Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Deer versus Predators
When it gets down to it, deer are beautiful, graceful animals. They can leap a four-foot cattle fence with a elegant and simple leap. Before I wax eloquent, I notice the deer are now sampling even the Euphorbias in my garden. How can they stand the bad-tasting, poisonous sap? Hopefully it was just a sampling and they discovered it’s not a plant for even the most distraught of times.
Until this year, does were dropping two fawns each year. Now they are sometimes giving birth to only a single fawn. I wonder what is going on.
In years past, natural predators—bobcats and mountain lions—helped balance the deer herd, perhaps preventing excessive population explosions. With the encroachment of human habitat and agricultural endeavors on the forest and wilderness (sheep in my “backyard”), the role of predators in moderating or regulating deer populations has been greatly diminished or eliminated. Unfortunately, the predators of deer often don't mix well with suburbia or livestock. The predators of deer require large areas for their territory and are often quite shy of human activity. Furthermore, agricultural activities such as dairy and sheep herds and poultry flocks fear such predators and the farmer usually attempts to exterminate these wild cats.
I know one rural resident who was upset when a bobcat killed some of the chickens in his tiny, ram-shackle coop. But he was even more distraught when he couldn't get a clear shot at this pesty intruder. For the sake of a few eggs which were the last symbols of his back-to-the-land lifestyle—his vegetable garden had long ago been decimated by deer leaping the short, inadequate fence. This self-proclaimed environmentalist was willing to kill one of the only remaining natural predators of deer. This was the same environmentalist; who was, at the time, promoting ocean wave generation of electricity as the non-polluting answer to our coastal energy needs. He was willing to kill the first bobcat to reappear in the area in years for the sake of a little symbolic cholesterol-in-a-shell. This example clearly shows how environmental issues can so easily be segmented into seemingly unrelated fragments. A better chicken coop, a proper deer fence and a little tolerance or reverence for the sleek, marvelously-patterned bobcat could begin to strike a more normal balance with respect to deer and bobcat alike.
Ah, there is now a grape vineyard where the sheep used to graze. The vineyard manager has a “predation permit” to shoot deer that happen to get through the eight-foot fence that surrounds the 30 acres of grapes. Now the predators of deer are slowly beginning to return. I spot bobcats, or their scat, at least four times a year. I was woken up from a nap by a cacophony of many species of birds. I knew this meant they were trying to drive a bobcat away. I raised my head to see, not a bobcat, but a young mountain lion (cougar) slowly walking four feet from my house a casually through the garden. Being on the second floor, he didn’t even know I existed. The main predator of deer was back after 20 years of no sightings. I can often tell when he returns because I find the scat on the driveway and the deer don’t walk past my office every day as they used to like clockwork. I found the skeleton of a mature buck on the hillside next to the creek. Only a mountain lion is big enough to take down a mature five-point buck.
Until the return of the mountain lion, and still unto this day, the deer have had to fear another predator—the mechanical hunter called the automobile? On many a dark night, on a lonely country or suburban road, the metal meets the flesh. Sometimes the car wins and in the morning buzzards find a tasty meal. Sometimes the car looses and a radiator is pushed into the engine block and the local repair shop makes a killing—and the deer usually suffers a fatal blow. Occasionally, the car's occupants take some of the impact.
An individual deer is just small statistical blip in the population he or she belongs to. If said deer happens to be munching on your favorite rose buds, then all this highfalutin talk about the return of predators may seem like a waste of time. Your pissed at that *#^&$#@ deer, and he's got to go! Right. You can shoot what seems to be all the deer in the area, and they can recover to be a problem in a relatively short period of time. Even if you can tolerate the sight of a 150 pound mountain lion prowling around your kid's sandbox, predators most likely won't be able to keep the deer population low enough to solve many urban and suburban deer problems. One deer may not make a population in the eyes of a naturalist, but it's big enough to make a mess out of my much-beloved apple trees.
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