By Barry Kent MacKay, Director
What a cruel, and bizarrely complicated, mess. There are countless human endeavors that fit that characterization but I write those words as my desk is covered with documents, and a series of disturbing photos, all in reference to currently unfolding events in the community of Cranbrook, tucked in among snow-covered mountain ranges down in the southeast corner of British Columbia. It close to the border with the Montana. That’s important, as I’ll explain in a moment, but first the photos.
They show one of too many victims of Cranbrook’s war on Mule Deer. The antlers of this animal are entangled in the mesh of a trap, set to catch and hold deer alive. That is at the behest of the Cranbrook’s municipal council.
The trap itself, known as a Clover trap (pictured below) after its design was published by the California Department of Fish and Game’s employee, Melvin Clover, in 1956, is supposed to keep the deer alive, in the case of Cranbrook and another town to the north, Invermere, however, only so they can be killed.
What was expected by Cranbrook’s politicians was that two men would arrive, as usual, collapse the framework of the box-shaped trap down on the deer. One of the men would hold the panicked animal as steady as possible while the other drove a steel bolt through the victim’s skull and into the brain causing, if done correctly, instant death.
That is what Cranbrook’s city council wanted to happen.
But instead the trap was somehow triggered to collapse down on the deer, with the frame of the top part apparently landing across the buck’s nose, either crushing the nasal bones or hitting just in front of them, but at any rate blocking the nasal passage so that air could not pass through, possibly causing the animal to try to suck air through the mouth, beneath the hard palate, to no avail. It must have been not unlike you or I would experience if our nostrils were pinched off and something was holding our mouth shut, in this case the weight of the trap. Added to that would be the pain of crushing trauma. Death rarely comes gently to wild animals, but this one must have been horrific. Did it serve a purpose?
When, years ago, Liz White called me to tell me that “they” were lethally culling Mule Deer in parts of B.C., I was confused. Why would anyone do that?
“Apparently people are,” replied Liz, “afraid of them.”
The Mule Deer is a western species, and I am an easterner. But I lived a few early childhood years in California where I met my first Mule Deer near the top of a mountain. I was about seven years old and had just peeled a banana. The deer walked over, reached down and bit off the top of my banana! My parents later told me they were afraid I’d be frightened by any large, wild animal coming so close and doing such a thing, but then burst into laughter when I responded by shoving the rest of the banana into my mouth, presumably to the deer’s disappointment. I recall the incident and I’ve seen Mule Deer many times since then whenever I have ventured out west. While they are usually much bolder than the similar and related White-tailed Deer who live both out west and in my own community, often to be seen behind my house, I had never thought of either species being very dangerous.
Fast forward seven decades since that incident with the banana. Over the last number of years, numbers of Mule Deer (so named because they have large ears, like a mule) have, on average, tended to increase, at times rather dramatically, in many cities and towns and communities in southern and central B.C. As is true of many species of wild mammals and birds, if they come to think people are harmless they lose their “wildness”. They become “conditioned” to accept the presence of people, and we may think of them as a “tame” or “friendly”.
They are neither. Contrary to what people often seem to assume animals are not necessarily naturally timid or fearful of people; we give them reason to be. From chipmunks and chickadees to mice, moose and bears, wildlife can learn to not fear us. But loss of fear does not equal understanding of what, exactly, we are, and misunderstanding is often the root of conflict.
Most of those conflicts were of the predictable nature: deer eating garden plants; deer being struck by automobiles; deer relieving themselves where people walked and so on, but there was also a surprising element of fear. Apprehension reached a critical mass when a doe with a dependent fawn was being stressed by onlookers, including a cat, and spotted a harmless old dog down the block. Driven by instincts evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of canine predation the deer charged the poor dog whose pathetic yelps reverberated in countless computers as a video of the event went viral. The dog survived, and certainly there were those who regretted the stress that had been imposed upon the deer, but then why was a deer with a baby fawn on a residential street?
