Birds, Birders Benefit from Fewer Deer?

Well, this certainly isn’t something you’d think about reading every day: A biologist and, presumably, birding enthusiast, is advocating the reduction of management for whitetail deer in the United States because it might be more beneficial to the flora and fauna.

By Alan Clemons, Managing Editor

Hey, deer! Quit eatin' that bird food!

That’s exactly what Daniel Cristol, a professor of biology at the College of William and Mary, offered in this op-ed column published May 18 in The New York Times. The title: “Why Bambi Must Go.”

Cristol opines that migratory birds may be impacted in part by the thriving populations of deer that have rebounded in many areas of the country following years of management to bolster their growth. He writes:

Humanity’s assault on migratory birds includes a familiar litany of human-made perils — clearing of forests, predation by cats and poisoning by the toxic byproducts of agriculture and industry. But one of the biggest contributors to the decline in migratory bird populations has gone largely unnoticed: white-tailed deer.

By 1900, deforestation and unregulated hunting had reduced deer populations in the Eastern United States to tiny remnant clusters surviving in remote sanctuaries. But subsequent protective laws and aggressive habitat management allowed deer to bounce back.

Cristol does not advocate killing more deer in the column, stopping short of what probably would earn him the howling screams of anti-hunters and animal “rights” activists. Instead, he posits that ceasing or modifying existing management for deer would help restore forests and habitat for birds.

Left unsaid, though, is how to best cease that management. Widespread creation of high fences on public lands to prevent deer from munching on habitat, he notes, would be too expensive. State and federal agencies already are cash-strapped to handled existing management plans and basic needs. To add the expense of high fences to create habitat for birds or other wildlife would, most likely, mean increasing or implementing fees on hunters who already pay the brunt of management costs through annual license, permits and tags along with excise taxes. Those are fees that birders, campers, hikers and other recreational users rarely are hit with and typically go bonkers about when presented with such an idea.

Additionally, removing all deer from large enclosures would be highly unlikely if not impossible to achieve. The expense would be high, too. The best option in this imaginary fenced world would be to kill the deer to get them out, and then we’re back to the animal “rights” activists losing their minds.

It’s an idealistic notion, at best. Cristol wraps up his idea thusly:

An even easier solution is to go back to the source of the problem: stop managing our forests for deer.

Those early 20th-century strategies are a great conservation success story, but perhaps too much so: the deer are now being managed to the detriment of the rest of the ecosystem.

We need to seek balance and manage public land for fewer deer. Reducing deer numbers will mean healthier forests, fewer ticks and more warblers each May.

What isn’t said is that proper, planned management for whitetail deer benefits all wildlife species. Forests that are managed for timber harvest and replanting can open the canopy, creating new growth and healthier land. Planted food plots and “wild” fields turned under or left fallow may indeed attract turkeys and deer hunters enjoy viewing and hunting during their seasons.

But those plots – again, well-managed and planned for year-round growth – benefit a large number of insects, songbirds and small game animals, too. Even the plots designed for seasonal growth are beneficial to multiple species.

Instead of fencing and eliminating management for one species – in this case, deer – a better solution for multiple species including birds would be to encourage continued wise habitat and wildlife management and, where applicable based on biology, for states to increase the daily bag limits for whitetail deer during hunting seasons.

Existing management plans work to benefit multiple species. They can be modified and, if necessary, should be modified to work better instead of eliminating them to focus on a singular, expensive and idealistic “solution” that may sound good on paper but isn’t realistic.