Practical Issues > Fishing & Hunting > Hunting - Index
Non-Lethal Integrated Deer Strategy

by Anthony Marr with comments by Barry Kent MacKay


Since 2003, I have undertaken and completed four Compassion for Animals Road Expeditions (CARE) -tours - see, of which the fourth (CARE-4) - covering 30 states in the 5 months) was the most memorable where deer protection is concerned.

When I travel from state to state, I come across dozens of local campaigns, amongst which the deer campaign takes the trophy, because, for one thing, deer slaughter is hardly local, but occurs in at least 12 states.

Yes...and more if we include both White-tailed and Mule Deer (not to mention Moose, Elk, and even Caribou, which are also deer), plus the provinces.

When I first encountered the problem, which was in Ohio, I was flabbergasted. It was inconceivable to a Canadian that killing deer by the hundreds, using contract sharpshooters and captive-bolters and bow hunters, right inside city limits, often in a neighbor's backyard, when children are coming home from school, is not only legally allowed, but actively promoted by the city governments in all these states, including OH, NJ, PA, IA, CO and CA, among others. And, in all cases, at considerable expense. In 2004/2005 the Ohio city of Solon, with a population of only 23,000 and an area of only 20 sq. mi., spent $520,000 to shoot some 1,000 deer.

Agreed. It is part of the gun culture that is so much more prominent in the U.S. than in Canada. However, a few years ago there was a proposal to lethally cull White-tailed Deer within the city limits of London, Ontario, adjoining a residential area. More rural culling occurs all too regularly. However, I think in the U.S. there is far greater general acceptance of guns and shooting than in other developed western nations, as reflected in all manner of statistics.

Apart from that, I think you have to also remember that the wildlife management in the U.S. is funded from taxes that derive from the sale of guns, and ammunition, including arrows, handguns and handgun ammo. That means that if the people who decide how animals are managed are to have an income, it is in their interest for there to be plenty of guns and ammo sold in the U.S. See the essay I wrote at: Opinionatedly/DoHuntersPayWay.htm  for a complete explanation of how this unique, all-too-American system works. It's really quite an exceptional situation. Of course sale of hunting licenses also fund the very agencies responsible, in both countries.

To put things in moral perspective, here are some very unsavory statistics about bow-hunting and captive bolting. For bow hunting, the wounding/killing ratio is about 50/50. In other words, for every 100 deer shot with an arrow, 50 stagger around with one or more arrows stuck in non-vital parts of their bodies, for days, weeks, sometimes months. Further, for every deer killed, an average of 15 arrows would have been fired. In other cities, such as Millburn, NJ, another method is used, called Captive Bolt, or Net-and-Bolt, a method used for killing domestic "food animals", involving firing a 4" bolt into the scull of the victim. Such a method is eminently unsuitable for killing deer, because, first, they have to be captured, which imposes severe trauma on the animal, and second, an average not one but several bolts have to be shot into the deer's head, something into the eye, due to a deer doing much more violent struggling than a cow or a pig. Videos have shown that, by this method, it takes long, violence-charged and certainly pain-and-terror-filled minutes for the deer to die.

Yes, deer are extremely sensitive creatures, who rapidly overheat under stress. I'm afraid that the public has seen too many videos and TV shows where an animal appears to be easily tranquilized and transported, or "humanely" captured, without reference to the high stress levels involved, and the subsequent harm done to a percentage of the animals, even where the goal is benign or humane. Captive-bolt can kill first time, but yes, the poor animal would struggle violently and there is no humane method of netting a deer, although that is a common method of live captive of such animals.

Upon studying the situation in fair depth, I have come to the conclusion that the lethal method in controlling deer population is simplistic in the extreme, and even so, it does not strike one that it has been thought out with a foresight longer than one or two years. It gave me the impression that it is the very first idea that occurred to the trigger-happy minds of over 90% of the city-council members I have since had the displeasure of observing, and once thought of, it stuck, at the expense of non-lethal, integrated methods which are potentially far more effective, more permanent and more economical. And, yes, more sophisticated, apparently more sophisticated than these blood-lust-filtered minds could grasp.

Hyperbole aside, Anthony has struck on what is a core problem we face. For many species, like crows, starlings, pigeons, cormorants, rodents, coyotes and others, lethal control has, in my opinion, an advantage of "punishing" the animal, there is a certain satisfaction that seems to derive from what I call "the final solution school of wildlife management" named for its similarity to the Nazi's "final solution". First you invent a problem (too it deer, gypsies, or Jews) for which there is a solution that completely eliminates them (killing) thus preventing the "problem" which did not exist in the first place. It is not that there are too many deer, simply that there are too many to preserve certain interests or values of those doing the complaining.

