The Bambi epidemic

Now that we're being overrun with deer, they don't seem so cute

To live on Naomee Crescent in London, Ont., you need a tall fence, or a good sense of humour. Lacking the former, Marion Reaume could only laugh a few weeks ago when she looked out her back window to see a hummock of brown hair at the foot of one of her birch trees, its telltale white spots rising with each breath. The fawn, just hours old and sleeping soundly, had been left alone by its mother, which a whitetail deer will do if she figures she’s found a safe place to hide her young.

The irony of the situation was not lost on Reaume’s neighbours. A self-described hardliner on the subject of London’s ever-growing deer population, the 75-year-old is about the last person to whom a doe should leave her offspring. Yet as more and more people gathered to gaze upon the miracle of life — and to poke fun at Reaume — she found herself feeling protective. “We spent the whole afternoon making sure people didn’t touch it,” she says. “The babies have no smell, which protects them from predators, and touching them can change that.” She did, however, call up her son, Bob, a hunter, to ask why a deer would decide to give birth in, of all places, her backyard. His answer, though lacking in biological insight, said much about prevailing attitudes toward deer: “To piss you off.”

Such is the new status of Odocoileus across North America. In London, as in countless communities across Canada and the United States, the most charming of woodland creatures is fast descending to the level of common pest, so rapidly has it multiplied, so deeply is it encroaching on the places humans inhabit. Nobody keeps a countrywide total, but in Ontario alone, the deer count is about to surpass 500,000 for the first time — an astounding 10 times the level in the early 1980s and a high that will propel the province into uncharted ecological territory. Almost every province is reporting higher numbers over the past decade, especially where human population growth has been greatest. In Alberta, the combined population of whitetail and mule deer rose 36 per cent between 1995 and 2002; it is now pushing 400,000. B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have all seen deer proliferate around populous areas, and are scrambling to mediate so-called “deer-human conflicts,” which is to say, devoured shrubs and dangerous car accidents.

But the consequences may reach far beyond people’s tulip beds. Deer introduced decades ago to Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, for example, have virtually inverted the food chain on the 2,700-sq.-km land mass, stripping away the gooseberries and currants that once helped feed a healthy population of black bears. Gone are the bears, but the deer breed on, numbering around 150,000 at last count. In southern Ontario, a recent study by York University plant ecologists found that the fast-growing population of deer is destroying the distinctive Carolinian forests that encircle Toronto, blighting the vaunted “greenbelt” that was established to contain the city’s suburban sprawl.

More troubling still is the sense that the deer themselves are, well, not themselves. A few months before the fawn appeared in the Reaume’s backyard, the owners of EQ3, a furniture store on the far side of London, arrived one morning to find the place ransacked — not by thieves, but by a whitetail buck. “He must have seen his reflection and charged at it,” says general manager Melanie Blackman, pointing to the two-metre window the deer crashed through. “But the whole store was destroyed — there were hoof-shaped dents on the tops of all the wooden tables. His blood was everywhere. It looked like a murder scene.” In Boucherville, Que., where some 200 deer inhabit a single square kilometre of parkland, the animals have grown so accustomed to human presence they frequently stroll down suburban avenues, staring through depanneur windows.

Calgary, Toronto, Chester, N.S. — the list goes on. One deer actually invaded the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton last spring, leaving a mess of hoofprints and broken glass behind. And where animals rush in, controversy follows. Many of what one U.S. biologist refers to as “deer explosions” have raised calls for mass culls, as residents point to property damage and rising numbers of deer-related car accidents. Not surprisingly, these initiatives unleash strong feelings. “Every one of these conflicts can be resolved without killing,” says Liz White, a director of the Animal Alliance of Canada. “It takes some creativity, some thought, and a change in attitude.” But most Canadians affected by the problem find themselves in a quandary. For years, we felt privileged to spy a deer from the seat of a car, and worried about encroaching on their habitat. Now we find them encroaching on ours, and as pretty as they may be to look at, they can be awfully hard to live with.

Anyone who doubts the destruction a deer can wreak should talk to Elvin Falkenham, an 85-year-old farmer whose land borders the town limits of Lunenburg, N.S. A couple of years back, his wife shook him awake at 3 a.m. to tell him that about 100 of his prize Simmentals were lumbering across the highway into town. “It was the night the tall ships were in Lunenburg,” Falkenham recalls. “All these people were in town to see them. Instead they were about to see my cows.” It was about the umpteenth time a herd of deer had crashed through the electric fences Falkenham uses to keep his cattle at home. “One gets shocked and they all take off,” he explains. With the help of his son, Pete, and a few neighbours, he was able to round up all 100 head before sunrise and then — not for the first time or the last — he set about fixing his fence.