Old timers remember when deer were scarce in towns. Deer belong in the forest, don’t they? Now, perhaps ironically, populations of both Mule Deer and White-tailed Deer are declining in B.C.’s “natural” woods and forests that are their native habitat. However, urban deer are easily seen, at times and in some communities surprisingly so, bounding over garden fences, strolling down sidewalks, drinking from bird baths, munching on Halloween pumpkins, quietly resting beside this porch, near that fire hydrant, next to the school fence, behind the library – wherever.
It’s an understatement to say public reaction to the quadrupeds in their midst is mixed, with some people loving the close company of beautiful wildlife while others are annoyed and even terrified. Mule Deer don’t always give way when we approach. Males are famed for swelling their necks and looking intimidating. They are large animals, and capable of causing injuries if one does not back down.
Natural born killers; that’s us.
Killing, of course; in both human and wildlife conflicts killing is so often the default solution our species employs. We are masterful at killing. As one wildlife management type put it, “…it is currently the only tool available to communities to address public safety risks posed by urban deer.”
In fact, it isn’t.
At present, the figures show that years of killing deer has not resulted a reduction in complaints issued about deer! Killing may satisfy the need, seemingly so instinctive, so imbedded in our DNA, to punish and destroy. But within constraints imposed by the urban environment – a team of sharp-shooters can’t simply roam urban streets blasting at bucks and does – the cruel practice of live trapping and killing whatever deer (including the relatively innocuous and timid White-tails who so rarely give cause for concern) happens to get caught has proven to be a profoundly inadequate “tool”.
And other tools, both proven to be effective and potentially so, remain little tested or used. For example, we know that many negative encounters with deer involve dogs, including dogs off-leash. Yet leash laws are lax, missing, or unenforced, and people poorly informed that dogs and Mule Deer don’t mix. There are other things to be done more effective than the quite ineffective killing Cranbrook employs but our offers to assist the community to better – not perfectly at all times – but better, cohabit with the deer go ignored by Cranbrook council.
We have found in researching this issue that surprisingly little is known about the deer and their habits. We’ve helped change that by helping to fund research into the movements of deer. We provided some of the costs for special radio transmission collars that, attached to deer, allowed scientists to track their movements.
Often people assume that the deer they see in town are always the same deer, residential and established. Were this true, the theory goes, by killing off a percentage, the problems they cause is, if not solved, reduced, as if each deer killed was a “problem deer” deer never to be replaced.
While there is much more to learn, early indications are that deer are quite mobile. There are not two populations, one urban and one in the wilderness, but many animals move from one environment to the other, and back, although those born in wilderness, tend to be less urbanized than those born in town.
Meanwhile, deer are being trapped and killed in town and the townsfolk who are happy to share their community with wildlife are saddened, and often angry.
The community is divided. Hunters and conservationists alike are concerned that the very species that are in decline overall in B.C. is being reduced by the number killed by communities that still do lethal culling – this year Cranbrook and Invermere.
Compassionate people are outraged at the destruction of so many innocent animals, whether they have caused a problem – or possibly might do so – or not.
Those people who are disturbed or frightened by deer are still being disturbed or frightened by deer, and angry at what they see as Bambi-loving animal rights activists who love animals more than people working to prevent the lethal culls.
Informed citizens with an eye to community affairs take note that tax money dearly needed for a plethora social services is being squandered on actions that divide the community without resolving the issues.
The mammal biomass on the planet earth, only some four percent consists of wild mammals – and still that is “too many”, and in place of even considering ways in which we might better cohabit with them, we continue to kill. We have the brains to reach the moon and dream of the stars, but not to live in peace.
A mysterious threat is emerging…and again we can only think to kill.
Remember that I mentioned the nearness of Montana? Here’s why. Borders are human inventions, mental constructs, often leading to very physical fences, check-points, markers and barricades by which we signify our instinctive tribalism. But unless they block movement political boundaries have no inherent meaning to wild animals.
On the Montana side of the border there is a strange, frightening illness among deer known as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). It is caused not by viruses, bacteria or parasites, but by prions, not to be confused with a harmless little tropical seabird with the same name. This prion, the word being a portmanteau, is a “proteinaceous neurodegenerative disease” – prion. Proteinaceous is an adjective meaning something consists of, or contains, protein.
