By Frants Attorp
Special to the Driftwood
The proliferation of deer on the Gulf Islands gained widespread media attention earlier this month when Oak Bay Police Chief Andy Brinton collided with a deer whilst cycling on Salt Spring. Brinton suffered several broken bones but is reportedly going to make a full recovery. The high-profile accident raised the question of whether Salt Spring, like Oak Bay, should consider a deer cull.
One person interviewed extensively was Dr. Tara Martin, a UBC expert in forest ecology who was born and raised on Salt Spring. She believes the deer problem in the Gulf Islands has reached a crisis level and must be addressed as a priority.
According to Martin, there are at least six times as many deer on Salt Spring as is healthy for local ecosystems. “When settlers arrived 150 years ago, there were no more than 1,000 black-tailed deer on the island,” she said. “Today, that number has increased to over 6,000.”
The population explosion is attributed largely to a loss of traditional hunting by Coast Salish First Nations, and insufficient hunting since. Another contributing factor is the eradication of top predators, cougars and wolves. “There is no longer any top down control to keep the deer population in check,” said Martin.
Deer overpopulation has been devastating for the local ecology. “Our forests may look beautiful, but they are vastly different than before and in a state of steady decline,” explained Martin. She points out that marvellous wildflowers such as the chocolate lily, the fawn lily and camas, which used to carpet vast areas, have all but disappeared. Also susceptible to over-browsing are shrubs such as Saskatoon berry, huckleberry and red currant. Even arbutus, cedar and Garry oak seedlings are not spared.
Deer browsing of the understory is changing the composition and structure of our forests, and this in turn is having a disastrous effect on birds that use that habitat for foraging and nesting. Songbirds such as fox sparrow, winter wren and Wilson’s warbler are becoming increasingly rare. “We are witnessing a cascading ecological collapse due to over-browsing,” said Martin.
There is also the impact on humans to consider. According to Martin, there is an average of one ICBC claim per week on Salt Spring due to vehicles colliding with deer. Some accidents are minor fender benders while others are more serious, involving personal injury.
So what is the solution? Martin believes the first obstacle to overcome is the “Bambi syndrome” which causes some people to value the lives of deer over all other plant and animal species.
“We have a responsibility to maintain habitat for all species, not just deer,” said Martin. “Yes, deer are beautiful animals, but when there are too many they are tremendously destructive and can drive other species to extinction.”
More specifically, Martin wants to see hunting regulations changed to allow a greater bag limit.
“Two bucks per person is not enough,” she asserts. “And there’s no way to manage the population if hunters aren’t allowed to take females.” She believes hunting is the only cost-effective method of control. Other measures, such as sterilization, are hugely stressful for the animals, extremely costly and often ineffective.
According to Martin, at least a third of the island could be suitable for hunting. This includes First Nations’ land, parks, ecological reserves, forestry lands and other large, private holdings. She would like to see a coordinated effort involving First Nations, BC Parks, the CRD, conservation officers, farmers and local hunters.
“This is a problem we can solve, with tremendous benefits for all.”
Martin would also like to see a change in attitude towards top predators: “There are currently two cougars and a black bear on the island. Let’s allow them to do their job rather than trying to eradicate them. This may involve some changes to how we manage our livestock, such as putting them in at night and having a guard dog, but it is possible.”
She adds that culling deer will actually make the deer population stronger. A colleague of hers has found high levels of ticks and liver fluke parasite in deer on Salt Spring, which is attributed to their high densities. He has also confirmed that the liver fluke is spreading to livestock. Low levels of the parasite have little effect on animal health, but extreme levels can kill the host animal. Humans, however, are not affected by ingesting the parasite.
And what about those pesky rabbits?
“They are not native to the island and should therefore be trapped or hunted at every opportunity. They finish up what the deer don’t eat and are contributing to the destruction. Both deer and rabbit are a great source of organic free-range protein. How about serving venison burgers at the Fall Fair?”
As evidence that deer control works, Martin points to several small areas on the island that have been fenced off and, as a result, are rebounding to their former glory.
“We have everything to gain by managing the deer population,” she said. “Not only will we reduce the risk to motorists, but also restore our native ecosystems with an abundance of wildflowers and songbirds and at the same time improve the health of the deer population.”