Wildlife management circles have reluctantly (I think, certainly only after much prodding from our side) invented a term "social carrying capacity", which is impossible to define, but can be roughly said to be the level at which enough complaints about a species coming in are high enough to promote the recipients of those complaints (ultimately elected officials, usually at the municipal level) to do something to essentially eliminate the complaints.

There is also a biological carrying capacity which I believe is a human construct that really has done more harm than good in educating people about the basics of ecology. The biological carrying capacity is that which the species in question can survive without starvation due to lack of resources, food and shelter being the two most important. But biological carrying capacity varies enormously for EVERY species in every habitat through time. For example, a high carrying capacity for a community of White-tailed Deer may suddenly become a low carrying capacity if there is a deep blizzard, covering food. If there is, starvation may occur where and when it otherwise would not have. If the animals are left alone, so that they may remain immobile and thus reduce metabolic demands, the "carrying capacity" under such circumstances would be higher, than if they were disturbed, say by a pack of dogs, or snowmobiles, or what have you, the point being that there is no one number that can be consistently assigned to identify either a biological or social carrying capacity. If someone plants a garden where there wasn't previously one, and deer eat the plants the gardener is trying to cultivate, the social carrying capacity may suddenly go down, if the gardener registers a complaint. If, on the other hand, the gardener does not mind sharing the plants with the deer, it remains the same, and the biological carrying capacity goes up by virtue of the increase in deer food.

"Over"-population is, biologically, a non-sequitor. There are, at least in dynamic ecosystems, no species that don't exceed biological carrying capacity from time to time. There is, generally, a floating population of bachelor (non-breeding) animals of any given species surplus to the capacity of the environment to support breeding.

The perceived problem is deer overpopulation, leading to high Deer-Vehicle Accident (DVA) and Deer-Gardener Conflict (DGC) rates. Upon research, I have concluded that to refute deer population being a problem is a state of denial. As with most problem solving, denial is the first blockage. There is scientific reports galore address ecological damage due to ungulate overpopulation, and hunters take full and unfair advantage of this fact. But unless we ourselves accept this as fact, we cannot construct a truth and effective solution.

I think Anthony is on extremely thin ice, here.

As I said above, 'over" population is a construct, usually identified in one of two ways: by die-off (individuals of the species that is "over" populated die of hunger-related problems) or the loss of a desired population level of another species (for example, where I live the loss of trilliums attributed to deer is cited as an example of "over" population.)

All actions have reactions. When White-tailed Deer populations reach higher levels, they consume more under story and ground plant production. That can put them at risk of starvation (lack of food).

But it can also, and perhaps more importantly, have negative effects on population sizes of other species co-inhabiting the environment. And, in many deer habitats a plethora of non-native plant species that take advantage of lack of native ground cover, but are not, themselves, supportive of deer or other species (in Ontario classic examples are Garlic Mustard and Dog-Strangling Vine). Thus the deer can be blamed not only for a loss in lovely woodland flowers, but the butterfly species, attractive songbirds and the like that feed on those flowers.

The deer are not, of course, responsible for the invasive plant species, and yet almost invariably there is never any plan whatsoever to deal with them. Nor, ultimately, perhaps can there be, since society would be unwilling to pay the cost. Easier to blame, and kill, deer. Of course those same invasive species will take over whenever there is a non-deer created situation whereby they can do so, such as a blow-down (leaving an opening in the forest), the introduction of logging roads and fire-breaks and the like (which provide avenues for invasive plant species), and forest fires (which help to regenerate some forest species essential to other wildlife, so cannot be indefinitely suppressed without lowering carrying capacity for those species).

All of that is complex to grasp and understand, which is why it is easier to just use the term "over" population and see the increased number of deer as the problem. It is easier, but "over"-population is also a subjectively applied term. In the absence of the invasive plant species, what would happen would be that the deer would exceed so-called biological carrying capacity, and there would be a die-off (related to malnourishment) that would allow the native ground cover plants to recover (even is slowly, as is the case with species like the trillium, often cited in Ontario as a victim of "too many" deer). But even with the presence of other factors now entering the picture, killing or otherwise reducing the deer is a contrived solution to a problem that exists because of social values (we cherish the Ovenbirds and Wood Thrushes, Whip-poor-wills and trilliums, whose numbers decline as a function of deer increase in given woodlots). It is not that there are "too many" deer, but that there are too many to allow a situation enough of us prefer to lead to there being a social demand to reduce what is is that the deer are doing.

