The Dilemmas of Wildlife Management–Human stewardship is a matter of perspective as well as needs

Over-population of certain wildlife species threatens habitat conservation and the survival of other species. How to deal with this issue is often a matter of value judgement and perspectives; science-based wildlife management offers solutions.

Modern humans have always utilized the natural world for survival and prosperity, thus unavoidably altering it. Today, unrestrained exploitation of nature’s resources is no longer acceptable, but the results of previous abuses remain. Wildlife species have been driven to extinction, some lost forever while others are reduced to remnants. The American bison, once roaming in the tens of millions and now a mere novelty in parks and private herds, is a potent reminder of such exploitation. However, although our collective mindset has swung in favor of nature, the need for intervention and management of nature is greater than ever.

The future of some species, such as the black and the white rhinoceros, requires re-developing and maintaining viable breeding populations. Others—the American whitetail deer and European wild boar, for example—present the opposite challenge. They are thriving; agriculture, the reduction of natural predators and even climate change have allowed these populations to expand far beyond their natural and historic levels. For the whitetail deer in particular, the park-like conditions of suburban communities in the US have created an endless supply of food and ideal edge habitat in well-maintained gardens and yards.

Whether there are too few or too many of certain species, we humans must get involved. Failing to do so can have dire consequences, such as the Tsavo National Park elephant crash of 1971, when too-high elephant populations combined with drought led to a massive die-off. Current conditions in elephant-range countries show this to be a clear and present danger once again in the coming decade.

Whether elephants, deer or boar, unsustainably high animal numbers cause extreme damage to their ecosystem and may lead to crop losses, rampant disease and parasite infestations, and potentially fatal encounters with humans and infrastructure. Yet controlling and managing burgeoning populations of wildlife is now highly controversial, with different views and opinions often blocking or hobbling attempts at herd reduction. Achieving a balance for long-term conservation is often emotionally opposed by extremists or those who do not understand the issues. The debate involves governments, animal-rights groups, conservationists, wildlife managers and scientists, landowners, hunters and—increasingly, via social media—private citizens from around the globe.

(Ironically, often ignored in the debate are those who are most affected, the rural people who live in proximity to wild herds that have outgrown the carrying capacity of their habitat.)

Restoring overabundant wildlife to sustainable numbers—and then keeping them at those levels—means eliminating animals from the herd, yet killing wildlife is less and less accepted as people become farther removed from nature. Conservationists and wildlife managers walk a thin line between public opinion and the feasibility and effectiveness of their methods.

Overabundant whitetail deer roaming downtown Pennington, New Jersey, spring 2019. Sarah Calabi photo

Wildlife overpowering ecosystems

North America’s most popular game animal, the whitetail deer, is at the heart of these issues throughout much of its range. Numbers of these deer, reduced to dismal lows early in the 20th Century, have rebounded. In some areas, especially where suburban sprawl spreads into native habitat, deer populations have reached destructive proportions. Daniel Schmidt, editor of Deer & Deer Hunting, writes about the damage inflicted by whitetail deer in areas where their numbers are unsustainable:

“It’s been nearly a century since Aldo Leopold taught us about the ‘Legacy Effect’ whitetails can have on a landscape. Whitetails, when living beyond their scientific capacities on the landscape, can cause almost irreparable harm to the ecosystem. The Legacy Effect, in short, calculates how long it will take for an over-browsed landscape to return to natural capacities once the whitetail population is brought below carrying capacity.

“As we stand right now, there are areas in places like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan where the effect is estimated at 100 years—meaning it would take a century of keeping deer populations at or below levels of approximately 35 deer per square mile of habitat for the habitat to ‘heal’ itself.”

Perception & values

The Legacy Effect is a startling concept to those who are uninformed about wildlife management, and public perception is the greatest obstacle facing those involved in wildlife management. Mike Bodenchuk is a wildlife biologist with both private and public-sector management experience. In his home state of Texas, deer are controlled by hunting, whenever practical, or by trap-and-transfer programs or culling by professional shooters. He knows how the public feels about wildlife and wildlife management, especially in urbanized areas:

“There is dissention. Hunters would like more hunting opportunities. A few people believe no management should be applied. The community in general would prefer that their deer not be managed but recognize that the problem needs to be addressed; but some are against hunting and others do not see the capture of deer as humane—deer struggle under drop nets or in traps.

“Most of the deer overabundance issues I’ve been involved with are in human-dominated landscapes. This might seem contradictory, but [in such places] there is a lack of management options—hunting seasons, for example—and there are no, or few, natural predators. People love to see wildlife and, where there is an abundance, humans make things worse by putting out feed and trying to tame the animals.”

