One of my favorite TV shows growing up was Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Each week I'd watch the ivory mustachioed host, Marlin Perkins, traverse the globe presenting exciting tales of wildlife conservation. It was probably my first exposure to conservation issues and corporate sponsorship. For a kid growing up in Suburbia it was all about exotic locations and wild beasts that I would probably never have the chance to see up close and personal.
Then I became a gardener and moved to the east coast.
Every region of the world has their native pests that are the bane of a gardener's existence: in So Cal it's gophers and grubs; in England it's badgers and tourists; here in the Mid-Atlantic it's white-tailed deer.
|A mature buck lounges in the Pachysandra, digesting his lunch|
When I arrived as Director of Horticulture at my former employer several years ago, I was surprised to find a small herd of Odocoileus virginianus in residence. The fence surrounding the property had been breached several times due to storms and vandalism. A few attempts to drive the deer out proved unsuccessful and the deer were happily noshing the garden away.
One way to tell you have a deer problem in a wooded area is if you can see through the forest. The absence of an understory and ground cover layer are indicative of over browsing. Deer are native plant connoisseurs and will munch all the desirable plants that other birds and insects rely on for food and shelter, creating an imbalance in the local ecosystem. One day I popped out of the laundry room at home and came face to face with a herd in the parking lot. These deer were munching their way along the stream out back but I noticed they neatly avoided the boulder covered with budding poison ivy (apparently they know the poison ivy mantra, too).
According to experts, the numbers of white-tailed deer currently roaming the streets is way more than it was when Colonists first settled the eastern sea board 300 years ago. Native Americans and arriving settlers would hunt deer for their meat and hides. Natural predators also kept the populations in check, maintaining balance in the ecosystem. Then the human population boomed, cities were built, habitat was destroyed. The number of deer plunged and laws were passed to save them resulting in an exponential increase in the population. With no habitat left, they began to infiltrate the suburbs and remaining forest edges created by urban sprawl.
|A buck and a doe out for lunch in the parking lot at my apartment|
An adult deer will eat 6-8 lbs of vegetation a day. Multiply that by the eight deer that were stuck inside the fence and you'll see that the garden where I worked was on the fast track to not being a garden at all. The historic rose garden had already lost a season of bloom and the yews were nibbled to stubby twigs. Don't even get me started on the seas of New Hostas that Never Grew. I knew that controlled hunts were commonly used in larger public gardens to manage the deer so I wasted no time in organizing one.
The hunt would have to be bow because of the dense residential area, and it would have to be carefully managed. When I breached the subject I was met with much resistance: "The city would never allow it", the nay-sayers said. "Have they ever asked?" I asked. Well, er, no, they hadn't. So I asked, the city said yes, and a resolution was passed to allow a bow hunt in the garden.
As fate would have it, I connected with the Oak Ridge Sportsmen's Association, who happily satisfied the insurance requirements. They were skilled, they were experienced, they were knowledgeable, they were shocked that I got the resolution passed. So they came, they strategized, they hunted, and they got all the deer. They were awesome!
One of my requirements was that at least 75% of the deer harvested go to a food bank and I'm proud to say the hunt resulted in 320 meals being donated. Once the snow melted, you could almost hear the garden breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that it could get down to the business of growing again without fear of being eaten to death. As it is, the damage already done was extensive and will take years - no, decades - of wise stewardship and planning to restore. In this age of instant gratification and high speed everything, people lose sight of the fact that while it can take a herd of hungry deer (or a hurricane, or earthquake, or whatever) a very short time to decimate 6 acres of woodland, it will take much longer for it to recover. Unfortunately those people often aren't gardeners nor do they spend much time in nature. If they did they would understand that nothing in nature happens over night.
Invasive species that take advantage of the gaps created by an absence of native ones have to be eradicated and the areas replanted or the natives allowed to regenerate. New plants have to be monitored and cared for to ensure survival, and the invasives constantly beaten back until the balance is restored and nature can take care of itself again. Restoration takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
|Pachysandra, a native of Asia, is a shade loving ground cover that spreads rapidly in the humus rich soil of a forest floor. Though also native to parts of SE US, it's been declared invasive by several eastern states.|
Every conceivable non-lethal method had been attempted to remove the deer from the garden in the past and failed, leaving a managed hunt as the best possible option. If I hadn't pushed it through, the herd would have more than doubled in the spring (let's see, 15 deer eating 8lbs of garden each day is...times 5, carry the 1...yikes!). It's a touchy subject for many but getting rid of the deer was the only way to save the garden and save it we did (tip of the hunter orange cap to you ORSA guys!). It would have been interesting to see how the woodlands there regenerate and perhaps someone will take advantage of the opportunity now presenting itself and I'll read about it in ten years or so.
A similar, though much larger, study was done at Yellowstone National Park which was also overrun with deer. They took more drastic measures and reintroduced a pack of wolves to do the hunting. The result was a trophic cascade - an ecological phenomenon triggered by the addition or removal of top predators and involving reciprocal changes in the relative populations of predator and prey. And while the Mutual of Omaha loving kid in me thought having Marlin Perkins cover the interaction of wolves and deer in a suburban garden, they unfortunately weren't an option.