I reject the term "overpopulation" and prefer, instead, to talk about values and problems.

The causes of the deer overpopulation are three: the decimation of natural predators (especially the wolf), the inadvertent creation of rich deer habitat (especially deforestation) and the deliberate creation of deer habitats by the hunting industry (to cultivate an unnaturally high deer population for hunters). Deer population did undergo significant increases over the last decades. This combined with the increase in the number of vehicles on the road does lead to increasing DVA rates in many states.

Natural predators of deer in temperate eastern North America include wolves and mountain lions, both extirpated through much or (in the case of the mountain lion) virtually all of their former natural range, as well as lynx in the north, and bobcats, but I really do question if their role in "controlling" deer is as significant as most people assume? The evidence is very scanty on that point.

But Anthony has left out one of the most, if not the most, important factor leading to recent increases in deer, at least in the areas I'm familiar with: agricultural subsidy. Crops adjoining or overlapping into White-tailed Deer breeding habitat (i.e.., woods) are more nourishing than ever, and with this increase in caloric yield per acre of land, there is a subsequent increase in the biological carrying capacity of the land area for the deer. The same land area provides more nourishment, than was true a few decades ago. I would put it as the most important cause contributing to deer increase, with the loss of predators the least. Add to that sloppy harvest techniques (like mechanical corn harvest) that leaves plenty of "waste" and it is no wonder there are so many deer.

In fact, where I live the government will provide a tax benefit to "farmers". Thus, what happens around cities and urban areas is that land speculators will buy open country side. In order to qualify for those tax benefits, they will allow it to be "farmed" (often by tenant farmers), although harvest is not necessarily in their better interest, and so crops are left standing (thus available in winter to deer, crows, pigeons, starlings and other "nuisance" wildlife) or are harvested sloppily. Corn is easy to grow, and can be sold cheaply as livestock food, but the crop has to be rotated, and the field left fallow on intervening years, ideal for deer.

Anthony has also omitted another factor that is, at least in Central Ontario, hugely important as a cause in increased numbers of White-tailed Deer: supplementary feeding, particularly in winter. The Ontario government used to do this, but although we got them to stop, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters still maintains winter deer feeding programmes, which not only increase survival for deer in winter, but which greatly enhances fecundity. The does' body, having unnaturally high levels of fat and energy due to the winter feeding, will be "tricked" into producing more fawns, including twin births. Non-hunters also often winter-feed because they like to have the deer around, or because they fear that the deer will otherwise starve, and so there is much more food than is "natural", and the biological carrying capacity is greatly enhanced over what it would be under more natural conditions. Even bird feeding programmes probably contribute to increase in carrying capacity for deer in at least some regions.

Anthony has also not mentioned climate change, which is hugely important where I live, at the northern edge of the natural range of the White-tailed Deer, and the southern edge of the natural range of the Moose (given that the two species have problems co-existing due to parasites that are relatively harmless to the White-tailed Deer but deadly to Moose). Climate change can also lower biological carrying capacity for any given species, but it does have an impact at the edge of the range of such species.

This said, it must also be added that over half of all DVAs year-round occur during the months of November and December, in other words, during the deer hunting season. Coincidence? How about the fact that the highest daily DVA rates occur on the first day of the deer hunting season? Deer are usually very prudent in entering open spaces, such as a field or a roadway. But on that day, they are "freaked out" by the sudden presence of hunters in the woods, who virtually flush the deer out from the forests into traffic.

I think at least equally important is to remember that this is when deer are in rut. They are very active and males are "belligerent". In the case of the Moose, they are most likely, at this season, to challenge cars or trains to a duel. They often act fearlessly, or "irrationally". In the absence of hunters or others in the woods in the late fall deer are not quiescent. However, the hunters exacerbate the problem. DVA is a very complex issue, but to a large extent it involves education of drivers, adjustment of road infrastructures such as fences and under/overpasses and attention to curves in the road, enforcement of speed limits, and so on.

How ironic, that deer hunting is hailed as a deer population reduction measure, when, first, hunting wiped out the deer's natural predators, and second, hunting caused most of the DVA's which in turn puts the blame on deer overpopulation, which in turn justifies hunting as a deer population control measure, which causes more DVAs, which calls for more hunting, etc. And we haven't even yet mentioned the Compensatory Rebound Effect.

And don't forget habitat management, which you mentioned above. While the factors contributing to the size of any given deer population are more than you have mentioned, they are anthropocentric in their derivation, meaning if we cause the "problem" we should look at what those causes are and how they might be mitigated.