Deer-vehicle collisions reportedly kill more than 300 people annually in the US.

Such practices may seem harmless to suburban parents keen to introduce their children to nature, but when conflicts with wildlife arise—such as deer-vehicle collisions, which kill more than 300 people per year in the US and result in nearly 30,000 hospitalizations, or destruction of shrubs and gardens—views can change quickly. When wildlife goes from novelty to nuisance to financial burden, the case for management makes itself. However, contention arises when people who are not affected or are far removed from the problem base their involvement in the conversation on emotional rather than factual reasoning.

In Chotomów, Poland, town security guards chase a family of wild boar off the street. Across Europe, boar are moving into populated areas just as whitetail deer are in North America. Gazeta Powiatowa photo

Education & conversation

In Europe too, various deer, chamois and wild boar threaten ecosystems already significantly altered by human activity. Introduced species, like fallow, sika, muntjac and water deer were brought to Europe long ago, before the consequences of such actions were understood.

Alex Vankov, owner of The Roe wildlife service, works to control these species and wild boar in the southeastern United Kingdom. He often comes to the aid of landowners desperate to reduce their wildlife to sustainable levels that no longer damage habitat and crops. With no large natural predators in Britain, he notes, it falls upon humans to close that gap.

Vankov works to educate the public, especially young people, about wildlife issues. Via social media, he spreads content that shines a positive light on hunters and wildlife managers, seeking to bridge any divide with the public.

“We shouldn’t try to defend ourselves,” Vankov says. “We should show why we are doing this and, most importantly, we must show the benefits of our work by collecting data and presenting it in the right way, by the right people. We are very open about [culling] and how we are doing it. There is no need to try to hide the truth from the public.”

Vankov feels that trying to hide the reality of wildlife management causes more harm in the long run, as sensitive issues almost always come to light. Vankov’s philosophy of transparency allows him some control over how information is presented and fosters educational conversation instead of inflammatory, emotionally charged rhetoric.

Hunters are also to blame

Wildlife management challenges don’t come only from the public; hunters also must study the issues and adjust their behavior to benefit overall conservation. Mike Allison, CEO and founder of Jelen Premier Wildlife Services, in the UK, makes this point:

“Hunting is generally, but not always, weighted towards the taking of male deer for trophies, while female deer are deliberately left to keep populations buoyant, to present more hunting opportunities. There are areas in the south of England that have suffered badly through hunting that is focused purely on males.”

The trophy value of antlers aside, there is often a traditional taboo against the harvest of female animals. But this mindset is a management problem too, as it can create unsustainable male-female ratios, which ultimately reduce the health and quality of the herd, including the size of the males and their antlers or horns. In Europe’s privately managed lands, hunting quotas usually demand a calculated offtake of juveniles and females in addition to the valuable trophy males.

In the United States, the whitetail deer’s current widespread overpopulation is in part due to the practice of under-harvesting females of the species. While trying to re-establish populations that had earlier been decimated, conservationists and hunters set a precedent of leaving does untouched in order to repopulate. Decades later, the success of this practice is clear—as is the folly of continuing it. Many new regulations encourage antlerless harvest, and in states with an “earn a buck” system, harvesting a doe is mandatory before a buck can be taken. Most hunters have now realized the importance of doe management, but the areas most affected by whitetail overpopulation typically restrict or even prevent hunting.

Hunting has its limitations as well. Even where bag limits are generous, hunters typically set their own harvests based on personal consumption. Hunters also like to see deer—efforts to reduce populations to numbers that would impact the frequency of sightings are met with resistance by hunters as well as non-hunters. The concept of “too many deer” does not seem to sink in until deer directly and negatively impact an individual.

Where hunting falls short of management goals or is restricted, communities eventually search for other ways to reach sustainable balances. Each method, however, is met with opposition from one faction or another, preventing cohesive, decisive management practices to meet the issue head-on.

Predator populations expand also

In the US, mountain lion populations are growing too, especially in states with limits on hunting. In Oregon, for example, hunting the big cats with dogs is not permitted. Since this ban went into effect, in 1994, cougar numbers have more than tripled. In the Greater Yellowstone Region, reintroduced gray wolves have reached numbers high enough to cause Montana, Wyoming and Idaho to allow hunting these animals.

Predators offer a new set of dilemmas when their populations expand beyond sustainability. Foremost among these is more and sometimes dangerous encounters with humans. In 2018, two people, one in Oregon and another in Colorado, were attacked by mountain lions and in Wyoming a hunting guide was killed by grizzly bears while skinning an elk.

Such incidents, however, are rare (so far) and highlight the worst cases. Much more common, and increasing, is predation on livestock. When livelihoods are threatened, the end result is typically the destruction of the animal to blame, and perhaps some that are not.

