Minnesota's deer-vs.-forests collision

  • Article by: DON WALLER
  • Updated: April 25, 2014 - 6:02 PM

It’s both possible and necessary to take a holistic approach to wildlife-management issues.

The April 20 article “Fate of forests, deer in balance” lays out the clear tensions that now exist between deer hunters eager to see and shoot more deer and the toll we pay for higher deer herds in terms of failed tree regeneration, crop losses, highway accidents, the spread of diseases like Lyme and chronic wasting, and the expensive steps we now take to reduce these.

As a scientist who has studied deer impacts on forests for 24 years, I am concerned to see so many resigned to accepting these impacts. As a deer hunter, I am disappointed to be lumped into a group that others assume has no interest in forest health or ecology. Aldo Leopold worked for years — as a hunter and with hunters — to improve public understanding of ecological matters and to bring a holistic approach to wildlife management. We should expect the same from our public agencies.

So I was encouraged to hear Minnesota Department of Natural Resources deer czar Leslie McInenly say, “We are trying to find the sweet spot.” I was less encouraged to hear her say that we’re unlikely to actually find it and to see no mention of the tools we need to identify and reach the goal.

If we are to move beyond opinions and emotion in deer management, we surely need two things: the information to make informed decisions (in the form of accurate field data on deer and forest health) and a public (including hunters) educated and informed enough to support wise decisions based on that information.

No Midwestern state currently monitors deer health and deer impacts in a way that would allow us to adjust hunting regulations in real time to minimize long-term damage to the ecosystems that deer, and we, depend on. We also see no systematic effort to educate hunters or the general public on the ecological roles that deer (and human predators) play in these systems. In other countries, one must often study and pass a rigorous test demonstrating ecological knowledge before earning a license. Why focus just on gun safety?

Neither of these points was mentioned in the article, yet without reliable data and public appreciation for what those data imply, deer management is destined to remain a political football. Shouldn’t we instead agree to manage deer and forests as the interdependent system they are? We have a special opportunity here, never realized in Leopold’s time, to move deer management away from competing special interests. Let us use the current crisis to seize that opportunity.

Don Waller is a botany professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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