Are Deer Eating Up Wisconsin's Northwoods?
(Created May 20, 2007 -- Last updated: March 31, 2008)
Photographs show how this large herbivore is eliminating young conifer growth from the forest ecosystem!
Think you can name the northwood's most voracious predator? The gray wolf perhaps? The elusive panther? The mythical man-eating windigo? Guess again. The biggest eater of all is Bambi, the pampered and over protected white-tailed deer!
This internet photo of wildly proliferating "feeder deer" was reportedly taken near Eagle River, Wisconsin
Severe ecosystem damage is occuring in areas of northern Wisconsin from an over-abundance of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). This article documents severe environmental damage in one area, the reasons behind this growing crisis situation, and some possible solutions.
2) Deer eat ANYTHING!
3) Conifer Catastrophe
4) Reasons Behind Deer Damaged Ecosystem
4.1) Ineffective Deer Season
4.2) Deer Sanctuaries
4.3) Feeder Deer
5) Possible Solutions
Few people would dispute the danger of hitting a white-tailed deer
with a car. During 2005 in Wisconsin alone there were 17,555 deer-vehicle collisions
resulting in $236.4 million in property damage and 12 human fatalities. A deer-human
disease connection also exists in the aptly named "deer tick" (Ixodes
scapularis) that infects people with serious disorders like Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis,
anaplasmosis, and babesiosis. Large numbers of deer host and spread HUGE numbers
of disease-infected ticks across the landscape.
But there is a new deer threat on the horizon. One in which deer and the ecosystem are on a collision course just as damaging as a car wreck or disease. Today in parts of northern Wisconsin so many deer exist that they are literally eating the future forest to death. Whitetails have even reached the outermost of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior where they are rapidly consuming the last remaining stands of Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis). But isn't the bigger news the fact that deer have already wiped yews out nearly everywhere else in Wisconsin and are now eliminating other native plants from the ecosystem?
2) Deer Eat ANYTHING!
On a munch-by-munch basis the white-tailed deer is the most demanding
animal on the landscape. They out-consume and out-reproduce nearly every other creature. These
four-legged eating machines devour between 6 and 10 pounds of vegetation per day
in a zone stretching from the forest floor to some six feet off the ground or as
high they can reach with their ripping insisors and grinding molars while standing
on their hind legs.
These highly adaptive ruminent mammals are both grazers and browsers, meaning that deer eat grasses, forbs, flowers, buds, twigs, leaves, and the needles of plants, shrubs, and trees. They have even been known to eat young songbirds right out of the nest. When hungry enough deer will consume just about anything. In winter when better vegetation is not available they stuff themselves with low energy fodder like alder, hazel, balsam fir, pine, and spruce. Where deer are abundant their presence results in a distinctive "browse line" as if a giant vacuum cleaner had gone through the forest sucking off every twig and low-hanging branch in sight.
DNR whitetail management philosophy has long defined success as the greatest number of animals that the environment and society could stand so that hunters would have plenty of lively targets come November. Forest browse damage played second fiddle and was thought to affect only a few vulnerable "deer candy" species like white cedar or yew. Biologists realize today, however, that deer damage extends throughout the entire ecosystem. By the time damage reaches the extreme condition shown here, ecosystem destruction has progressed to an alarming degree with rare native plants and flowers probably already diminished or wiped out.
While nobody wants to see deer vanish from the landscape, we also don't want to see the landscape vanish down the throats of hungry deer. The problem has reached crisis proportions in our area with the most visible damage being the destruction of our young conifer trees. Due to unrelenting deer browse pressure most evergreen regeneration has come to a screeching halt and the future of our piney woods in doubt.