Too many predators are also detrimental to populations of other species. The New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish found that cougars decimated wild sheep populations and hindered the relocation and reintroduction of the animals—but with help from cattle. Quoting from the study: “Mountain lion predation may have limited the Sierra Ladron bighorn sheep population and could be imposing a destabilizing inverse density-dependent mortality. Mountain lions preyed on domestic cattle in the Sierra Ladron area and throughout desert bighorn sheep habitat in New Mexico; we therefore hypothesize that cattle ‘subsidized’ the diets of mountain lions (i.e., reduced or eliminated natural starvation). The ultimate cause of mortality for these desert bighorn sheep may be related to subsidized mountain lion populations that do not appear to decline following native ungulate population decreases. In addition, the encroachment of woody vegetation may increase the hunting success of ambush predators like mountain lions. High mountain lion predation may require mitigation for the successful restoration of bighorn sheep.”

Mitigation of unsustainable numbers of any species, whether mountain lions or whitetail deer, as well as the methods used, is the subject of continual debate. In regions where hunting or culling are unpalatable, other tactics such as translocation and sterilization enter the discussion.

Sterilization: a humane option?

Capturing and relocating elephants, while enormously costly, dangerous and slow, can be effective, but moving whitetail deer from one overpopulated ecosystem to another makes no sense. Some wildlife districts have tried sterilization instead. However, experience has shown this is not feasible on typical government-agency budgets and outside of small populations in fenced enclosures.

Chemical sterilization requires darting an animal, or the animal must be captured and tranquilized before the injection can be given by hand. In either case, dosages vary with the size of the animal, and then each dosed animal must be marked and sometimes tracked. On a large scale, with wild herds, this is virtually impossible, even if budgets were in place to fund such operations.

Physical sterilization, although it permanently erases an animal’s ability to breed, is no less problematic. Jacqui Posthumus, a game-farm manager and consultant at Trading Wild, in Limpopo, South Africa, understands the challenges:

“Physical sterilization in wild animals is not a realistic option in South Africa. Veterinary costs, helicopter costs, a capture team, vehicles, a mobile sterile unit, immobilization drugs and any type of aftercare are just too expensive. Private landowners cannot afford this, and our government can definitely not afford it.”

For wildlife population control, “hunting,” Posthumus concludes, “is generally the most cost-effective option.”

In addition, the long-term effects of sterilization are unclear and trials on deer and elephants have revealed another downside: When females don’t breed, subsequent heat cycles disrupt natural behavioral patterns, especially among males. Prolonged attempts to mate cause stress and reduce fitness while increasing aggression (sometimes against humans). While the idea of sterilization may appeal to mutualists and animal-rights groups, any push for it hinders conservation through traditional methods like hunting and culling.

Mike Bodenchuk again: “It’s all a matter of values. If a deer dies due to decreased fitness because of human intervention, is that more natural or less offensive than if a deer dies by a sharpshooter’s bullet?”

Nature’s own methods of culling are not “kind.” Urban societies usually give little thought to the actuality of natural death for wildlife, but ranchers, farmers and people in rural areas understand this: Whether by predation, natural selection, accident, or starvation or disease exacerbated by overpopulation, most wild animals die in pain, violently and slowly. It can be argued that death by a hunter’s well-placed bullet is kinder and quicker than succumbing to “brutal” nature. Indeed, some argue that such a death is fully natural also, as humans are predators too.

Finding & keeping the balance

Where humans share habitat with wildlife, even in naturally sustainable numbers, there is often competition between the two. If wild animals destroy crops or even livestock but represent income and sustenance (physical and psychological), coexistence becomes a viable option. In the increasingly important matter of conservation, we must not tip the scales out of balance by catering to the extremes on either side of the issues. The burden of wildlife management should not fall upon the shoulders of a few; the concerted, unified involvement of biologists, wildlife managers, hunters and the public is needed to sustain wildlife populations. This is part of our role as stewards, and we should do it in a manner that benefits animals, the ecosystem and ourselves wisely and logically. As Amy Dickman, of Oxford University, and 132 other wildlife and conservation experts say in a recent letter in Science Magazine: “conservation policy that is not based on science threatens habitat and biodiversity and risks disempowering and impoverishing rural communities.”

Joe Pinson grew up fishing and hunting in the foothills and mountains of New Mexico. Now a resident of southeastern Oklahoma, he divides his time between family, cattle ranching and writing about the outdoors.

Banner Photo: For whitetail deer, the park-like conditions of suburban communities in the US have created an endless supply of food and ideal edge habitat in well-maintained gardens and yards. Colleen Roberts photo