Prions are an aberrant form of protein that contains no nucleic acid genome. Put simply it means that prions are arguably not “alive”, cannot reproduce the way living microorganisms and other life forms do, and cannot be killed by the usual ways by which we kill “germs” – high heat or disruptive sterilizing materials, like bleach or alcohol. They are called “neurodegenerative” because they attack the central nervous system, literally destroying the brain.
Best known of this family of “family” of always fatal, and incurable, neurodegenerative diseases is Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), found in humans. Collectively these horrific ailments are called transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. We know that they can be triggered in people by prions like those that cause Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as “mad-cow disease”. These diseases can only be identified with absolute accuracy after death, by examination of the brain, which is why brains of deer killed by culls – or hunters – are being dutifully examined. CWD is in Montana, and Montana is next door to B.C, just across a border that means nothing to deer, or prions.
One does not have to understand the intricacies of microscopic cell biology to be concerned. While we don’t understand the exact mechanisms of transmission of prions from a sick animal to a healthy one, indications are that prions can be transmitted via aerosol bodily fluids (sneezing; coughing) and probably via other avenues and that they can live outside the body in soil, water or food that can come in contact with, and infect, otherwise healthy animals. Prions can even be carried on the wind, or the feet of migratory birds.
We also know that prions that cause the death of one species can be transmitted, via consumption, to another. We know that while animals in the later stages of the disease show dramatic symptoms, acting oddly, often showing a lack of coordination, difficulty swallowing, paralysis and so on, they can also have the disease, be able to transmit it, and yet initially show no outward symptoms. While we know other species of primate can be infected by eating meat from a deer with CWD, we don’t know if we humans, who are also primate, can be, but since there is no cure, no one is willing to take the chance.
Or are they? Any member of any species who eats venison from an area where CWD occurs is taking a massive gamble. Given that the prions can’t be killed by cooking, and that it seems to take a least a year, and possibly many years, even decades, for at least some types of proteinaceous neurodegenerative diseases to develop to where there are symptoms, even now deer hunters in southern B.C. may be gambling with their lives if they eat wild venison from the region.
The solution? There is none at this time, but, of course, that does not mean that wildlife managers are not, once more, turning to what they usually depend on. The plans are that when the first CWD shows up in a wild deer on the Canadian side of the border, all deer of the region in which it occurs will be killed.
Big animals in declining numbers, but still we want to kill.
Meanwhile, Kootenay East’s Member of the Legislative Assembly Tom Shypitka put it succinctly when he said, just prior to Christmas, “It’s getting to a crises mode.”
What is? Deer in towns? The threat of CWD? Actually, he was referring to an overall precipitous decline in a variety of what we call the “charismatic megafauna”, the large, well-known species of animals like, say, Elk. Elk, also known as Wapiti, are also a species of deer, and in the East Kootenay Trench area they now number approximately 7,000; fewer than people in a small town.
Moose, our largest species of deer, are in trouble, too, just as they are throughout much of their former range in North America. The province ranks Brown (“grizzly”) Bars as “vulnerable” while the national Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) classifies them as a species of special concern.
Of course we still kill them all, even as their respective habitats are continually degraded through logging, encroachment and the effects of climate change. Hunters blame wildlife managers for bad decisions about who could kill what and wildlife managers blame everything but their willingness to allow continued killing.
Among the deer native to B.C. only a few critically endangered caribou, also a deer, are spared the “sport” of hunting, but still the urge to kill is there – wolves are killed to “protect” caribou since all previous warnings about destruction and encroachment on habitat were ignored. If we can’t kill caribou, let’s kill something, damn it. It’s what we do.
And the irony is that those of us not killers are not understood. That trap the crushed the nose of the deer in Invermere? They’re blaming people like us for pulling the pin that held the trap in place. Some traps had been vandalized, but not by people bent on killing! We are not all killers.
But killing drives profits and is deep in the blood of our kind. We, not you or me, but as a species, want to keep on killing, which profits those whose livelihoods derive from the minority of Canadians who hunt for “sport”. Those include everyone from outfitters and government wildlife managers and administrators to the off-season tourist industry – a powerful lobby who wants to go on killing.
It’s what we do – not all of us – but sadly too many of those who make the decisions.