An Exclosure at Long Island’s Mashomack Reserve:
Deer on the Left, No Deer on the Right
From the Suffolk Times: “It is reported that wild deer are doing considerable damage on the Island. Those who have suffered most wrote to the State Conservation Commission, who came to investigate.” And the same paper’s headline, just a month later: To Save the Deer: Tremendous Opposition Prevents Slaughter on Shelter Island. Those stories aren’t from last week. They’re from 1916.
Of course, since then some things have changed on Long Island. Very few deer remain in Deer Park. If you’d like to live among deer, head a little farther east. Or, head west to one of America’s dozens of other Deer Parks. There’s also Deer Ridge, Deer Hill, Deer Hollow, Deer Valley, Deer Meadow, and Deer Creek. Want more? An online search for “deer real estate” yields over 69,000,000 hits. Why so many suburbs, housing developments, and streets named after deer? Because it sells.
For all of us, whether we hunt them, watch them, or just plain love knowing they’re out there in the shadows beyond the edge of our lawn, deer have become an archetypal symbol of wilderness, wildness, and a return to nature—or at least an escape to a gentrified country lifestyle. Love is blind; for hunters and watchers alike, the term “overabundant deer” can seem a puzzling oxymoron. But all too often we’re choosing Bambi over biodiversity and whitetails over all other wildlife. Inevitably, these changes echo and reverberate through entire ecosystems. Higher deer numbers, for example, invariably lead to lower songbird numbers and less songbird diversity.
Most of us, even if we spend a fair amount of time out in the woods, have never once seen a forest that’s not shaped by deer. It’s not just that we don’t know what we’re seeing. It’s that we don’t know what we’re not seeing, because deer have already eaten it. We even seem hard-wired to prefer a forest missing its understory. That craving may have once kept us safer from predators, and today it explains our lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, and parks. The words we most often use to describe a forest with too many deer can sound like praise: “open and park-like.”
Meanwhile, deer densities per square mile in America’s suburbs and parks have at times reached 207 in Kansas City, 241 in Philadelphia, 300 in parts of New Jersey, and 400 in Washington, D.C. Obviously, the numbers didn’t stay that high for years on end. They couldn’t. Something had to give, and standing back to watch and “let nature take its course” isn’t always our best option—or our most humane.
There are no easy answers, and not everyone will agree on the best solution. In fact many people, even though they see themselves as environmentalists, deny there’s even a problem in the first place. “So deer are eating a few plants in the back corner of someone’s lawn,” they argue. “What’s the big deal?” But exploding deer populations are more than just a minor nuisance. If we care about the entire ecosystem, and if we truly care about the deer themselves, then at times we may need to make difficult choices.
To help spread the word, I wrote this op-ed that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal. (Update: You can also click here to download a PDF. My op-ed is on the bottom half of the page.) There, we didn’t have room for photos. Here, I’ve included two from U. S. Forest Service botanist Thomas J. Rawinski. Up above, an exclosure that tells a simple story: deer on the left, no deer on the right. Below, a shot from Long Island’s Ruth Oliva Preserve. As you can see, deer have totally eliminated the forest understory. It’s food for thought.
© 2014 Al Cambronne