Wildlife, wild strife

By Maleea Acker, October 2013

Complaints about deer eating gardens and farmers’ crops may be louder, but biologists are raising concerns over deer’s affect on native flora and fauna.

A red-tailed hawk landed on my balcony railing last month, fluffing its feathers and peering backwards at me through the window. The raptor, perching on streetlights above the Pat Bay Highway or searching my grass for a meal, helps keep populations of rodents and small mammals in check in the same way that cougars, wolves and bears manage forest land deer. 

Thanks to 150 years of urban, agricultural and rural development, humans have irrevocably altered the balance of wildlife that once thrived on the South Island. Large predators were removed from the region by the late 1800s. Their principal prey, however, have kept more than a foothold. When it comes to animals like black-tailed deer, odocoileus hemionus columbianus, we have created, inadvertently or not, a predator-less haven of wildflower meadows, farmer’s fields and urban gardens. 

Black-tailed deer have lived on Vancouver Island since the recession of the last ice age—when they moved northward from Washington State around 10,000-15,000 years ago. First Nations traditionally relied on both mule and black-tailed deer for food and tools. Hunting continued with the arrival of Europeans, peaking in the 1960s when approximately 75,000 were hunted yearly in BC. Since then, the hunt has fallen to less than 20,000.

The BC government estimates that Vancouver Island’s deer population sits at between 45,000 and 65,000, with steady to increasing growth. Most does give birth every year to twin fawns. Over half of BC’s fawns die each year, but in more favourable conditions the species can double its population in a few years. 


Piloting a strategy

Deer are on many people’s minds in the Capital Region right now. As well as ruining crops, eating urban gardens and threatening plants in endangered ecosystems, deer are ending up impaled by urban fences, hit by cars or otherwise in conflict with humans. Traffic accidents in the Capital Regional District (CRD) involving deer have risen from 35 in 2000 to over 100 in 2010. Deer also carry lyme-disease bearing ticks, and there is a rising incidence of aggression towards humans and dogs. 

Their population growth is due to lack of predators and an upset in the historical ecological balance of the area, but may also be due to the draw of farm and garden foliage, feeding by residents and shrinking natural habitat. 

No scientific count of deer in urban areas of the region exists. Jeff Weightman, project manager for the Regional Deer Management Strategy, said that Provincial Ministry biologists recommend using existing metrics, such as traffic collision data, crop loss information and complaint numbers to help determine the impacts of deer. 

In 2012, partly in response to a surge of resident complaints, the CRD completed its deer management strategy, which addresses agricultural, rural and urban deer and how to manage conflicts, population reduction and vehicle collisions. (The Province of BC is responsible for wildlife, but conflict with wildlife not considered intrinsically dangerous is a regional responsibility.) 

This year, three municipalities have stepped forward to take part in a pilot program based on the CRD’s management recommendations, including, most controversially, culls. This fall, pilots in Oak Bay and Central Saanich will begin; View Royal’s council has thus far approved a motion supporting deer population reduction.

The CRD recommendations for agricultural areas differ from those for urban areas. In agricultural areas, no statistics exist on crop damage from deer, though many argue losses have been significant. One survey completed by local farmers and growers on the Saanich Peninsula indicated a range from $200 to $100,000 in yearly damage. 

Recommendations for both areas will include a population study, education and outreach. In agricultural areas, this also includes lobbying the province for amendments to hunting regulations, increases to deer bag limits, investigation of sharpshooter opportunities, and collaboration with First Nations to support harvesting of deer. 

In urban areas, deer will likely be trapped and killed, though Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen said that until an actual count has been done, nothing is set in stone. (Meat from both urban and rural areas will be given to First Nations or donated to local charities.)

Pilot projects will receive assistance from the CRD, but as Weightman says, “we provide them with the tools. It’s up to the municipality to provide permission to the CRD to move forward with the action.” A large number of the recommendations—anti-feeding and fencing bylaws, speed limit and traffic signs—are under the jurisdiction of the municipalities. Only at the point where a landowner physically contacts an animal is a provincial permit needed. 

Municipalities without large, established gardens like those in Oak Bay or significant agricultural lands are staying quiet on the issue thus far. Without as much to lose, citizen complaints have been lower and management has thus far focused on consideration of fencing heights, wildlife feeding bylaws, and presentations by local hunters such as Bill Hartenberger, who spoke to the Peninsula Agriculture Commission in 2012 about the “crop protection” he can provide. Sentiment may change if such municipalities start to see deer moving over their borders from those participating in pilot programs. Weightman explains that if culls take place in one area, “predator fear” could cause deer to relocate to adjacent neighbourhoods.