Falkenham counts among many old-timers across the country who know a biological imbalance when they see one. But only after the deer moved from hayfields to urban hedges did the problem get much attention. “I’ve pretty much given up planting,” says Susan Smith Pratt, a Lunenburg resident who has been active in efforts to contain the deer. “You have to build so many fences and barriers, your property looks like a fortress.” And the plants at risk go well beyond manicured parks and front yards. In London, the 28-hectare area where many of the deer live, Sifton Bog, is an environmentally protected zone featuring a diversity of natural flora rarely seen in such a compact area. On a recent walk through it, Dan Jones, a supervisor with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, pointed to tree after tree whose lower branches had been denuded of buds and leaves. Dogwood, swampwood and winterberry that once carpeted the forest floor were nowhere to be seen; nor was Ontario’s provincial flower, the trillium, which once thrived here. In its place was a stand of invasive buckthorn. “My concern is that people will walk through here in a decade and say, ‘What kind of a conservation area is this?’ ” he says. Jones was, however, able to spot five deer — three of them lying in the brush in mid-afternoon, none especially troubled by our presence. As we look upon one resting doe, Jones let loose an explosive sound from his mouth, replicating a deer’s snort of alarm. “Look at that,” he marvelled. “I just told her to get up and run. She barely moved her head.”

Wildlife officials have developed an entire taxonomy for this phenomenon, referring to “habituated” or “urban” deer — problem animals that are increasingly seen as threats to human safety. Both London and Lunenburg, for example, see about 200 deer collisions per year (roughly 80 per cent of those in London were fatal to the deer). In Winnipeg, the number of deer-vehicle collisions rose by a third in 2006 from the previous year, to 433, and though Canada-wide statistics on deer-related fatalities don’t exist, a good portion of the 32 people killed after hitting wild animals in Ontario between 2000 and 2005 are believed to have struck deer. That number seems almost mercifully small considering there were 13,000 car collisions with wildlife in Ontario in 2005, up from 9,000 in 1999, and 75 per cent of them were with deer. Many accidents involve animals so accustomed to traffic they spook only when a car is too close to stop. Heather-Anne Getson, a Lunenburg town councillor, experienced this phenomenon two years ago when a deer ran headlong into her car from a 90-degree angle. The impact shattered her windshield, spraying glass all over her daughter and mother, who were also riding in the car. “If I’d been driving slightly faster, the deer would have plunged through the window,” recalls Getson. “I doubt I would have survived.”

It’s the sort of story that has become all too familiar in the eastern U.S., where 200 people die each year after hitting deer on the road. Some estimates now peg the U.S. deer population at 30 million, which has in turn created an entire sub-genre in wildlife biology, as researchers in both Canada and the U.S. try to nail down a plausible explanation. It’s a complex problem, drawing in questions of land use, climatology and wildlife management, plus human demographics and social change. The most commonly cited reason is the lack of natural predators around human communities; essentially, we’re a lot quicker to run bears, coyotes and wolves out of town than we are shiny-nosed ungulates. The deer are then attracted by the veritable salad bar on offer in parks, urban ravines and backyards, and with an annual growth rate of 25 per cent when unchecked by predators, their populations soon spin out of control. “Here where I live in West Virginia, I have a one in 57 chance of hitting a deer with my car this year,” says Williams Stolzenburg, the author of Where the Wild Things Were, an upcoming book about the demise of predators around the world. “It takes a certain set of eyes, and a certain sense of history, to understand what’s going on here.”

Yet these conditions have prevailed around cities and towns for decades, without producing sudden explosions in the deer count. To Ed Reid, a wildlife biologist with the Peterborough-based Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, the pivotal factor has been climate change. “We saw a period of colder, harsher winters from about the early ’40s to the late 1970s,” he says. “That was a period of increasing rarity in our deer population. People my age and older will remember that a deer was a pretty unusual treat to see. But we’ve had a period of warmth from 1978 until 2007 that has certainly contributed to their expansion. Winters are a real limiting factor for whitetails. If we have harsher winters, we have higher fawn mortality at birth.”

As for predators, Reid has always subscribed to the belief that their numbers rise and fall with the availability of their prey. The notable exception is the gun-toting sort, whose own decline has carried implications for deer management. In Ontario, the number of hunters has flatlined over the past 25 years, while the overall population has grown by more than 40 per cent, creating ever more deer-friendly habitat. Some provinces have seen more dramatic drops. New Brunswick now licenses less than half the 120,000 deer hunters it did in the early in 1980s; in B.C., the overall number of hunters plunged from 174,000 in 1981 to just 84,000 in 2004, prompting the province to form a task force to figure out why. High gas prices and increasingly restrictive gun laws counted among the factors cited in the panel’s 2007 report, but the most convincing explanation lies in the changing priorities of an urbanized, post-secondary-educated population. “When I was a kid, having a dad who was a big hunter made you a hero at school,” says Rod Cumberland, a deer biologist with New Brunswick’s natural resources department, who hunts himself. “Now it’s the kind of thing you keep under your hat.”

