Dorothy Potter Snyder: Good science must lead way to deer solution

January 26, 2014 

The Durham City Council's decision to pass the Bow Hunting Ordinance (14516) allowing regulated deer hunting within city limits during the Central N.C. Archery Deer Season has inspired lively debate about the advisability of allowing bow hunters to cull the urban herd. Proponents cite dangers posed to drivers and damage inflicted on landscapes, while opponents question the enforceability of the ordinance's safety provisions and the wisdom of a cull-centric approach to wildlife management.

Historically, Native Americans on the east coast of our country relied upon the meat and hide of the white-tailed deer, which was plentiful until Europeans settled on these shores. Between 1600 and 1900, over-hunting drove the white-tailed deer to near extinction. The protective game laws and restocking policies adopted in the 1930s, along with the deer's ability to adapt to human-created landscapes, have brought those populations back in such numbers that there are now twice as many deer in our state as there were when the settlers arrived in Jamestown. That's bad for humans, but it's worse for forests and deer themselves.

Deer aren't the only animals we think of as “destructive.” We also have busy beavers in Durham living among us along Third Fork Creek in Forest Hills Park and along other city waterways. Do they take down trees? Yes, they do. But thank heavens for the beavers and the work they do to dredge waterways, prevent flooding and redress erosion!

Thanks to the efforts of Durham's urban foresters and biologists, we are slowly correcting the destructive development of the past, such as when the Army Corps of Engineers moved Third Fork Creek to build the Compare Foods shopping mall on University causing flooding and erosion. This is a classic example of the sort of wrongheaded development that continues to this day.

Trees still grow, dams are built, and the land re-balances itself after human meddling. Deer populations, decimated by us, then become larger than is healthy – also because of us. This is why good science and a knowledge of history must lead the way toward what should be our common vision: an environment that promotes the well-being of all species for the goal of harmonious co-existence. We need to get real information and not operate on urban myths like the one that deer are responsible for Lyme disease: Yes, they're called “deer ticks,” but they are carried by all outdoor animals, including your own beloved dog and cat.

What is the moral of this tale? When we don't live in a healthy balance with the environment, both materially and spiritually, fixing our messes is a huge and costly job. Just killing urban deer is not a comprehensive solution, nor should citizen hunters be aiming crossbows at animals within city limits unless trained and supervised by forestry personnel. Addressing deer overpopulation must be a coordinated statewide and cross-disciplinary effort. Possible approaches could be lengthening the hunting season statewide, or protecting and reintroducing large predators such as bears, wolves, foxes, and raptors in rural areas. Attempts like a recent one in Pamlico County to rescind the ban on dog-hunting of bear, however, are counterproductive to statewide environmental health.

Don't want deer nibbling your ornamentals? Put up a fence, purchase long-lasting deer repellent, or don't plant species that deer like. Conversely, relax and know that native varieties are accustomed to being “pruned” this way and, unless descended upon by a large herd, they will still thrive.

Let's adopt a more communitarian perspective towards these and other problems, and a more holistic approach to solutions. Durham needs to move toward first-class public transportation to cut down on car traffic; we need to concentrate human populations and avoid sprawl; we need to place limits on development; and we need to educate ourselves with real information, not urban myths and scare speech. We should take advantage of the many great workshops and information available for free via our Forestry Service, Agricultural Extension and other city environmental departments. Durham has a chance to be the best, greenest and most sustainable city in America, but it's going to take wisdom, willingness and community involvement at a high level.

Dorothy Potter Snyder lives in Durham.

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