Saturday, December 22, 2007

Unwanted ungulates

Kirksville is about to be hammered with 6 inches of snow tonight. If temperatures remain below freezing, Highway Patrol and several members of state agencies will be hitting the skies in helicopters to count deer. With leaves off the trees and snow on the ground, deer stand out like a bull in a china shop. Ask any resource manager in Missouri about her thoughts on deer in the landscape and she'll likely say the same thing: they're as destructive as, say, a bull in a china shop.

Helicopter surveys for deer are dizzying affairs. Hovering over wooded tracts, girded with a GPS, passengers count deer from above. There's a handy formula that can translate raw data into deer per acre. One colleague came back from the North Hills' survey with a splitting headache and tunnel vision. Another one came back nauseous from the hairpin turns the helicopter made, insuring that the whole landscape was covered.

Of course, during winter deer aren't very destructive to Missouri's flora. During the growing season, they can reduce a healthy stand of wildflowers and grasses to mown lawn status. When they're really hungry, or if their numbers are so high that there's not enough forage to go around, they'll feed on oak sprouts. And Missouri foresters don't really like that to happen to their oak woodlands.

Several decades ago, deer were almost extirpated from Missouri, overhunted to near extinction in the state. The state's conservation agency outlawed hunting deer until their numbers rebounded. Rebound they did, and quite handily. The landscape had changed, however, and deer thrived without the presence of their natural predator, the red wolf. Wolves were hunted to near extinction east of the Rockies, with the last population hanging on in Tennessee long enough for several individuals to be caught and bred. Outside of Chattanooga in the late 1990s, red wolves were released in Tennessee Valley Authority property. In recent years, red wolves have been spotted in public lands miles away from their release point.

We've all seen the documentaries and articles praising Yellowstone's hotly contested gray wolf reintroduction. With packs of gray wolves roaming the land, elk are forced to move around, thereby allowing the formerly heavily browsed willows to grow up naturally. With the willows growing along the river's edge, beavers have moved into the area, feeding on willows and creating small wetlands. Ducks which haven't been documented from the park in 20 years have returned to the wetlands. It's a cascade effect that is happening in Tennessee, as well.

Now, if red wolves can cross the Mississippi River and navigate through all of the suburbs to Missouri's public lands, we might be in luck. With the increased urbanization of our wild places, available habitat for deer and their associated large predators is disappearing. Deer are showing up in suburbs all over the country: in my father's backyard (built on a floodplain. Killdeer still show up at night, hanging out in the street that used to be a sandflat.), in Greater St. Louis, in Brooklyn. A huge buck crashed through the windows of an Episcopal church in Shreveport. Insurance companies list deer collisions in Michigan as one of their highest risks. As a country, we've not only removed a reliable deer population control method, but most of their habitat. When my colleagues call them "goats" or make an earth-shattering "kerpow!" when they see them feeding on roadside fescue, I'm sure they realize that we are, as humans, singlehandedly to blame.

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