Deerland

I’ve just finished reading Deerland by Al Cambronne, a fascinating and disturbing examination of the effect America’s deer population explosion is having on our ecosystems.  Some of the effects were already known to me–car crashes, the spread of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses and, of course, the destruction of vegetable crops. But I didn’t previously realize that the elimination of forest understory (aka deer food) was causing the loss of songbird populations and preventing natural regeneration of forests. In much of the country now, nature is severely out of balance. Today there are 100 times more deer in America than there were a century ago. Not twice as many, not ten times as many. One hundred times more.

Here’s a taste of the chapter addressing farm losses (appropriately titled “We Get the Leftovers”):

Tonight and every night, hungry deer are trickling out into farm fields all across America. Collectively this nightly buffet costs farmers billions of dollars every year. For some individual farmers, it can be a serious threat to their livelihood.

In one New Jersey study, researchers used exclosures, comparative yield measurements and other techniques to measure deer damage on 1,410 acres of agricultural crops spread across 111 different farms. They calculated that the season’s average economic loss directly attributable to deer was $1,253.48 per acre. Similarly, after surveying 583 acres in vegetable production, they calculated deer-related losses at $2,443 per acre.

Another New Jersey study found that 25 percent of responding farmers had abandoned a parcel of tillable ground because of excessive deer damage, and that 36 percent had for the same reason ceased growing their preferred crop.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog very long knows that deer damage severely impacts the economic viability of our farm.

I’ve often laid the blame for this mess on our cultural abandonment of hunting game in favor of eating the meat of factory-raised farm animals. But in fact it’s more complicated than that. By the middle of the 20th Century there were few deer in America. Then an aggressive campaign to restock deer populations (for the benefit of hunters, primarily) occurred. Virginia was “stocked” with deer from 11 states and nature took it from there. This ecological imbalance is a man-made problem that began with creating a population of deer for hunters to shoot, then allowing the population to explode beyond the capacity of hunters to control it. Exacerbating the problem has been the rise of what Mr. Cambronne calls “the industrial deer complex,” a multi-billion dollar web of businesses serving deer hunters, who are effectively organized politically to lobby for and obtain laws and regulations designed not to protect the common good, but rather to increase hunters’ chances of seeing a deer to shoot when they go hunting. Interestingly, they are strange bedfellows with those who feed deer in their backyards and who oppose killing deer for any reason. On the subject of deer, being sensible isn’t very popular.

There’s a lot more I’d like to say about this book and the problem it addresses, but I reckon that’s enough for today.

When I came in from evening chores last night, at dusk, there were 3 deer standing in one of our gardens eating our buckwheat cover crop, less than 50 yards from our backdoor. It’s the same story all over this farm, every single day.

Advertisements

33 comments on “Deerland

  1. smcasson says:

    I’m getting hungry, Bill. I don’t know many of those hardcore hunters with all that expensive gear. I’ll just hunt with my jeans and flannel shirt, because there are so many deer that it’s a sure thing I’ll be successful.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      It blows my mind to see how much money people spend on hunting accessories. Other than my rifle, the only special gear I have is the mandatory blaze orange cap. I got mine as a freebie from a car lot. I took a deer to the processor a couple of years ago and marveled at the suburbanites in their deer hunting costumes with all their expensive toys. It’s just a hobby/game for most of these folks. They’re not hunting for food.

      Like

  2. Aggie says:

    Don’t you have a permit? Are you shooting them? Are they too hungry to learn to stay away?

    Dad has mourned the same burgeoning deer problem, where there was none, in KS. Thank you for raising my awareness. Hope to hear more about forest degradation. People at this link think deer are the biggest problem facing eastern US forests.http://blog.nature.org/science/2013/08/22/too-many-deer/

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I do have a permit, but it’s not convenient to carry a rifle around with me. The ones I saw last night scurried back into the woods after seeing me. And they’re not hungry. This is a big lush farm and we intentionally keep it wildlife friendly. They have more than enough to eat without getting into our vegetable gardens. They just prefer the taste of the veggie plants, even though they’re not a part of their natural diet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. nebraskadave says:

