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Seeing the Forest for the Deer

Fawn under cover

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is charged with managing the deer population of New York State; a difficult task to say the least. In order to understand the magnitude of such a task, let’s try to compare how beef cattle and deer are managed.

Beef Farming

Most farmers know their business since it’s their livelihood and have a personal stake in their animals. Farmers must figure out basic numbers, like where and how many cows are out there; no problem there since cows can be easily counted inside a fence. More challenging is estimating the logistics of food. An inventory of pasturage and grain supplies must be accounted for in advance and made available to the herd. In other words, the number of cows must be properly aligned with the amount of food and vice versa.

Beef prices can serve as valuable information for a manager on whether or not production – in this case herd population – should be increased or decreased. The increase in price on beef may tell the producer that demand for beef is rising and increasing production may be worthwhile, depending on his costs. If he finds increasing production is worthwhile, next is the resource. Does he have enough pasture to increase herd size with? What about the price of grain for supplemental feeding? At some point, he may face a condition of diminishing returns; where the number of cows exceeds the carrying capacity of his pasture and grain supplies.

It can take a lifetime to know one’s land, its capabilities and limitations, let alone the cows themselves. Every farmer probably knows his hay fields and pastures like the back of his hand: where the wet spots are, the dry spots, the sweet spots for growing just about anything.

Deer and Cows: Both in Demand

Cows aren’t deer, and fields aren’t forests. I would argue that deer and forests are more complex and difficult to manage than the former. Deer do not exist within a fence, are more difficult to count, and their habits vary across a larger space. However, both cows and deer require food in order to increase in number or remain vigorous. In addition, they both share a strong demand by the American public.

There is no dispute that Americans consume a lot of beef, dairy, and leather products made from cows. In reaction to this, farmers have created innovative ways to manage their habitats to meet the requirements of their herd and ultimately the wishes of their customer. There is also no dispute that Americans demand deer. Although selling wild venison is illegal, millions of venison meals are consumed by both hunters and food pantries across the state and nation. More importantly, demand for deer is consumed in other ways; namely via the activity of recreational hunting and all the bells and whistles that go along with it.

Deer hunting – as Jim Sterba’s book, Nature Wars, and Al Cambronne’s book, Deerland, attest – is big business. Americans spend a lot of money chasing the whitetail, more so than any other animal in North America.

Managing Deer from Albany: A Long-Distance Challenge

However, as abundant as deer hunters may be, there seems to be no shortage of complaints about how deer are being managed by their state agencies. And to be fair, these state agencies are not entirely at fault either. Perhaps it’s the framework that deer are managed that is more at fault. Again, if we managed cows like deer, both farmers and the public that demand beef products would probably not be satisfied either. Some places would have too many cows, while others would have shortages.

Centralized wildlife management has a problem in managing wildlife on a local basis since they are not directly involved with the land in which wildlife occurs. No one knows their land better than the one who owns it; this is the same whether on a farm or in a forest. Simply stated, there seems to be a disconnect between wildlife population and habitat. Today, landowners can easily attest to whether they’re having a deer browse problem or not, if they know what to look for.

Imagine trying to increase or decrease cattle populations on a distant farm without knowing the supply of food there first. How many cows can it support? Even the economist Adam Smith would think this hand was much more invisible than anything he wrote about; the hand seems imaginary. For example, recently the NYS DEC developed a report forecasting the 2015 Deer Hunting Season. In it contained information about how the deer population – statewide – had been reduced in general by last year’s harsh winter. Some areas were affected more or less due to a variety of reasons.

If an area had experienced deer reductions, an increase in deer population was encouraged via less doe tags made available. For example, some of the southern Catskills and mid-Hudson Valley are listed as an area whose deer population should be “increased.” But, is there enough food to do that? Are there enough tree seedlings; herbs, forbs, shrub-layer, grasses, etc.?

Remember the beef farmer. DEC biologists believe that deer hunters in this region demand seeing more deer just as the beef farmer knows that demand for his beef may be high. What’s the difference? The beef farmer knows his supply source by staring at the pasture and grain reserves each day. He also has a more direct idea about demand for his cattle by taking a look at market prices.

The DEC biologist doesn’t know his supply (the food source) and has a rough idea about demand (desire to hunt; more on this to follow). The farmer has the ability to make quick judgements and adapt to scarcity in food sources. Drought can cause his pasture to grow slowly, leading to fewer cattle he can support. Demand may drop as indicated by lower prices. In reaction, he may have to reduce herd size.

