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Hunt for the Environment

Hunters step into gap left by missing predators

Just don't think of Bambi. Photo by Attila Horvath.

In many parts of the Ohio Valley this fall, hunters will be filling a niche once occupied by wolves or mountain lions – that of a predator maintaining the proper balance of ungulates per acre.

Think that’s not important? Ask Larry Peck of the Franklin County Metro Parks near Columbus. In the early 1990s the park district faced a serious problem with deer overpopulation. The poster child was Sharon Woods Metro Park near Westerville, about one square mile of forest and old farm field surrounded by suburban sprawl and populated by, at its peak, about 450 deer.

“In the Midwest, you should have about 20-30 deer in a square mile,” says Larry. Visitors fed Twinkies to panhandling whitetails and remarked frequently about the browse line between the ground and the highest point a deer could reach. “From the ground to about 6 feet high, there was an ecological desert,” he recalls.

It wasn’t just the forest that suffered. The deer were stunted and suffered from immune deficiencies and external tumors common among deer in areas where populations outstrip food supplies.

After documenting the loss of 250 species of woodland plants, the park system decided to reduce the deer herd by shooting deer. Public outrage ensued, and the park service bowed to pressure to try various non-lethal methods, including contraceptive darts and relocation. But the population continued to grow.

The relocation was a madness that left Larry with images he’d rather forget. Deer hit with tranquilizer darts panicked and crashed into trees, breaking legs or necks. Deer were injured in fights in the holding pens. Deer died of capture myopathy, a stress-related disease common among captured wild animals.

Park managers went back to shooting deer, the public hubbub subsided and, over the last decade, Larry has watched trillium and other wildflowers return to Sharon Woods. Yearly hunts keep the herd down to about 35-45 deer – a number that usually grows to about 80 in the spring.

But deer populations remain out of whack, and not only in small suburban parks. In 2005, researchers at West Virginia University warned that white-tailed deer threaten the future of many Appalachian forest plants, including medicinal plants like ginseng. A five-year study of wild areas of West Virginia showed that deer were killing ginseng plants at a rate at least double that of human root collectors.

"Without more effective deer population control, ginseng and many other valuable understory herbs are likely to become extinct in the coming century," the scientists wrote in an article published in the journal Science.

The issue, of course, could be helped by the return of top predators to the Ohio Valley – wolves and mountain lions, let’s say. That’s not likely in highly-populated areas of the East. So wildlife managers like Scott Tomlinson, a law enforcement supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, keep constant track of deer numbers and adjust bag limits and other regulations annually. Scott points out that there are some predators for deer – black bears and coyotes, but even more so, automobiles and hunters.

“We use hunting seasons and bag limits to maintain some balance,” Scott says. “Hunting is a management tool, and one of the things we’re managing for is to ensure forest regeneration.” Even so, when bucks can impregnate multiple does and does give birth to twins most often, deer populations are hard to keep in check.

And deer aren’t the only animals out of balance, Scott says. Canada geese are now common in areas where once they only passed through during migration. Game officers encourage goose hunting during non-migration seasons, to reduce those numbers as well.

It’s a constantly-evolving process, said Susie Vance of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. “If there are no natural predators left, and the habitat is suitable, animals have the potential to increase to the point of instability.”

Getting started: training and mentors are key

Susie Vance, a spokesperson for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, explains the legal requirements common to most Ohio Valley states: beginning hunters must complete a hunter safety course before they can get their first license. (Ohio also offers an apprentice license that allows new hunters to postpone the course if they hunt with an experienced mentor. Kentucky allows beginners to take part of the course by videotape.) Beyond the 10-hour class and the license, however, Susie says the best way to get involved in hunting is to find some hunters to teach you.

“I was shy about asking at first, but hunters are passionate about their sport and very helpful about sharing their knowledge,” she says. For women who are novice hunters, she also recommends the various hunting programs specifically designed for women, such as the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Women in the Outdoors or Becoming an Outdoors Woman.

Hunting can put a hole in your wallet. In West Virginia the annual licenses for hunting deer total $48 for residents and $131 for non-residents, says Melinda Brown, who works the counter at Jerry’s Sporting Goods in Horner, WV. But that won’t buy any firepower. A good starter rifle might start at $400 and can cost a few thousand. Add $30 for a blaze orange vest and $20 for each box of 20 rounds of ammunition, and it adds up.

Melinda’s advice for first-time hunters is to know where you’re hunting. While West Virginia has a lot of public land there is plenty of private land, and landowners are less than patient with trespassers. “And, know what you’re shooting at,” she adds. “Go about all the rules and be safe.”