    Bill, the has migrated into the wooded areas of the city as well. My city has parks with tree cover in drainage ditches. The deer follow the ravines into the parks. Of course there’s no shooting within the city limits so they become pets to the city dwellers. They have become so thick in some parks that professional hunters have been brought in to kill off the population. The very thing that keeps the population in check has been eliminated by farmers here in Nebraska. The wolves not only have a taste for venison but also beef so the farmers have all but killed them all. The deer population in Nebraska is out of control as well. It’s hard to keep them out of gardens without an expensive fence. I know you are kind of against the look of fences and their maintenance. At over $2,000 an acre in damage it might be worth the effort to start with a small fenced area and expand each year. Have you ever estimated how much loss you have from deer? I suspect it could be a sizable amount and I seem to remember that some have given up trying to grow for farmer’s markets because of the devastation from deer. I hope that you don’t become so discouraged that you become one of them.

    Have the best day at the White Flint Farm Tuesday market garden.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The book discusses the effect deer are having in cities and suburbs. The problem is worse in those environments than anywhere.

      I was surprised to learn that some states compensate farmers for their losses out of a pool of funds collected from hunting license fees. I don’t think Virginia has a program like that (but I need to check it).

      We’re having our best year ever, but it would be so much better if we didn’t have to sacrifice so much to the deer. But, all over the country now, that’s just the way it’s going to be until nature steps in and fixes the imbalance.

      Like

  4. Laurie Graves says:

    It must be so frustrating for you. I, do, however, have a counter-thought. Whenever we think there is a surplus of some animal, we have to be careful because even animals that seem overabundant can be wiped out in a short time. As a Mainer, I have seen this happen with various ocean fish that once seemed so plenitful that we could fish—and overfish—as much as we wanted. Now, the fish off the Maine coast are seriously depleted. So much so that Clif and I seldom eat fish. Anyway, just a thought.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      This imbalance is unsustainable, so it will eventually end. Nature has a way of fixing problems like this. The book discusses diseases that are now starting to become common among deer and in extreme overpopulation cases it is common for mass starvation to occur. But in the meantime, we’re doing a lot of damage to fragile ecosystems, just to cater to the hobby of people who don’t have to live everyday with the consequences.

      Like

  5. BeeHappee says:

    And then there is the promotion of Bambi and the whole series of kids books and movies on that, and the cute stuffed deer animals. . .
    Around here, this year we have fewer deer and fewer coyotes than previous years, not sure what caused that.
    We eat quite a bit of bison, venison and wild boar, although I would like to hunt our own.
    The dwindling of wolves and mountain lions probably contributed to deer explosion.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      The deer were introduced by us humans into an ecosystem that did not include any of their natural predators (other than humans). There haven’t been any wolves or mountain lions here for centuries probably. There is nothing to limit the deer population, so it is now out of control.

      Now there is a booming coyote population here as well, probably because of the deer. There were no coyotes at all here until recently.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. avwalters says:

    Yeah, tell me about it. Not that I mind terrible, but our garden looks like Fort Knox. Did that guy write about the bunnies, too?

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I’ve got small gardens wrapped in chicken wire, with strips of cloth sprayed with deer repellent hanging on it, along with every other deterrent system I can think of. We have 21 gardens/fields so it’s a constant battle to keep them secure. We have bunnies too (and field mice, which have been doing a lot of damage as well), but deer are our biggest problem by far. We came through the spring fine, but they hit us hard this summer. Fall has me worried, but hopefully they’ll leave us some.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. At one time we thought the deer visiting the gardens in the daylight were quaint, until we tried to market garden…then they weren’t so cute. We had to study permaculture and wrap our minds around the zone designations so we could live with the deer and elk, and still survive on our homestead. Now our gardens are all in zone one which can be patrolled by a dog and the deer are kept at bay. I have a love/hate relationship with the ungulates, if they are here the cougars tend to leave our cattle alone, without the deer and elk to eat we would lose more cattle than we have. We have had to adapt in different ways than our ancestors who settled here, now it’s not pc to shoot or kill wildlife. So we time our calving to be after the deer and elk fawning and calving times, which does affect our bottom line but not near as much as finding calf carcasses buried in the forest by big cats. Modern day farmer problems…

    Good luck.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      We may have to circle our wagons a little closer too. Like the farmers mentioned in the study, I dislike the idea of having to abandon tillable land just because of deer, but if 25% of the farmers in NJ have had to do it (and I imagine the stats are similar here) then at least we won’t be alone.

