by Barry Kent MacKay, Director
Late in February Liz White and I travelled to Kimberley, British Columbia, population 7600 (see wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimberley,_British_Columbia). Liz and I were there to monitor a mule deer relocation project, thanks to support from Born Free USA, Zoocheck and Animal Alliance of Canada. Animal Alliance had contributed $10,000 to a project that involved moving mule deer out of town to carefully chosen distant habitats. Those locations were chosen to maximize the chances the deer would have to survive. The money Animal Alliance donated to the project bought collars equipped with radio-telemetry devices that report the location of the deer via a transmission to a satellite every 13 hours. They are designed to eventually fall off but would provide enough information to allow the scientists to determine how successful the process was in terms of survival of the deer.
Lest you think it odd that animal protection organizations such as ours would have even minimal involvement in such a thing let me assure you it was to provide part of an alternative to the current deer culling where deer are captured in “clover traps” and killed by a bolt gun. Earlier this year someone captured this process during a secretly conducted cull in the nearby town of Cranbrook. The BC Deer Protection society, (bcdeer.org), of which both Liz and I are directors, posted the footage online.
Mule deer inhabit various towns and small cities that are built in close proximity to vast forests and the animals make use of both urban and wilderness habitats. So they are more likely to come into direct contact with residents and given that mule deer are not as inclined to flee humans as are many other larger wildlife species, conflicts arise. Often these conflicts involve dogs, many of whom are off-leash. In the spring does will defend their fawns, occasionally escalating the conflict. Other complaints include impacts on flower gardens, deer feces on the ground and the threat of deer being hit by cars or other vehicles.
A handsome animal, yes, but one that “does not belong” in town, as we have so often heard.
We heard that town life for deer is fraught with difficulty. They have to navigate fences and traffic and avoid people who don’t like them. Of course those who advocate this point of view fail to acknowledge, or understate that, in the wild deer are hunted in the fall. They have to avoid predators. They are in constant search for food, particularly through difficult winters and droughts. But we also heard such people, apparently unaware of their own contradictions, that the in-town deer were fat and healthy and bore more young than their wilderness counterparts. All the deer that we saw in Kimberley certainly looked healthy, fat and sleek and since they are nowhere far from wooded forests they obviously chose to be there.
In fact, residents who closely observed them assured us that the deer move freely from what we’d think of as classic deer habitat, the mountain forests and fields that border and penetrate the town borders, and the residential areas. Furthermore many folks love to have them around. Certainly the tourists enjoy seeing such magnificent wildlife up close.
And so a team was assembled and with consummate skill managed to catch some twenty deer in Kimberley and nearby Marysville, mostly at the edge of residential areas, with a shooter firing darts into them, and then following the animal until, minutes later, they became drowsy, and then fell into a deep sleep. Once unconscious the deer were examined for health, ticks, age, and sex (does were preferentially selected, and if they were with last year’s young an effort was made to get both, although the odd buck without antlers was also captured) and placed in a trailer, awakened with an antidote and given a calming tranquilizer. Eventually the deer were driven to a carefully chosen release site far away from town sites. Only one out of this original twenty died during this process, probably asphyxiating from recently ingested food. The risk of that happening is why doctors, and veterinarians, order fasting for patients planning to have a general anaesthetic. At least she was unconscious when she died and did not suffer. If it had been the usual lethal cull all 20 animals would have died a brutally applied death.
After we left the team moved north to another town, and as I write this, another deer was found killed by a cougar. Remember, though, that most animals were not radio-collared so results are very preliminary.
But we saw what we were hoping to achieve, at least for now. Both lethal culling and translocation (and I’d add fertility control) are unlikely to do much, if anything, to ultimately resolve concerns of people not wanting the deer in town, but they serve a political function by showing complainers (the only ones politicians heed) that “something is being done”. When the relocation project for Kimberley was completed, Liz and I, later joined by a local friend who knew the area well, drove to the various sites where deer had been taken and there seemed to be as many as always. More deer move in to take the places of those removed. Reduced competition for resources means enhanced survivability and fecundity for those who remain, in town and in adjoining woodlands, something called the “rebound effect” or “compensatory mortality”.
But it is a step taken away from simply killing the animals.
The issue is complex. Kimberley is showing an extremely progressive attitude by implementing the kinds of actions that reduce the attractiveness of the town to deer. These include volunteers picking up apples fallen from trees; leash laws enforced for dogs in conjunction with public education; no edible garbage made available overnight; encouraging deer fencing and planting of flowers, trees and shrubs less or not attractive to deer as food and a stop to feeding deer. The decidedly lower number of deer in town is a testimony to the effectiveness of these methods, although detractors claim it was a major cull of about 100 deer some years ago that did the trick. I beg to differ simply because other communities that implemented lethal culls but did not take the steps Kimberley has taken to keep deer numbers down actually saw more, not fewer, deer after the killing.
And we were pleased to encounter many local people who assured us that whatever their views on deer in town, they were happier that they were not being killed. One of the biggest downsides to the lethal culling, in my opinion, was how divisive it is within the community. Kimberley’s city council is, to its credit, open and transparent (in contrast to neighboring Cranbrook) and is actively seeking an intelligent and compassionate solution to human/deer interactions.