a very long history. Nowadays, a rule of thumb says two-thirds of the female deer population must die annually just to stabilize (let alone reduce) the whitetail population. But, suddenly in some locales, we want to opt out.
So the people who ask “What right do we have?” are asking the wrong question. The real question is: What are our stewardship responsibilities on behalf of the ecosystems we inhabit? As a keystone species capable of managing our landscapes for the good of all their inhabitants — animals, birds, plants, trees, and even people — we are abrogating those responsibilities in these prolonged fights over deer.
Jim Sterba was a foreign and national correspondent for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal for more than four decades. “Nature Wars” was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.