      We’ve lost kids to coyotes, but there were no coyotes here until the deer population exploded. Nature I think is working to reestablish a balance.

      Compared to what some of my neighbors have experienced, our damage has been manageable. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, but it does make me a little angry to learn that our problems can be traced to policies designed to benefit hunters (not farmers or homesteaders). We have a whole ‘nuther set of issues with the army of hunters who will descend on our community in a few months.

      Like

      • I hear you on the hunter thing, bow season starts here on Saturday, and from then to January there will be hunters roving, two weeks of bows (they are the worst) and then the rifle season for months. Not looking forward to it.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Deb Weyrich-Cody says:

    Think we may have had part of this conversation before(?) but I’ve got a bunch of questions – not necessarily for you, per se – just random thoughts; and my experience is from decades ago, here in Ontario, so my terminology may be a little out of sync – however..,
    When’s your season start?
    What are the bag limits?
    How many hunters apply for, are successful in obtaining and [here’s the big one] actually use and fill a buck or doe tag? Populations aren’t going to be managed if the “hunters” just go out to look pretty or have a booze up instead of seriously running a hunt.
    Here’s another thing… People don’t give enough credit to prey species (or true predators either, for that matter ):
    My dad was a hunter and he used to say that he could almost feel the deer – watching all the stupid people tromping around in the woods, looking for them while they just stood back in the shadows laughing…
    Real hunting takes a lot of time: learning about terrain, an animals’ habits & preferences and a thousand other things – not just something you go out and “do”. It’s also not about taking the biggest, best and strongest but taking the weak, the elderly, the ones that should not pass on their genes – a quick end for those who would most likely die otherwise. It’s like maintaining a wood lot… Harvest and thin wisely, so the forest will thrive and benefit from your attention. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

    Like

    • Bill says:

      There are good responsible hunters around here (I’d like to think I’m one, for example) but there are also lots of yokels who are too dang lazy to go sit still in the woods and wait for a deer. So they ride around in their trucks, shooting from the road, and generally being a menace, often ruining the hunting for the folks who are trying to do it right. These are the ones out spending thousands of dollars every year on deer hunting stuff. Instead of helping to solve the problem, they make it worse. I feel my blood pressure rising so that’s all I’ll say about them right now….

      Like

    • smcasson says:

      I think I understand hunting seasons and laws well enough to answer some of your questions, at least in the ball park…
      I live in KY, but the seasons/laws seem to be similar through MI, IN, KY, TN, VA, etc. Where deer are …. prevalent. There are many different deer “seasons”. They are differentiated by hunter age and weapon, mostly, but I guess also by buck/doe, as I’ve heard. Not so sure on that one. There is a youth gun season, adult bow season, muzzle-loader rifle season, modern rifle season, etc. I think the earliest seasons (youth and bow) start around here toward the end of Sept.
      Bag limits (tag limits) vary by county around here. Counties are rated by deer pressure into zones. More deer means a higher limit.
      If you’re a hunter and intend on stepping into the woods at least once, you’ll apply for a license and get it here. Most people get at least one deer, and if they don’t, it’s because they waited for a big buck. Those guys are out for trophies.
      More info (for KY) here: https://app.fw.ky.gov/SeasonDates/Default.aspx

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sue says:

    As one who has had to erect numerous UGLY, but effective barricades to them, I find nothing cute or nice about deer. Those who are enchanted with them have no idea as to the real problems they entail.
    I did find your post fascinating—I had no idea deer were so abundant compared to the past. I know they are common here, but I guess I just didn’t realize that this was a “newer” phenomenon.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I didn’t know how dramatic, and extreme, the rise in population has been. Imagine the number of any other animal in the forest increasing by 100 times. It’s mind boggling.

      And the adverse effects on the ecosystem extend far beyond annoyance to gardeners and farmers. They’re the animal equivalent of kudzu, but much more destructive.