3) Conifer Catastrophe
Our woodland consists of two broad types: mixed pine and oak on
the drier uplands with hardwoods and conifers growing on moister lowland sites. Biological
diversity is rich with seven species of evergreen conifer trees. Years ago there
was abundant young growth of three pine species, two varieties of spruce, and balsam
fir in the form of seedlings, small bushes, and young trees. These naturally seeded
trees sprouted and grew in forest openings and along trails. The effect was like
having a lush natural nursery between groves of larger adult trees. Our forest had
an ideal multi-stage composition with everything from canopy-busting adult trees
over 100 years old to saplings and tiny sprouts. Today that young evergreen understory
is being wiped out by deer.
We first noticed a change to the structure of our woods in the late 1980s. Perfectly shaped lush blue-green "bushes" of young white pine (Pinus strobus) were increasingly being knawed upon and damaged by deer. These sad looking "browslings" as we dubbed them (browse + sapling = browsling) bravely tried to reprout, but their normal shape and vigor was gone and eventually they all perished. Although once common here over time young white pine saplings were eliminated from our forest by deer. Small seedlings 2 or 3 inches high could still be found hiding in the groundlayer, but any taller than that and deer quickly discovered and killed them.
Although we hated to see our small white pines destroyed, we were only mildly concerned. Just one species seemed affected and we still had plenty of other young conifer growth. Plus we believed that increasing numbers of deer was a positive sign of a healthy forest making a desireable "game pocket."
However, not long after that we noticed that small jack pines (Pinus banksiana) were also disappearing. Already in decline due to its dependance on wildfire for widespread reproduction, vigorous jack pine sprouts and saplings were still fairly common in sunny forest openings here. But as time went on these young jack pine shoots were also being ruthlessly bitten off and killed by browsing deer and before long they too were gone from our woods. In fact, we were not able to find a surviving young example to photograph.
But still we weren't overly worried. Jack pine wasn't high on our list of favorite trees. We still had our big red pines and and their saplings sprouting around them plus lush growth of fragrant young balsam fir. Besides, both white and jack pine were long known to be a moderately preferred winter browse ration for deer so if we sacrificed these young trees for a larger deer herd that was good thing, right?
Sometime in the 1990s our perceptions about deer began to change. Researching this area we discovered that native white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) had probably once grown here so we attempted to re-establish that beautiful evergreen species. But after some initial success browsing deer moved in and tore our cedars apart in a shark-like feeding frenzy. Years of hard work and high hopes disappeared down the drain overnight.
But that wasn't all. Around that same period deer also turned their toothy attack onto our young red pines. That was a shock even to the experts because red pine (Pinus resinosa) had long been regarded as being somewhat immune from browsing deer and was considered a last-ditch starvation food. But guess again. When hungry deer are present red pine becomes just another flavor of deer candy as these photos of knawed and disfigured young red pines (right) demonstrate.
The destruction of our young red pine hit us hard. Eco-historically speaking this area had been a natural red pine forest for ages. In the old logging days the beautiful pagoda-shaped red pine had been the premier tree here witnessed by century old stumps. By a miracle this natural red pine forest had survived not only rapacious loggers but also the vast wildfires that swept the cutover afterwards. Some of our old fire-scarred red pines verge on "old growth" status and they and their multi-age offspring amazed and delighted us with their great beauty and regal presence. When we encountered red pine seedlings growing in brush it was our habit to release them to the sun so they would thrive. But now if we release young pines to the sun deer quickly rush in and chew them to death. As this is written our young red pine growth has just about been wiped out by Bambi with the few remaining survivors hideously disfigured and dying.
Like an alarm bell going off in the night we now realized that a horrible transformation was taking place in our woods and that it was becoming IMPOSSIBLE to grow young trees unless they were fenced and protected by stout fences or deer exclosures. Yes, we bought a deer hunting license and took up the gun, but it turned out to be a futile exercise. We had no guarantee of bagging a deer under the serverely restricted conditions of the hunting season and even if we got lucky there always seemed to be an endless supply of more deer ready to move in to take their place!
But even then our ecological nightmare was not over. Having chewed their way through every plant in the forest including young white pine, jack pine, and red pine, these mindless munchers next turned their endless appetites onto a conifer tree species hitherto untouched, our lush young balsam fir trees!
