The apex predator is gone and no one told the deer – that’s the problem suburbs in the Northeast are facing as deer become increasingly overpopulated.
Deer by nature are prey animals and as such they must quickly reproduce to keep up with predation by wolves and cougars. Only problem is there aren’t any wolves or cougars in most of the whitetail’s habitat – this is especially true in the suburbs.
So what happens when the deer continue to reproduce at a normal pace, but the natural apex predator no longer exists? The deer eat everything in sight effectively destroying their habitat and the habitat of other plants and animals until eventually there is a mass die off due to starvation.
On August 15 I attended an orientation for the 2012 Westchester County Adaptive Deer Management Program to introduce bowhunting in select state parks just 30 miles north of New York City. The goal of this program is simple: restore forest regeneration by reducing the deer population.
The plan is to introduce an apex predator, bowhunters, into several state parks to bowhunt exclusively from climbing treestands. Hunters must earn a buck tag by shooting a doe and are required to put in 10 hunts during the course of the season or else be removed from the program.
Currently it’s estimated that there are 60 to 100 deer per square mile within these parks that have been off limits to hunting for decades; the carrying capacity is believed to be around 5 to 10 deer per square mile. With 98 hunters enrolled in the program and over 5,000 acres of land to hunt, it will take an incredible effort by bowhunters to save the forest. The state is helping by issuing special permits specific to the parklands, which allow for a higher number of deer to be taken by hunters.
Nothing illustrates the lack of forest regeneration better than taking a walk alongside a fenced in enclosure that State Biologists put up 20 years ago to see what the lush landscape could look like with zero influence by deer. Then turn around to be brought back to reality and see that you’re standing in the middle of that same forest with no understory or lush anything.
It’s not just the suburbs of New York that are fighting to save their forests. In Weston, Massachusetts, a town less than 20 miles from Boston, more than 70 bowhunters have applied for a special license to hunt deer. The town hunt was approved in May and is scheduled to run from October 15 through the end of the year.
Although it’s not in quite as bad shape as New York, with 25 deer per square mile in Weston, the deer population is almost four times higher than the carrying capacity of the land. The result has been damaged crops and residential yards and a forest ecosystem that’s in shambles.
The overpopulation of deer in suburban areas is a serious matter and one that has to be dealt with. It’s tough to establish deer management programs that include hunting when so much of the suburban population lacks a general knowledge of what hunting really is. The fact of the matter is, there are no predators to keep the deer population in check and once the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the land the fragile ecosystem falls to the mercy of the deer. In these densely populated suburbs bowhunting is the only effective, affordable and sustainable solution to keeping the deer within the carrying capacity of the land. It’s up to the bowhunters to save the forest.