      Like

  10. ain't for city gals says:

    Quite a different story in Arizona….all deer and elk permits are by lottery only….and the only way to get drawn is to put in and pay for bonus points each year. My husband did get drawn for cow elk archery this year….it seems every five years he gets a tag. He does usually get a tag for one deer and a javelina. I always think it would be worth a trip back east to fill the freezers!

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I learned from the book that it is generally not a problem in the West. The overabundance of deer does make it easier to keep the freezers filled. But as the book discusses, the Deer Industrial Complex is mainly driven by trophy hunting for antlered deer, not by people hunting for food.

      Like

  11. Us backyard homesteaders and orchardists who don’t make a living at it have no recourse. We can’t even shoot them out of season if we see them on their hind legs eating our apples right out of the trees.
    And yes, I agree with you — it’s always more complicated than it seems.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      You make a great point. At least as commercial growers we’re able to get off-season kill permits. Homesteaders aren’t allowed to kill them off-season, even if there is an entire herd of them in their back yard and even if they will use them for food (or donate them to charity). But even though we can get a permit, we can’t defend our crops without one. A couple of years ago here in Virginia a bill was introduced in our legislature that would permit farmers to kill deer that were destroying their crops, as long as they reported it and got a license after-the-fact. The current law won’t let us get a permit until we can prove substantial damage has already occurred. The deer hunting lobby defeated that bill.

      Liked by 1 person

      • BeeHappee says:

        Bill, what makes one a ‘commercial grower’?

        Like

      • Bill says:

        I seem to recall that there is some gross sales minimum, but looking at the statute on the back of my permit, all it says is that the “deer, elk or bear” must be “damaging fruit trees, crops, livestock or personal property utilized for commercial agricultural production in the Commonwealth.” “Commerical agricultural production” is probably defined in a regulation.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Joanna says:

    As you know Bill our problem is wild boar (wild hogs) and that issue only arose after hunters fed the small population after Classical Swine Fever swept through and over hunting happened. However, those numbers not only recovered, they also escalated too and the numbers are over 2-3x too high. Wild boar are good for forests as they turnover the ground looking for mushrooms and grubs, but too many and the whole forest is turned over decimating the mushrooms, grubs, new growth and the food for many other animals, which they may also eat.

    Now we have African Swine Fever and we are praying that it cuts the population significantly but even so, we are still pondering whether to put up fencing in case the population does not dwindle enough. One small family can still significantly damage a pasture in one night.

    An academic but readable book on the issue of Human-Wildlife Conflicts is by Conover 2002. It is available on Google books (can’t believe the price it is online these days, I’m sure I didn’t pay anywhere near that price for it)

    Like

    • Bill says:

      I recently read an article about mushrooming populations of wild boar in certain parts of the U.S. causing significant damage and screwing up ecosystems. They were introduced into the environment by hunters, who of course are now unable to put the genie back into the bottle. According to the article I read it’s impossible to eradicate them by hunting because they’re smart animals and they won’t return to an area that’s being hunted (and because they have large litters). The only way to reduce the herd effectively, according to the piece I read is to build an enclosure (like a circular fence with a single gate) and feed them in it. Once they’re used to and returning for their regular meals, the gate is shut by remote control and the entire herd can be captured at once.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joanna says:

        Hunting does not of course eradicate them and here that should not be the aim. They are part of the natural ecosystem albeit in smaller numbers. The efficacy of hunting is to reduce the damage to farmers’ fields by deterring them. As you rightly point out, they are smart animals, so a kill in one place means at least two weeks breathing space for farmers, particularly when the numbers are under control anyway.

        Like

  13. shoreacres says:

    I think you might be interested in listening to hour number two of this Outdoor Show, which is a discussion of chronic wasting disease in Texas deer. It seems to be on the rise here. While I can’t remember all the details, I do remember wondering while I listened if it might not be developing as a consequence of high populations, and some of the practices on the fenced hunting properties. If overcrowding affects chickens, overcrowding surely could affect deer, too.

    Like

    • Bill says:

      CWD is discussed in the book. According to the author concentrated populations of deer significantly increase transmission of the disease, which is 100% fatal. Nature has a way of taking care of unnaturally large populations of any species.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s