Many hunters love to shoot deer. They enjoy this hobby so much that hunters completely eliminated natural predators like wolves and cougars from most of the U.S. to remove any competition. They even hunted deer to extirpation in eastern regions (which helped wipe out cougars even faster).State game agencies eventually stepped in to regulate the killing and transplanted deer back onto the landscape. Their efforts were a success. Deer are back and at an estimated record high in many areas, with population estimates around twenty-million.
Unfortunately, now without any natural predators in the East, few wolves and mountain lion populations falling in the West, deer are over-populated throughout the country. While deer hunters aren’t complaining, the rest of us should be. Due to over-browsing by deer, America’s forests and all the other wildlife are now in trouble.
A recent NPR interview looked at a conservation project in Virginia that has fenced off 10 acres of natural habitat since 1990. In what is known as an exclosure — fencing designed to keep deer out — the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute found drastic differences on either side of the line.
“The deer side of the fence has a carpet of grass, a shrubby looking thing, and some large trees – things that are either too big for deer to eat, or are among the very few plants they don’t like to eat. Inside it is practically a jungle. Dozens of different almost exotic looking plants are tumbling over one another. Many of them are young trees […] white ash and hickory and red maples and service berry. We’re looking at twenty, thirty species. If you look out there [the deer side], it’s a much simpler world.”
In nature, simple means weak and unhealthy. Without diversity and younger trees to replace the old ones, the forest will disappear in time along with all the critters that call the landscape home. Sure, human hunters are doing their part to reduce deer numbers, but the true managers are the natural predators. Perhaps it is time to surrender control back to the experts… restoring the cougar in the East would be a great start.