Young balsam fir growth (Abies balsamea) had been so prolific here that they almost seemed like weeds. But no more. In a stunningly rapid campaign deer attacked our young balsam growth in a whirlwind of destruction. In the space of just two or three winters deer have transformed this perfect lush growth into wasted skelletons and bitten-back trees and now our young balsam component is also on the road to extinction. Where once countless fragrant and perfectly shaped young "Christmas trees" were growing only dead or mangled examples remain. While pole-sized trees that have been chewed off as high as deer can reach will survive, smaller saplings have been knawed down to a disfigured central stalk and in time will perish like young white pine, jack pine, and red pine before them.
What was amazing is how quickly the destruction of the young balsam component took place. It seemed like a tornado or wildfire had swept through the woods. One wonders: Are there suddenly that many more deer here than there used to be? If so, why? Are deer changing their diets from what they used to eat? Or is there a combination of factors at work? How can one explain a forest component like balsam totally unmolested by deer just a few years ago now suddenly being eliminated from the ecosystem in a relative blink of an eye?
What was going on here?
At the present time (2007), the only young evergreens still untouched by deer are white spruce (Picea glauca) and black spruce (Picea mariana). The contrast of similarly shaped but deer-browsed balsam fir growing next to untouched spruce is striking. But how much longer will this spruce immunity last? When deer have eliminated all the young balsam from the woods won't these ferocious eaters clamp their teeth upon the young spruce cohort and wipe it out too?
From the testimony of actual photographs we demonstrate that deer can eliminate natural regeneration and recruitment of white pine, jack pine, red pine, and balsam fir. If we calculated the nursery value of these destroyed trees it would surely amount to hundreds if not thousands of dollars. But our mangled trees are probably just the tip of the eco-disaster iceberg. A browsed evergreen tree stands out like a sore thumb, but upon closer inspection we find that nearly EVERYTHING growing in our forest understory has been knawed off by deer, including young hardwood trees like oak and red maple. We also believe that deer have wiped out many summer plants and wild flowers in this forest. Since young trees represent the future forest, deer are altering the long-term compositon of the ecosystem here at a extremely rapid pace, probably eliminating some species altogether and blocking the natural reproduction of others. From the standpoint of our long-term commitment of wisely managing this forested property the negative impacts of deer can only described as long-term and catastrophic.
If wildfire, disease, and insect pests are percieved as serious threats to the forest and we try to stop them, then one must also ask: Why is it okay for deer to destroy the forest? Why is this forest catastrophe happening at all?
4) Reasons Behind Deer Damaged Ecosystem
From our own personal observations in this area and from published
literature we offer three possible causes behind this deer-damaged ecosystem: 1)
Ineffective hunting seasons and overly restrictive laws that protect deer. 2) Private
deer refuges or sanctuaries. 3) Supplemental or recreational feeding of deer.
4.1) Ineffective Deer Season
In Wisconsin deer season is a BIG event. In 2006 some 503,418 whitetails were harvested making it the third highest kill on record. That sounds impressive until you consider that the overall herd size has risen from 1 million animals in 1985 to 1.2 million animals in 1998 to 1.7 million animals in 2005. Under favorable conditions the whitetail's reproductive capacity allows herd size to bounce back at a rate of 50 to 60% per year. Such fertility grows the overall deer population like a runaway streamroller.
Unfortunately deer-damaged forests operate on a longer time scale. What deer destroy in a winter or two may take decades to recover even if deer were to vanish from the forest tomorrow. Nor are deer harvested equally over the landscape or where their numbers need to be reduced most. In many areas the post-season kill effect is hardly discernable. Sightings, tracks, droppings, and new browse damage may reveal no significant decline in the number of animals remaining in the woods. As these photos demonstrate, even in northern areas where high hunting pressure exists browse damage continues to increase and expand to new species. No matter how traditional and well-intended the deer hunt may be it is failing to control herd size enough to to keep the forest healthy. "Deer Season" itself may be an artificial and failed concept. One more suitable for a Hollywood comedy than an effective 21st century herd management tool. Perhaps its biggest flaw is that except for the nine day November gun hunt when the majority of the kill takes place, deer are essentially "on vacation" for the remaining 356 days of the year!
