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White-tail deer population

11/12/02 12:00AM By Ruth Page
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(Host) Commentator Ruth Page looks at how an unchecked deer population can destroy forest ecosystems.

(Page) White-tail deer seem to think they're human and can multiply without hindrance, destroy entire ecosystems at will, and assume the world's their apple. There's very little out there to control them except for starvation, disease - and us.

Ecologists have been talking about this for years. Recently, Audubon magazine pulled the facts together. In the past, deer populations were controlled by predators like wolves and cougars, but those were later hunted to death over most of the country. Today, the only predator available to control deer populations is the human hunter. In the early days, when colonists shot cougars and wolves on sight, the Indians, who understood predator-prey interactions, concluded these white men were crazy.

If deer weren't so appealing-looking, with their soft brown eyes and graceful ways, it would be far easier for people to face the facts. Various bird species and many small animal species living in the forest understory have been wiped out in some areas. Rampant reproduction by deer devastates most low-growing plants. Short bushes, small trees, fruiting shrubs, and other low growers produce nutritious fruits, seeds and nuts for small animals and birds, which in turn spread seeds to regenerate and continue the plants' life-cycles.

The understory is disappearing rapidly over vast acreages. Birders, ecologists, botanists, and zoologists are sounding the alarm. If we don't find the will to drastically reduce our deer population, the effect on American forests and forest life will be a national disaster. Deer hunters seek mature bucks with impressive antlers, but that has little effect on white-tail deer populations. There will be a public outcry, but we're going to have to kill a number of does, as well. Protecting deer because they're cute is an ecological nightmare. And ten years of scientific study have proven that control by sterilization works for only very small populations. It's estimated there were 500,000 white-tails in the U.S. in 1900; now there are 33 million.

A U.S. Forest Service study found that at more than twenty deer per square mile you lose these birds: eastern wood pewees, indigo buntings, least flycatchers, yellow-billed cuckoos, and cerulean warblers. More deer than that? More birds disappear.

Famed early naturalist Aldo Leopold learned a tough lesson when he visited some wolfless mountains and found "every edible bush and seedling browsed," ultimately to death. Here's an example from our own Northeast: by the 1980s, on the Crane Estate 30 miles north of Boston, 400 white-tails denuded two thousand acres. That land could sustain only 60 deer, maximum.

In the East, the terrible spread of Lyme disease has altered some folks' perceptions; they fear disease-carrying deer ticks and are beginning to accept that many white-tails must be killed. Unfortunately, those who understand are still in the minority, and the devastation is spreading.

This is Ruth Page, talking with you about a serious threat to Earth's gardens and the environment.
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