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National Review Online Weekend, January 13-14, 2001

Outdoors

It’s Raining Deer
Out-of-control herds, out-of-control solutions.

By James A. Swan, Ph.D., the “Media Watch” columnist for
North American Hunter magazine.

Last July, actor Liam Neeson took his Harley Davidson out for a spin near his upstate New York home. The Academy Award-nominated thespian ended the day at the Sharon Hospital with a broken pelvis and multiple lacerations. Neeson, who played a Jedi knight in the latest edition of Star Wars, was not a victim of the Empire. He collided with a deer.

Not that many years ago, in many parts of the U.S., seeing deer was a rare treat. Today, they are everywhere, causing some serious problems. Insurance companies report more than 500,000 deer-car collisions annually, resulting in about 100 human deaths. Several university studies place the total number of deer hit by cars at 4-to-6 times what is reported.

The average insurance claim for a car-deer collision is $2000. Deer damage to agriculture crops and landscaping costs more than $1 billion a year. Lyme disease, carried by deer-borne ticks, has been reported in 43 states. Deer in Michigan have recently been found with tuberculosis, which can spread to humans. Let us not forget that more people are hurt and killed by deer every year than any other species of North American wild game.

What happened?

Prior to Columbus, the deer herd was kept in check by predators — wolves, cougars, bobcats, bears, coyotes, and man. Uncontrolled market hunting and loss of habitat caused by the flood of immigrants drastically reduced the original herd. There are three major species of deer in the U.S. — whitetail, primarily east of the Rockies; mule deer in the Plains; and blacktail along the West Coast.

Whitetails, especially, are quick learners and very fertile. Under ideal conditions a whitetail herd can double in a year. Natural predators are gone in most areas. Hunting continues, but the open acreage in traditional hunting areas seems to grow less in size every year. (In some states annual kills by cars and poachers now exceed the legal hunters' bag.) Whitetails have lost their fear of man, moved into farmlands, suburbs and parks. In 1900, the national whitetail herd was about half a million. Today the whitetail herd exceeds 30 million.

What do we do with all the deer?

The most obvious solution would be to expand man's role as a predator, but in some communities mention of the "h-word" only brings dirty looks, protests, threatening phone calls, and worse. Led by the nation's largest animal rights group, The Humane Society of the U.S. (which does not run shelters or spend money on conserving habitat), animal-rights groups spend millions on defaming the image of hunting. ("Education" and "fund-raising" are frequently the two largest items in their budgets.)

Armed with a new breed of attorney specializing in animal-rights law, anti-hunting groups have also forced many state fish and game departments to practice "defensive wildlife management," developing phone-book-thick environmental-impact statements to answer all anti-hunting accusations made in hearings. In California, home of more anti-hunting groups than any other state, (over 50 and counting), the stack of the annual environmental-impact statements needed to justify the regular hunting season is nearly six feet tall.

About the same time as Neeson's run in with the deer, NBC's Evening News with Tom Brokaw aired a segment called "Wildlife Out of Control." The segment started out well, with accurate statistics on the hundreds of thousands of auto accidents involving deer. Then came the remedy. Two employees of the Humane Society of the U.S. were introduced. The first was a "wildlife biologist" who was shooting does with a dart gun to inject them with a contraceptive. The cost was "about $20 per deer." His actions were backed up by another HSUS representative who asserted that the overpopulation of deer was clear evidence that "hunting as a population-control method is not doing the job." Of course, he failed to say that hunting has not been as effective a wildlife-management tool as it might be because of the opposition by anti-hunters.

Across the U.S., the HSUS and other anti-hunting organizations advocate the use of contraceptives to control urban deer. Nice idea, but according to Dr. Robert Warren of the University of Georgia, contraceptives have never been proven to be effective for wild, free-ranging herds — and the costs quickly skyrocket. To work, a doe must be given an injection of contraceptives twice a year, every year. Unless they are penned, you have to get close enough to shoot them with a syringe dart or a biobullet. The chemicals only cost $20 annually per deer, but man-hours to administer them are costly.

One Ohio suburb spent more than $1000 annually per doe for birth control. Surgical sterilization is the only permanent birth control for deer, and that is even more expensive. Another anti-option is to capture and relocate animals. The costs range from $150-$800 per animal, and upwards of one-quarter die from shock. Guard dogs and fences help, but if neighbors feed deer when they overbrowse an area, the population continues to rise. In short, Harley Davidsons, SUV's, and BMW's have become the only true predators to American deer.

When all else fails, the anti-hunters will sometimes reluctantly allow animal-control sharpshooters, using rifles, to kill off animals. The cost is about $200 to $250 per deer. Why hire a sharpshooter when there are human predators for free?

A growing number of communities across the U.S., fed up with the anti-hunters and overpopulations of deer, are allowing a seasoned corps of hunters, primarily archers, to manage their deer herds, and with great success. According to wildlife biologist C.J. Winand, special urban-archery hunting programs are very successful in metropolitan areas including Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, and Minnetonka, MN. Winand reports signing up entire cul-de-sacs in the Baltimore area to allow bowhunters into their back yards, hunting in parcels as small as one acre. Each master urban hunter must pass a course in ethics and safety, demonstrate marksmanship, and contribute a small annual fee that helps cover a $1 million liability insurance policy. Each arrow carries the name of the user to make sure they are not blamed for a nimrod's folly. (Remember there are few archery control laws — yet.)

The Anti-hunters often question the lethality of archery. In controlled studies, there is no significant difference in mortality between deer shot in the heart-lung region with a gun or a bow. Both die within 30 seconds and within 100 yards of where shot. Archery is actually a more "humane" method of harvesting an animal, for it bleeds to death and dies from loss of blood, rather than the shock of a bullet wound. Gunshots frighten people. Archery is quiet and much safer. Hunting is a very safe sport, safer than ping-pong according to the National Safety Council. Bowhunting accounts for only 2% of all hunting accidents — half of these are falls from tree-stands. To date, there have been no injuries to non-hunters in any urban deer hunts.

Some urban archers are harvesting up to 30, yes 30, deer per year. What do they do with the excess meat? In the last three years, one organization covering the Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia area — Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry — has donated more than 500 tons of venison. That's 4,000,000 meals, enough to feed everyone in Washington, D.C. for a week.

Feeding the needy is honorable work, but I would suggest expanding the definition of "needy" to lawmakers. Venison is high in protein and low in saturated fat — health food, good for the brain. FBI Director Louis Freeh has said that eco-terrorists are "The most recognizable single-issue terrorists of the present time." A few meals of venison might move our lawmakers to spend more time and money investigating animal rights groups.

For further reading:

          • Bears In The Backyard, Deer In The Driveway, International Association of Fish             and Wildlife Agencies

          • Fertility Control of Urban Deer, by Dr. Robert Warren, Archery Merchants and             Manuf. Organization

          • Quality Deer Management Association

          • Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry

          • National Animal Interest Alliance
            (good guys who work with animals)

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