That is like asking natural deer predators like wolves, panthers, or subsistence level humans to only hunt, kill, and eat deer nine days out of the year and leave them alone for the rest of the time. This scenario has resulted in unnatural deer-predator dynamics. Except for those nine days deer don't have to fear or flee for their lives at the sight of the only significant predator left on the landscape: human beings. More likely deer will stand watching you like wannabe pets!
A more natural deer-predator relationship would have a larger and more diverse predator base existing alongside the deer herd, rising and falling in numbers in balance with the herd size and keeping it in check. Not only would natural predators be running deer down and killing them year-round, but their greater presence would also affect deer behavior. Deer would be wilder and more wide-ranging. They would move about more frequently instead of taking up permanent residence in ones "backyard" like they do now. If there were numerous wolf packs and panthers killing and consuming deer every few days year-round, the survivors would be dispersed over the wider landscape and their destructive effects on the ecosystem less concentrated and therefore less devastating.
Unfortunately for the health of the ecosystem a large natural predator base no longer exists. Subsistence level human hunters have gone the way of the dodo, panthers have been extirpated, and even the few wolves now found in Wisconsin raise cries of alarm from farmers and hunters who fear livestock or a few precious deer might be eaten.
Under current laws and regulations white-tailed deer are pampered and over-protected eating machines. For most of the year they roam about the forest without a corcern or worry in the world while devouring everything in sight. And while farmers receive financial compensation for deer crop damage along with a special dispensation from DNR to shoot problem animals, those options are not available to forest landowers. Get caught shooting a deer out of season in Wisconsin and after the judge levys the fine plus mandatory court costs and a "natural resource assessment and surcharge" (whatever that means) and you will be facing a dazzling $2,000 or more in penalties. That's harsher than a first time drunk driving offense!
In the light of this we must ask the following question: What is the purpose of such lofty legal protection for an animal that by all accounts exists in numbers that are too high, spreads disease, causes human death and millions in property damage on a yearly basis, and is now chewing our future forest into oblivion?
In the past DNR also relied on winter kill to help manage the herd size. Periodic subzero winters and deep snow stressed, starved, and froze deer to death in large numbers. Severe winters also produced a weak and small fawn crop the next spring. As late as the 1980s DNR assisted kind-hearted landowners to feed deer in order to keep the herd kicking.
Because northern Wisconsin is on the northern edge of normal whitetail range winter-kill was a natural process. But a series of mild winters since the late 1990s (by some accounts caused by global warming) makes a person wonder if winter thinning of the herd may be a thing of the past and no longer to be relied upon. But if DNR has adjusted its regulatory framework to compensate for global warming we have yet to hear of it.
To complicate matters hunters constantly claim that DNR is lying and that the "official" herd size estimate is vastly exaggerated. But this numbers game is largely a matter of perception. When a landowner or forester sees knawed, bitten-off, and destroyed young trees, deer trails, droppings, and tracks everywhere, they will probably conclude that the deer population is WAY too high. But if instead a hunter sits shivering in those same woods during deer season and no deer happen to amble by he'll probably go home cussing out DNR while moaning that the deer population is dismally low.
Hunters insist that if the herd numbers were as large as DNR claims they would see a lot more deer while hunting. Based on browse damage that extends to trees right outside our windows we don't think DNR is lying. But that doesn't mean we see deer every time we step out the door. On the contrary, days, sometimes weeks go by without our seeing deer although we live in the woods and deer are always nearby.
Is it possible that deer are becoming more elusive and knowing of human ways?
