Tom Salo and Andy Mason
Published in the April 2005 issue of NY Birders
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is currently revising its deer hunting seasons for 2005, and is taking public comments on the proposed changes. Although it may not seem that deer and birds are particularly connected, in reality deer populations are affecting birds and forest ecosystems in general.
Without effective predators to keep it in check, this large ungulate is causing significant changes to natural vegetation, the composition of our forests, and the quality of wildlife habitat in the forest understory. Native plants are being over browsed to the point where some may become endangered or extinct. A recent study indicated that browsing of ginseng by deer may eliminate this valuable plant from eastern forests. Other vegetation is under similar pressure from an overabundance of deer.
In addition to direct impacts on plants, the dramatic changes in forest flora are affecting numerous other species, including nesting birds, such as Wood Thrushes and Black-throated Blue Warblers that lack the understory vegetation they require for successful nesting in growing areas of the state’s forests. These landscape scale impacts will affect our environment for generations.
Much of deer management is driven by economic factors, positive and negative. The current deer population is not low enough to alleviate the negative impacts. Automobile accidents, the consumption of agricultural products and landscaping, and the suppression of valuable timber species and wildlife food sources remain serious problems.
While agricultural and timber damage is addressed on a case-by-case basis, ecological impacts are not given the same consideration.
The situation is likely to worsen. Deer hunting is losing popularity. Hunters grow older and fewer every year. The winters of 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 reduced the deer population, but not enough. Some spots may have a low number of deer, but numbers are still too high in many parts of the state. A couple of easy winters and the population will quickly return to previous levels.
There are natural means of reducing deer populations. Although coyotes are a less than ideal predator, they can impact deer numbers under certain conditions. Calls for the persecution of coyotes are an emotional reaction that should be dismissed by DEC. It may make some people feel better, but there is no ecological or management rationale for killing coyotes. Decades of coyote suppression using all types of methods have failed elsewhere.
In addition, two large and effective predators of deer were extirpated from the state during a period of less enlightened understanding of wildlife. Wolves and mountain lions could again play a major role in controlling deer populations. DEC should give consideration to reintroducing these native animals to the wilder areas of New York State.
There is also increasing concern over the effects of lead ammunition on scavenging wildlife. Many deer carcasses containing lead slugs or bullet fragments remain on the state’s landscape after hunting season. This toxic material threatens vultures, crows, ravens, eagles and other species. The primary cause of mortality among the endangered California Condor has been identified as lead from hunted carcasses. In this state, the leading cause of poisoning in Bald Eagles is lead, and the likely source is deer carcasses, a prime food source for these birds. Although lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting, it remains a danger to humans and wildlife alike. Alternatives do exist, and DEC should review expanding limits on lead ammunition.
Without a long-term solution to the deer problem, New York’s forests will continue to degrade. DEC is charged with conserving, improving, and protecting the state’s natural resources. With regard to white-tailed deer and their impact on the habitats of other, at risk, wildlife, they are not currently fulfilling that mission. The agency needs to change the basis of its deer management programs to science and healthy ecosystems, and to give greater consideration to the impacts of deer on the state’s other wildlife, including birds.
What you can do — The deer season restructuring process provides an opportunity for input to DEC on deer management. Let them know that they need to take a wider view of the impacts of deer and not just consider hunters’ desires for more deer. Also ask them to consider reintroduction of large predators to naturally control deer populations and to address the issue of lead poisoning from deer carcasses.
The deer season proposals can be found on the NYSDEC
website. Comments may be submitted via