So game authorities are inviting the few hunters left to shoot more deer, and to do so more often. New Brunswick recently opened a season for “antler-less” deer, meaning hunters are allowed to shoot does as well as bucks. Ontario has brought in similar measures in some areas, along with new rules allowing hunters to take as many as six animals per season.

But many of Canada’s deer-plagued areas are not the sort of places you want people wandering around with high-powered rifles. And London’s experience suggests sympathy for the creatures can quickly derail plans for mass culls. Several years ago, the city, along with the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority, formed a steering committee made up of residents to come up with a solution for Sifton Bog. Some panel members opposed the idea of a cull from the outset. “I was flabbergasted that anyone would take an animal’s life for a shrub,” recalls Sheri Cappa, whose property backs onto the bog. Yet the purportedly humane alternatives ranged from the impractical to the absurd, she says. Some presenters suggested rounding up the deer and transferring them to some imagined location where they could breed unhindered — an expensive undertaking that experts warned would result in the half-tame animals dying slow deaths in their new surroundings. A proposal for chemical sterilization, by syringe or dart rifle, briefly gained momentum. But there was scant evidence suggesting it worked. One person actually argued for capturing the bucks and giving them vasectomies.

After 18 months of studying the issue, the panel settled on the idea of a limited bowhunt to kill all but eight of the deer in the bog. As lethal solutions go, she notes, it was considered one of the more humane (when hit by a razor-sharp arrow from a compound bow, a deer passes out quickly from loss of blood). It also posed the least risk to surrounding residents, because arrows don’t travel as far as bullets. Still, animal rights activists took exception, and after a lot of toing and froing in the local media, city council voted to drop the bowhunt from its action plan. For Cappa, who accepted the idea of a cull only after every other option proved unworkable, the decision was a failure not only to the residents but to the deer. “They’re eating themselves out of house and home,” she says. “My thinking now is that no one will do anything until a deer goes out on the road and someone gets killed.”

Cumberland says the same dynamic has played out from Virginia to central Nova Scotia. “First you get a bunch of people who hate deer because of the damage they’re causing,” he recites. “Then the community calls a meeting on how to reduce deer numbers. How are you going to do it? Well, you’re going to kill them. And once the deer-sympathetic public hears about that, the next meeting is total chaos.” Now, fears that the deer are carrying disease has raised the temperature further. Calls for a mass cull in Lunenburg, for instance, are increasingly driven by fear of Lyme disease, a bacteria transmitted by black-legged ticks present only where there are large populations of deer. Only 60 cases of the disease are reported in Canada each year, but Nick Ogden, a veterinary research scientist with the Public Health Agency of Canada, notes the tick has been steadily advancing into Ontario, southeastern Manitoba and the Maritimes. A western variety, which can also transmit Lyme, has also popped up in southern B.C., he notes, and there can be little doubt the proliferation of deer is playing a part.

It is no minor pathogen. Hard to detect and difficult to treat in its advanced stages, Lyme starts out as headache and fever, and if not stopped early with antibiotics, it advances in subsequent weeks into severe neck stiffness, shooting pains and, eventually, debilitating heart problems. Lunenburg’s Susan Smith Pratt was living in Connecticut when that state became overrun with deer. “My husband contracted Lyme disease twice. My dog had it twice. I’ve had friends who’ve had it at least three times,” she says. “When I first moved there, there was nothing. Within 30 years it had become an epidemic.”

The disease could prove an insurmountable barrier to making peace with the deer, and just accepting their presence in our urban and suburban communities — the solution animal-rights types are urging. Fencing, crossing tunnels and even dogs can help keep them off roadways and property, argues Liz White, the Animal Alliance director. “In a sense we’ve created a five-star hotel for them. We’ve got to find a way to peacefully co-exist.” Yet the spectre of Lyme-infected deer will be about as welcome as an invasion of rabid raccoons.

And public queasiness about the more brutal side of nature will probably rule out the last, longest-shot solution to the problem: introducing more predators. “I think there’s a good case to be made for tolerating them,” says Stolzenburg, “but in heavily populated areas the time to introduce coyotes, foxes or wolves has probably passed.” As a result, he says, Canadians should probably brace for the sight of professional marksmen gunning down deer in local parks and ravines, which is now commonplace in parts of the United States. “We haven’t proven as adept at this weeding process as the wolves and the cougars,” says Stolzenburg. “But I think that’s what we’re up against. We have to decide either that we’re going to live in a kingdom of deer, or sad as it may be, we’re going to have to shoot them.”

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