We think so. To us it seems that deer living in close proximity to people adjust to human habits and learn to go about their daily existence largely unseen when they want to. They learn when you come outside and when you go back in. They know the places you visit and the places you don't. They adjust to those factors and figure out how to avoid you. While deer are simple they are not dumb. They adapt to the human presence quite readily and when threatened remain undetected although they might only be a few feet away. As Don Wagner of Namekagon remarked: "Humans assume that they are smarter than so-called wildlife. But hunting deer soon shows you how smart they can be. You also have to remember that we live longer lives and can store the information we learn, while the deer that are somewhat easy to shoot are young ones. If they can survive just a couple of years they become very wise to the ways of the woods and to humans too."
Such accumulated "wisdom" comes into play during deer season. Right on schedule each November an army of strangers in blaze orange invades the woods. But even before that guys are out practicing with their guns. The fellow across the creek comes up to his hunting cabin and sights in his weapon the afternoon before opening day, alerting everything with ears that his hunting gang has arrived on the scene.
Living here year-round we know how calm and quiet these woods normally are. Except for the nine day gun hunt the forest is generally human free. But come opening day strange sounds fill the air. Cars and trucks clunk down forest trails. Strange lights flash in the woods. Doors slam and horns blow. There are yells and shouts along with non-stop shooting near and far from morning until night.
If sense-deadened humans like us easily notice this overnight change in the forest, can't we assume that the far more attuned and sensitive whitetail notices it too? Living outside all of the time they know the normal sounds, sights, and smells of the woods. They know what belongs there and what doesn't. To some degree deer MUST sense increased human activity come opening day and once alerted deer become very cautious and elusive creatures. Even semi-tame "feeder deer" (whom we shall meet in a moment) quickly revert to a finely-tuned concealment or escape strategy when spooked. Since the traditional nine day hunt has taken place now over the lifespans of many generations of deer, some genetic learning might also be building into the herd as careless, stupid, or unlucky deer are weeded out of the gene pool.
If the above scenario is correct, it may help explain why hunters don't see many deer in spite of large herd estimates. The northwoods is a vast place with lots of nooks and crannies for deer to hide in. Come opening day and even quasi-pet deer assume hard-wired prey animal behavior of hiding in the daytime, moving only at night, curtailing visits to bait stations, and vanishing into swamps or thickets until the noisy, smelly, and not particularly effective human predator threat has left the woods. Best of all (from a deer's viewpoint) is that the danger only lasts nine days. Is that too much to ask for a species that evolved over millions of years to avoid much more effective predators for a full 365 days?
No wonder that the herd keeps increasing no matter what special seasons or intricate rules DNR dreams up. Under the current regulatory system and prima donna legal protection for most of the year any real reduction in the herd seems unlikely while the forest increasingly vanishes down the gullets of over-abundant deer.
4.2) Deer Sanctuaries
The second factor that we have identified as favoring deer numbers are the many unofficial "deer refuges" that have been created in this area in the recent past. These refuges or sanctuaries have come about from the large influx of people building homes and recreational cabins on wild land in northern Wisconsin. Many of these new residents post their land against hunters and thereby turn their properties into deer protected zones. Simply by stepping over a property line into somebody's wooded backyard deer can find total safety.
Another variety of deer refuge is found on tracts of private forest land owned and managed by hunters who possess a "bucks only" mentality. These guys consider shooting does or fawns unmanly and let them go in the belief that more female deer will boost herd numbers and thus give them better odds for seeing a prize trophy rack. These tracts of land become refuges not only for resident deer, but also for does and fawns fleeing hunters on surrounding lands. But again, once the short nine day gun hunt is over all of these protected deer are free to roam the countryside dropping more fawns, running up the population, and munching the forest understory to death.
This area is a textbook case of forest fragmentation and deer sanctuaries. To the north and west of us are large blocks of paper company and county forest lands that are open for public hunting purposes. To our south and east are privately owned lands with houses or cabins on them. Most of these structures were built in the past 30 years when a larger 250 acre tract was broken up or "fragmented" into several smaller parcels. Most of these properties are now posted and don't allow hunting at all or restrict hunting to family members and friends.
