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The Deer Crisis

No Easy Answers

By Daniel Van Riper

The Pine Bush ecosystem is in great danger from many enemies, particularly greedy developers and ignorant politicians. Invasive plant species, pesticides, runoff from the dump and highways, fire suppression and general abuse by humans have all hurt the Pine Bush. There is one more enemy, white-tailed deer, which may in the end completely destroy the Pine Bush and make all of our preservation efforts worthless.

Every late winter and early spring these hungry herbivores hemmed in by suburban sprawl gobble the new growth with no restraint, leaving few seedlings and tender shoots to survive their onslaught. Whole sections of the Pine Bush have been stripped of Blue Lupine, thus wiping out the Karner Blue butterflies. Possibly deer are now the number one reason for the massive decline and lack of recovery of the Karner Blues.

Two weekends ago my wife and I strolled in the Pine Bush at the end of Washington Ave Extension down to the Thruway fence. We walked under groves of pitch pine trees in various states of health, and there should have been thousands of pitch pine seedlings covering the ground. Instead, we counted maybe ten seedlings, and every one of these was damaged, with young branches stripped bare. This is the tell-tale sign of foraging deer, which pull on branches with clenched teeth rather than bite.

The Pine Bush, with open areas of low brush, is the ideal habitat for deer. We disturbed groups of deer several times on this walk, coming up close before they revealed themselves and scattered. They looked sleek and well-fed, which probably means that they have been moving over a large area. The State figures won't be in for a while, but deer numbers in the region appear to be at record levels. If their population continues unchecked, in a few years these deer will starve in the springtime. Gaunt and ragged, they will stalk the Pine Bush, even killing trees by eating their bark.

Pitch pines have a great capacity for surviving damage, but constant abuse can hardly be advantageous to them. Last summer Jerry Mueller, now Director of Environmental Studies at Southern Vermont College, showed me some of these stunted survivors in the Albany City Preserve. Jerry said that if they make it past the first year of deer abuse they have an excellent chance of surviving even regular stripping by the beasts. Most of these were only a couple of years old, but they looked more like low-lying growth than trees. It was clear that they would never straighten up off the ground unless the seasonal attacks stopped.

Two experiments have confirmed that deer are the problem. The first is being conducted by Farnsworth Middle School teacher Alan Fiero and his students, who built an enclosure last fall around an area of planted pitch pine seedlings. Right now, almost all the seedlings inside the fence are thriving, while outside the fence there are hardly any survivors. Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission Director Willie Janeway, who recently observed this demonstration, called it "clear and obvious."

The second experiment involves a fenced in area off Apollo Drive, that is now preserve thanks to the efforts of Save the Pine Bush. Formerly a parking lot for trucks, the slabs of concrete were removed, revealing the beautiful Pine Bush sand. Only the fence was allowed to remain, and the sand was planted by volunteers with rows of blue lupine, with the intent of eventually creating a Karner Blue butterfly farm. According to Erin Donnelly from the Commission, it's too early to tell how well the plantation is doing, but last fall it was doing great and so far this year is coming up very well. Clearly, the fence made the difference.

There are no easy answers to the best way to reduce the deer population. The current top predator in the Pine Bush is the coyote, but they have minimal impact on deer, occasionally killing young or sick, but never taking any of the healthy adults. The occasional bear is not likely to chase deer, and we may eventually see mountain lions again in the Pine Bush, but thay also would have minimal impact. Wolves would do the job, and so would packs of wild dogs, but neither animal is likely to be tolerated by the Pine Bush invader species known as human beings.

Some years ago, State Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone suggested capturing deer and administering birth control, but the frightful cost in money and effort could be better spent acquiring and maintaining preserve land. Capturing and transporting deer to another location is also expensive, and often deer do not survive relocation to a new habitat. If they are only transported a short distance away, then it is sure that they will find their way back to the Pine Bush. Both options are terrifying to the deer and disruptive to the Pine Bush ecosystem.

That leaves hunting by humans as the only practical check on deer population. Over hunting from the 1700's until after World War II wiped out the deer population in New York, and they only arrived again about 30 years ago. It is illegal to discharge a firearm in any of the municipalities that encompass the Pine Bush, but bowhunting more than 500 feet from a dwelling is allowed during hunting season. But hunting as a sport and as a means of acquiring food has fallen out of fashion, and is increasingly frowned upon by a large section of the public that considers it cruel and dangerous.

One obvious and controversial solution to the deer population crisis is to encourage deer hunting in the Pine Bush, with temporary extended seasons. The Pine Bush Commission walks a fine line on this issue, working closely with hunting groups. Asked if the Commission has a deer policy, Director Janeway gave a flat out "No", but explained that this is an issue that has fostered much discussion. Mr. Janeway agreed that the deer are one of the biggest problems that the Pine Bush faces, and seemed at a loss at how best to deal with the crisis, but welcomed public discussion as a first step to finding a solution.

State DEC Ranger Joe Hess, who patrols the Pine Bush, strictly maintains hunting regulations, and avidly destroys permanent hunting blinds which damage trees and other vegetation. This patrolling, while certainly necessary, can only have the effect of discouraging deer hunting. Meanwhile, with no solid policy by the Commission in place, the deer population continues to rise and the Pine Bush continues to die.

Many members of the public, and some avid supporters of Save the Pine Bush are strongly opposed to killing deer by any means other than predators and natural causes. Yet if we do not come to a consensus on this problem, the Pine Bush will soon cease to exist as a habitat for other animals and plants. Even if we choose to sacrifice the ecosystem for the sake of the deer, converting the Pine Bush to a open air deer zoo, eventually the deer population over the blighted landscape will have to be reduced by some means. We must decide what we want now.

published Apr/May 1999 Newsletter
Last Updated 4/20/99


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