The emotions of management 

The prospect of deer management elicits a strong reaction in many residents. Organizations such as the BCSPCA and Deer Safe argue that culling is inhumane and that we should learn to live with deer, employing non-lethal methods of control when necessary, and conducting further research before acting. Susan Vickery of Earth Animal Rights (EARS) charity agrees. “More development means more traffic, and all motor vehicle-related accidents are up in Oak Bay, not just those involving deer. We need to do a study first to determine numbers and the real problem.” 

Opponents also have particular trouble with the method of culling deer in urban areas, where hunting with bow and arrow or rifle can’t safely be done. Instead, deer are usually trapped in net cages and then killed using a shot bolt trigger similar to those used in slaughtering facilities. Oak Bay artist and activist Marion Cumming argues that a wild animal thrashing in a net cage suffers considerably more than a cow enclosed by a restraining chute or collar. 

Earth Animal Rights has submitted a proposal with Shell Oil’s Fueling Change program to educate residents and “protect the natural environment” by learning to live with deer through use of chemical or noise deterrents, fencing, selective planting and compost/garbage control. Vickery is also submitting a research proposal to work with Oak Bay in using Spay-Vac on deer, a chemical contraceptive that has not yet been approved by Health Canada.

Governance complicates the situation, admits Weightman. In other BC communities that have faced deer management issues (Cranbrook, Grand Forks, Invermere, Kimberly), a single municipality has responsibility for the community experiencing the problem (they too have small but vocal opposition groups). In the CRD, a collection of municipalities and electoral areas govern everything from wild forest lands to dense urban development. Management strategies are complex to research, develop and coordinate; what might work for Galiano Island won’t necessarily work for Oak Bay.

The number of deer to be culled in Oak Bay and Central Saanich has not yet been decided, but if other municipalities are an indication, it will likely be between 25 and 100 animals. Whatever the final number, both cull proponents and opponents argue against the effectiveness of going small-scale. 

Retired BC Chief of Wildlife Conservation Ray Demarchi, who served on the CRD’s Expert Resources Working Group as the Peninsula Agriculture Representative, urges that a significant population reduction is the only effective method. Over the phone, he said, “You’ve got to seriously knock the population down. When you reduce it only a little, you actually stimulate it to reproduce.” That’s because lower numbers mean more available forage for fewer deer, which stimulates a higher reproductive rate in does. Demarchi didn’t say if 25-100 deer would be enough. The peninsula’s physical separation from the rest of the island, he explained, has limited ingress points, meaning that the CRD is “not in a sea of deer. It’s a confined population.” Beginning with good base numbers would allow determination of the right amount to cull. 


Who belongs here, anyway?

When it comes to examining our relationship with black-tailed deer on the southwest coast of BC, we might begin with the recognition that European immigrants, and not deer, are essentially the invasive species in the mix. Before the arrival of James Douglas and the settlements that followed, a delicate balance existed of deer, deer forage plants and deer predators (including First Nations hunters). Amidst them lived voluminous songbird, insect and mammal populations that nested in and fed off the same flora as deer. Once that balanced is disturbed, the consequences affect not just deer predators and plants eaten by deer, but pretty much every species that lives in each ecosystem. 

Complaints about crop losses, garden ravaging, traffic accidents and aggressive deer—all human-centred concerns—can tend to drown out the ecological argument, but UBC conservation biologist Peter Arcese sites “biotic homogenization” as an unfortunate outcome of deer overpopulation. A global phenomenon, biotic homogenization is a reduction in the variety and number of species in a distinct ecosystem—thanks to imbalances in predator-prey numbers and the introduction of invasive species—until one ecosystem begins to look very much like another. Infestations of invasive species such as broom, English ivy and, most recently, Japanese knotweed, show how a formerly distinctive landscape can end up hosting a mono-crop of plant life and a paltry list of birds, insects and animals. 

Native herbivores like deer can disrupt native plants and birds in a similar fashion. Arcese was consulted by CRD staff during the management strategy creation and his research details a disturbing trend. A profound decline of plant species palatable to deer, he says, is taking place on many Gulf Islands and other areas of the CRD where the number of deer exceeds 0.1 per hectare. Herbivore (deer) browsing has been shown to have  significant impact on the survival and reproduction of native plants such as seablush, camas and other meadow plants, as well as understory shrubs such as ocean spray and red-flowering currant, and the regeneration of trees such as arbutus and Garry oak. 