Come opening day of deer season and hunting pressure on the public lands push deer onto these private holdings where they often find perfect safety. Once deer enter these sanctuaries they tend to remain there for the duration of the hunting season where they have (especially does and fawns) a nearly 100% survival guarantee.
DNR knows and complains that forest fragmentation and deer sanctuaries seriously affects herd management, but apparently has nothing in its bag-of-tricks to counter this trend.
4.3) Feeder Deer
Lastly -- and most critically -- is the phenomenon of "feeder deer." These backyard semi-pets are habitually fed by humans, often year-round, and greatly contribute to deer problems in the northwoods. Since the impacts of feeder deer have not been adequately explored we will offer some observations of our own.
The many new homes and cabins across northern Wisconsin have resulted in a HUGE increase in the recreational or supplemental feeding of deer. This artificial feeding is usually done by well-meaning nature lovers or hunting enthusiasts who provide food (usually shell corn) right outside their dwellings to draw deer close up for easy viewing. Some people construct feeders with roofs to keep off rain and snow. Some weekenders have even used large automatic feeders to supply deer while they are gone. There are even bragging rights about how many pounds (or tons) of "deer corn" one sets out during the year and how many dozens of deer parade around in ones personal backyard herd.
In this area serious supplemental deer feeding began about 25 years ago and has been increasing ever since. Feeding stations can be located by the perfectly straight trails that deer have beaten into the snow and earth during their bee-line travels from one feeder to the next. No meandering about looking for food these deer. They know exactly where they are going!
Feeder deer have thrown another wild card into traditional DNR formulas to control herd size. For example, in this Deer Management Unit DNR has set an over-winter goal of 20 animals per square mile of habitat. A square mile consists of 640 acres or 16 individual 40 acre parcels, a common size property in this area. This over-winter goal of 20 animals works out to 0.8 deer per each 40 acre parcel.
In some areas these idealistic DNR goals may be reached, but it's lunacy to believe they are reached here. For example, AFTER gun season this past winter we counted 16 deer moving from one woodlot with a home and feeder to another woodlot home and feeder in an area covering no more than 80 acres. If the DNR goal of 20 animals per square mile had been reached, that would leave just four deer inhabiting the remaining 360 acres in this square mile of habitat. That is so far from reality that it's laughable! A hike over that 360 acres would find additional human dwellings, more deer feeders, countless deer tracks, endless piles of deer droppings, deer beds, and additional family groups of deer. Our conservative estimate is that the actual number of over-wintering deer on this square mile probably exceeds the DNR goal of 20 deer by at least three or four times and must be at least 60 to 80 animals if not more. This estimate must be reasonably accurate based on our photographs showing deer-damaged conifer growth.
Since many generations of deer in this area have been born and raised eating out of a feeder the local herd has learned to connect human dwellings with a reliable, abundant, and highly nutritious food source. This in turn encourages them to hang around other peoples' homes expecting a handout as they devour nearly every growing thing within reach.
But we believe this cause-and-effect relationship between ecosystem damage and feeder deer goes even deeper. Feeder deer have higher survival and higher reproduction rates than "wild" deer. This results in abnormally high local populations, surplus animals, and increased pressure on the surrounding ecosystem. This is so critical that it deserves further explanation.
With their reliable and concentrated food source feeder deer are less affected by winter extremes than deer dependent upon a low energy browse diet. Studies in Minnesota have shown that corn-fed deer can endure the most bitter wind chills out in the open while their more poorly fed wild cousins need the thermal protection of dense conifer swamps to survive. As a result few if any feeder deer will ever starve or freeze to death even under the worst conditions. Nor do feeder deer have to expend energy looking for food since meals are delivered to them daily like magic. A typical feeder deer day consists of wandering into the yard, chowing down, and then strolling back into the woods a few feet for a carefree nap until their next catered meal arrives. Especially lucky deer have more than one feeder in the neighborhood which can amount to several square meals a day!
