Must Bambi go?

Guest post by George A. Feldhamer

I certainly applaud Daniel Cristol’s effort to alert the public about the effects that large populations of white-tailed deer have on forest understory habitats and associated negative impacts on migratory warblers in his essay “Why Bambi Must Go,” published earlier this month in the New York Times. Most wildlife biologists and managers would agree that there are too many deer throughout much of the eastern United States; the hundreds of thousands of drivers involved each year in deer-vehicle collisions would no doubt agree as well.

However, I suspect many wildlife managers would take issue with Dr. Cristol’s contention that “to this day, wildlife managers slice intact forests into sunny woodlots that maximize the number of deer,” and his implication that forests are managed strictly for the benefit of deer. Most state or federal management today is done on a multiple use basis, which is intended to benefit the greatest variety of resources and users, to the extent that is possible.

Also problematic is Dr. Cristol’s endorsement of fencing off large sections of woodlands to exclude deer. There certainly are numerous designs for “deer-proof” fences, in great part because none of them is completely effective in keeping out deer (not to mention the constant maintenance required).  Additionally, the costs are extremely prohibitive for fencing large enough areas to benefit songbirds.

There are numerous approaches to treating the problem of too many deer and many people are working hard to find the right balance. The most cost-effective way to reduce the number of deer in an area was omitted from Dr. Cristol’s piece. Public hunting always has been, and continues to be, the best and cheapest way to reduce deer numbers. Where hunting by the public is not safe or feasible, culling by sharpshooters is usually the best option.

Making it easier for people to gain access to hunting lands and opening private land to hunters would be much more realistic and effective ways to help reduce the deer population. A smaller population of deer is a necessary prerequisite not only to enhance cover for songbirds but for the healthy forest ecosystems on which the deer depend. Unfortunately, many people have an irrational fear of and distaste for hunting, and the result is overpopulation of deer in many areas.

George A. Feldhamer is a professor of zoology at Southern Illinois University. He has authored or edited several books, including Mammalogy: Adaptation, Diversity, Ecology and Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, and Conservation. His most recent book is Deer: The Animal Answer Guide.