Can the deer manager really know how bad the forest regeneration is behind your house? Can he know how many maple seedlings exist for browse or stand of sheltering hemlocks there are to survive winter?

Fern can indicate  deer overbrowsing

Managing Habitat (Supply) and Hunting (Demand)

First, the DEC cannot know its supply or food source since most of the land is not owned by them. Instead, tax-paying landowners own the majority of the forest and the majority of the food source for the state’s herd. In other words, New York State owns the deer herd, but not its food supply, or forest in this case. So, when DEC decides to increase receded deer populations in portions of the Catskills/Hudson Valley – like where I live – I have to wonder if they’re looking at the available food sources; they don’t exist.

To increase the deer population in such areas is to encourage more landowners to build more exclosure fences and kiss their forest regeneration goodbye. It’s difficult to grow anything in this area whether it’s vegetables, apple trees, sugar maple, or red oak.

Second, the DEC relies upon demand (for hunting deer) by indirect methods. The DEC does not know for sure how many deer there are. Deer numbers are estimated via last hunting season’s buck take. For instance, it is assumed that if fewer bucks are harvested during a season, then there must be less deer per square mile. I guess you could estimate the number of cows by how many are slaughtered, but there may be other factors going on: changes in food sources, economic changes, weather, etc. Perhaps it rained or snowed too much and hunters decided sleeping in was a better option to sitting in a stand. Who knows?

The DEC relies upon the Citizen Task Force to decide population trends. “Stakeholders” must be invited to the meeting and are selected by how much a party is deemed to be affected by deer. So, although you might not be affiliated with The Nature Conservancy, The Farm Bureau, or some hunting group, your woods or vegetable garden is still being affected by deer browsing. The task force is tasked with setting deer population goals. DEC then uses the task force’s recommendations to influence deer population by disseminating more or less antlerless tags.

Managing deer in this manner can be both politically charged and abusive of natural resources; especially upon forest regeneration, vegetable gardens, landscaping, and farms. Although the DEC is currently piloting a new program beyond the Citizen Task Force, it may still face challenges. The new program, according to Jeremy Hurst – NYS DEC Biologist – will reduce DEC’s legwork by forming aggregates of WMU’s (Wildlife Management Units). WMUs are designated areas that DEC has created throughout the state in order to manage wildlife.

Many Citizen Task Forces have not met to set deer numbers since the 1990s since finding 3rd party facilitators (normally Cornell Cooperative Extension) can be difficult. The new program will also include more forest impact assessment too. However, “stakeholders” will still be subjectively invited to meetings. If beef farmers had to rely upon a Citizen Task Force to control slaughter rates by people who have neither a stake in his land nor risk in his business, there might be a mismatch between pasture size and herd density too.

Food is scarce during winter

Searching for Solutions

So, what’s the solution? We may not agree on how deer should be managed, who owns them, how they can be hunted, etc. However, I hope we can gain awareness about the supply side of things or the habitat.

If NYS DEC is to continue to own wildlife, then they must figure out some way to encourage healthier habitats. Landowners that have direct access to deer on a local basis must first be approached. They represent the most local and knowledgeable people of the land they own. Metaphorically speaking, they own “the pasture” that the deer live upon. The new program beyond the Citizen Task Force seems to be moving more in the opposite direction by creating aggregates of WMUs. In other words, centralized wildlife management may not be the most efficient way to manage deer habitat since impacts occur on a local scale.

Perhaps landowners need more options to handle deer impacts or manage their forest to meet deer and other wildlife species. Forestry education that teaches the power of sunlight via good forest management in most people’s woodlands is a step in the right direction. Simply stated, if deer had more to eat in the woods, their impacts would be less.

The North American Model for Wildlife Conservation serves as the underlying model that state agencies follow in managing wildlife populations. However, the 7 core principles mainly focus on public ownership of wildlife and hunting thereof. However, the model fails to adequately address habitat. It fails to mention that unlike wildlife, habitat is owned by individuals and families that are truly paying for the state-owned resource that society benefits from. Whatever the remedy is, the habitat or the land will have to be paid more attention to in order to maintain forest health, local agriculture, and vigorous wildlife populations into the future. After all, how many farmers manage cows without discussing their land?

Deer may be “wild” but they are still an animal and one that has probably relied upon a modest amount of human hands in the forest for food and cover for millennia.

For more information, attend CFA’s event – The Growing Deer Debate – scheduled for Saturday, October 31st at Margaretville Central School from 9AM to 4PM. You can buy tickets online at Catskill Forest.


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