Well-nourished feeder deer are typically in better physical condition than wild deer and therefore reproduce more successfully as well. They drop more twin and triplet fawns than their scrawny relatives living on twigs and brush all winter. Feeder deer fawns are more healthy and robust. One study found that 90% of fawns born to malnourished does died, but that 95% of fawns born to well-nourished does survived. Precocious female feeder deer fawns sometimes even breed before their first birthday. And since fawns continue to visit feeding stations with their mothers during their critical first winter season they continue to be well-fed and well-nourished right through to adulthood.
With their high-quality diet and high fawn survival rate feeder deer out-reproduce wild deer by a wide margin. And if these high reproduction and fawn survival rates aren't enough, feeder deer are also much less likely to be shot during hunting season since they hang around homes or on posted land during the hunting season where they are often considered pets and therefore off-limits to any hunters in that household.
All these factors conspire to boost herd levels in the vicinity of deer feeding stations. Seldom killed by predators, immune to starvation or freezing to death, and with excellent odds of surviving the hunting season, feeder deer probably live on average longer lives than wild deer. However, since feeder deer continue to reproduce as if all these population-thinning controls were still present, feeding stations thus become out-of-control deer breeding "hot spots" with population dynamics similar in concept to the waves emanating from a handful of pebbles tossed into a calm pond.
Late each spring nearly every mature female in a given family group of feeder deer (consisting of a matriarch doe and her daughters) will drop a new crop of fawns. Thus the size of each group is boosted 60% or more annually. But each year some of these pregnant females will strike off on their own (sometimes driven off by more dominent deer) where they set up their own breeding territory a short distance away from their mothers, usually within 1/4 mile. Every spring this cycle is repeated around deer feeders as surplus animals are spun off from core family groups and are forced to move into and colonize outlying areas.
The effect of these deer-breeding hot spots with their constant supply of surplus colonizing animals can be devastating to the surrounding ecosystem. If a forestland owner is unfortunate enough to have multiple deer-breeding factories in the vicinity these devastating effects may soon become evident. Because their new landowner host may NOT provide tons of deer corn for them these colonizing animals may not have their former high-quality diet and will be forced to subsist in part or totally on natural foods. This creates browse pressure on nearly every plant, tree sapling, or branch within their reach until nearly everything is consumed or destroyed as these photographs demonstrate.
Feeder-born and feeder-conditioned deer actually appear to circle human dwellings on a regular basis as they bring their browse line right up to ones doorstep. Conditioned to associate human dwellings with food, these deer may be compelled to act in this unusual manner hoping that if they are persistent enough the "magical corn" will eventually appear. Why not? It works like a charm for them elsewhere!
As long as artificial feeding of deer is permitted, there will be no relief from surplus animals invading the surrounding ecosystem. Because birth and survival rates are higher than wild deer, feeder deer groups provide an endless reservoir of surplus animals each and every year. Even legally shooting the one or two deer allowed under current hunting regulations cannot adequately protect the surrounding ecosystem because abnormally high numbers of animals spun off from feeding/breeding core station hot-spot areas will always be available to take their place.
If feeder deer and their offspring would stay on the land of people who feed and want them, there would not be an environmental problem to speak of. Unfortunately feeder deer do NOT stay put. There is no leash or cage law. They freely wander onto adjacent lands like herds of cattle munching and devouring everything in sight as they add natural roughage to their fatty corn-based diet. They spawn an unending crop of surplus animals that colonize adjacent woodlands where they literally rape the ecosystem. Under current Wisconsin law forest landowners can only watch helplessly while native plants and increasingly the conifer evergreen understory vanishes as if ones forest were cursed by a plague of Biblical locusts.