Matt Fairbarns, an endangered species botanist, concurs. Fairbarns does much of his work on red-listed species in the CRD’s Uplands Park and on Trial Island. In Uplands, “deer grazing had a major impact on water-plantain buttercup (ranunculus alismifolius), a SARA-listed species. Virtually the entire population was grazed [by deer] when the plants were in fruit. I imagine other species were similarly affected.”

On Salt Spring Island, Arcese enclosed test plots against deer and saw rapid increases in flowering plants over a three-year period; unenclosed plots saw species decline, often to extinction. Unprotected plants that survived, according to Arcese, “are now rarely able to attain a sufficient size to reproduce.” Arcese and his UBC colleague Emily Gonzales also found that major declines in a Garry oak meadow’s flowering plants on Salt Spring were primarily due to deer, not, as has often been argued, to competition from non-native plant species.

Many common species, like mock orange, orange honeysuckle and ocean spray are now rare or absent on smaller Gulf and San Juan islands that have moderate to high deer densities. Without some kind of protection from deer, Arcese argues, we’re going to end up with a homogenized region with very few species; though they may still be native, we won’t see anywhere near the spectacular diversity and beauty of today’s ecosystems. Yet according to Weightman of the CRD, though there have been a number of deer complaints registered on the Gulf Islands, there is currently no plan for management.


A keystone species

When it comes to how to manage the future, scientists’ views differ widely. Ecologist Charles Kay argues that humans are a keystone species, one that, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “affects the survival and abundance of many other species.” As our environmental awareness grows, however, so does our anxiety over seeing humans as a dominant creature on Earth. 

Dan Dagget, whose book Gardeners of Eden explores the necessity of human collaboration in landscapes around the world, argues that ecosystems like Garry oak meadows wouldn’t exist without human assistance—through selective harvesting, annual burning and surface soil disturbance. Species population management was historically part of our role, as it prevented populations from having too large an impact on a landscape. When management like this ends, it results, as Kay argues, in population explosions, like those of buffalo, elk and mule deer on the plains of the US, after their stewards and predators—First Nations—were decimated by disease in the 1500 to 1600s.  

Not everyone thinks humans should have such a primary role. The rewilding movement advocates long-term minimization of human impact, by introducing lost species and removing invasives but otherwise allowing an ecosystem to follow its own path, even if that means it doesn’t return to its historical state. Rewilders would likely see deer unculled and Garry oak meadows slowly fill in and transform into coastal Douglas-fir forests—the climax state for this ecosystem. 

Rewilding is too passive a solution for conservation biologist Arcese, who argues that deer are no more important than any other species in the region. “Failing to act to reduce deer populations on islands where historically abundant plant and bird species are currently declining or extirpated is a decision to favour one species, the black-tailed deer, over many others that are also native to our region and valued by many humans.” 

Inaction, Arcese says, will also have a significant effect on songbird populations. On gulf islands without a local deer population (Ruxton, Portland, Russell and Morseby), the varied thrush was 29 times more abundant than on islands with a high density of deer. Similar numbers were found for the spotted towhee (25 times more abundant), fox sparrows and rufous hummingbirds (9 times more abundant). That’s because, along with eating wildflowers, deer browse the lower leaves and new shoots of bushes like snowberry and ocean spray. In areas without deer, these bushes maintain a round and full shape, regenerating through new shoots, setting more seed (which birds eat) and providing bird cover and habitat. Bushes in high density deer areas tend to look like inverted pyramids, with bare, woody stalks at the bottom and  tufts of leaves starting at the level that deer can’t reach. 

On islands with dense deer populations, Arcese says, we can expect the local extinction of ocean spray, along with many other plants, and a corresponding loss of bird diversity. In urban areas, individual stories show the same trend. Marion Cumming planted over 100 native plants in her Oak Bay garden this season; by September, despite chemical deterrents, only the Oregon grape (unpalatable to deer) had grown in size; most species had either been browsed before they flowered (in the case of the meadow flowers) or eaten down to one half or less of their original planting size. 

Assuming that fencing off every area of the region that contains threatened species, food crops or ornamental gardens isn’t a realistic option, we’re in for some difficult decisions in upcoming months. We’ve arrived at this point because of more than a century of choices about development, planning, infrastructure, agriculture and our changing relationship with the environment. 

If ecologist Charles Kay’s argument about humans as keystone species is valid, then we can’t escape our fate as deciders of how the region’s future will look and what it will be populated with. Favouring one species may have extreme consequences for hundreds of others in the future. Management might be less about recreating wilderness, but rather stewarding a garden in which everything, hopefully, can have its place. 

Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows on BC’s South Coast and The Reflecting Pool (poetry). She was interviewed about the former in the January 2013 edition of Focus.