Such over-browsed degraded forest lands rapidly lose their natural biological diversity and are subject to invasion by undesirable exotic non-native species. Unless we want northern Wisconsin to resemble a bare cow pasture beneath a canopy of larger trees the current situation is unacceptable and action needs to be taken in order to save the future forest.
5) Possible Solutions
Lack of a natural year-round predator base, overly restrictive
hunting seasons, obsolete protective laws, mild winters, bucks-only hunters, deer
sanctuaries, and the recreational feeding of deer all contribute to a deer herd in
northern Wisconsin that the ecosystem can no longer support. The traditional bottlenecks
that could be relied upon to restrict northern deer numbers (harsh winters and a
limited food supply) have been overcome by mild winters (global warming?) and kind-hearted
but misguided humans who create corn-fed super deer.
In our opinion current legal restrictions and DNR deer management techniques may reflect outdated 1950s thinking. In Wisconsin today there is almost certainly no place where deer need protection. On the contrary it's the Wisconsin ecosystem and the human population that needs protection from deer.
But if traditional DNR methods have not been effective controlling the herd size then what would be?
The most immediate, simple, and effective herd control method would be to institute a bounty system. Bring in a deer tail in any season and you receive a nominal cash award.
Another approach might be to reclassify deer as an unprotected mammal in the same catagory as skunks, opposums, etc. Under that scenario all penalties for killing deer out of season would be eliminated.
If neither of those approaches are feasible at the present time for political or other reasons, a much more liberal, simplified, and less-restrictive hunting season should be institued. Perhaps the "earn-a-buck" system should be applied statewide, where one or more antlerless deer MUST be killed before a buck can be harvested. But DNR should also make it easy for hunters to harvest these antlerless deer by eliminating extra fees and permits, possibly even offering rebates on antlerless deer, and requiring that only the tail be turned in while eliminating the onerous chore of "chauffeuring" the entire animal about the countryside for registration purposes thereby wasting gasoline and cutting into a hunter's time in the woods. That is, when you register your "earn-a-buck" you'd also be required to turn in one or more additional deer tails at the same time with no questions asked.
In addition, forest landowners should immediately be given the option of eliminating environmenally damaging deer on their own property similar to what now applies to other native animals like woodchucks or beavers. Otherwise a program of limitless free harvest permits should be extended to forest landowners similar to those now given to farmers, possibly with financial compensation for deer damage done to their trees.
Finally, the artificial, supplemental, and recreational feeding of deer should be BANNED immediately. This law should apply statewide with no ifs, ands, or buts. Deer should be required to subsist on natural foods over the wider landscape and not be conditioned to live in large groups like cattle in a feedlot congregated around human habitions with all the excess breeding, disease, and damaging ecosystem effects shown here.
Unless serious counter-measures are taken to combat the deer herd threat to the environment more and more of northern Wisconsin will look like the devastated young trees shown in these photos.
Do we really want that to happen?
2006 Deer Harvest Numbers
14 Feb. 2007 (WDNR website)
Cox, Daniel J. and John J. Ozoga. 1988. Whitetail Country (NorthWord Press).
Meeker, James. n.d. A swan song for Canada yew?
"Nothern Wisconsin deer expected to decline," Wisconsin Natural Resources. Jan/Feb 1987, p.18.
Regional Reported Deer-Vehicle Crash Numbers 2004-2005 at: http://www.deercrash.com/states/data.htm
Rooney, Thomas and Donald M. Waller. 2003. "Direct and indirect effects of white-tailed deer in forest ecosystems," Forest Ecology and Management 181: 165-176.
Sussman, Lawrence. "When whitetail meets Softail: Deer-motorcycle crash fatalities on the rise," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. October 28, 2006.
Wisconsin's Deer Management Program: The Issues Involved in Decision-Making. 1998. WDNR, Madison, Wis. 39 p.
Wise, Sherry. 1988. The White-tailed Deer. Wisconsin DNR. Madison, Wis. PUBL-WM-013.
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