The term "effective lethal solution" is an oxymoron if ones foresight spans longer than two or three years. If the city planners and policy makers would look just ten or twenty years ahead, they would see the ineffectiveness, and cost-ineffectiveness, if not the downright stupidity, of the lethal solution. For one thing, if the deer population within a city is culled by 50%, the Compensatory Rebound Effect, by which the deer's reproductive rate is raise accordingly, would bring the deer population back up within a couple of years. So, culling deer as a solution requires deer to be culled year after year, ad infinitum, at great expense, with every year or two back to Square One, and no end in sight.

Agreed, and I think this is what drives so much deer "management". It is in the interest of the managers for their to be a "problem" in the form of deer exceeding the social carrying capacity of their environment.

For another thing, even if the deer population is "culled" by over 50%, the DVA rate would not be reduced by much more than 25% (i.e. down to 75% its previous value), and the backyard complaints reduced hardly at all.

I'm not sure about the first part, given the complexity of factors contributing to DVA, but yes to the second, if deer preferentially choose to consume backyard plantings, because they are more accessible, more nourishing, more available, or whatever.

Let us work out what the lethal method would cost a city over a 25 year period. The maximum deer density in a suburban environment is set at about 20 per square mile. According to this, for a city of 100 sq. mi., the maximum deer population is 2,000. If the extant deer population is, say, 5,000, then they would cull 3,000 over two years or so. At about $400 per deer, the cost would be $1,200,000. There after, they will have to cull about 400 deer every year or so to keep the population at 2,000, at $160,000 per year. Over25 years, this would cost

$1,200,000 + ($160,000 x 23) = $1,200,000 + $3,680,000 = $4,880,000

This averages out to $195,000 per year over 25 years.

In the parks in Ontario where deer are culled, the rebound takes longer, and I suspect this is because the level sought is below what they see as "ideal" carrying capacity. But there are other factors...for example, in the culls I'm familiar with, costs vary depending on who is culling, and by what method. I'm not familiar with any netting and use of captive bolt in Canada, certainly not in Ontario. But I'm also not aware of any "biological" goal being achieved from culling. Let me give two examples. One involved a provincial park (Pinery, near the south end of Lake Huron) where there was a stand of relatively rare wildflowers at risk to deer. The flowers were the food of an endangered butterfly species. If the stand of flowers was lost to the deer, as was likely, the butterfly would be extirpated. Whether that is "right" or "wrong" or "good" or "bad" depends on values which differ among individuals within society, but socially, as reflected in legislation that mandates preventing species native in Ontario from being extirpated, it was "bad" or "wrong". The solution was not to kill the deer, which would only lead to more deer moving in to eat the flowers, but to fencing off the flowers.

At Rondeau Provincial Park, near the south end of Lake Erie, the problem was, in part, a provincially endangered bird species, the Prothonotary Warbler, which nests in holes in trees in swampy situations. The degradation of the habitat was seen as threatening the warbler, but, surprise, it turns out that Prothonotary Warblers will utilize nest boxes...hence the carrying capacity of that environment could be enhanced for the warbler regardless of what deer are doing. Mind you, they are culled for other reasons, but at least one excuse was eliminated.

Both fencing off stands of flowers and providing nest boxes are an "artificial" or contrived solution to a social problem, but so is culling. The real problem is that most Carolinian habitat was destroyed by the end of the 19th century in southwestern Ontario, making the tiny remnants that survive of special importance in protecting a plethora of southern species, IN ONTARIO (most are common to the south). Farming has created a massive feeding area for the deer by night, and they can move into the Carolinian woodland refugia for the day, or to produce fawns. Open fields are no barrier to deer, so by culling in the protected woodlands, one simply opens them to more deer, as Anthony has explained.

Now, let us consider the Integrated Non-Lethal approach.

First note that even Anthony DeNicola of White Baffalo Inc, who is the pre-eminent sharpshooter in 12 states, who has not only cornered the sharpshooting market but has a monopoly in it, wrote that the lethal method is not meant to be long term. He also wrote that culling deer as a population control measure is "like mowing lawn" - once you started doing it, you'll have to do it again and again and again. But he is marketing the lethal method as a long term measure, and why not, from his viewpoint, if he stands to make $4.9 million over 25 years?

The lawn mowing analogy is an excellent one, and so is the point made about the profiteering.

What DeNicola advocates first and foremost, academically, is fencing. On this I fully agree. He was talking about the physical aspect. Fencing is the absolute barrier which deer cannot cross. A fenced roadway is a theoretically deer-free roadway, where the DVA can theoretically be cut down to 0%. "Theoretically" because some deer might venture into the fenced section from the two ends, on the wrong side of the fence. To address this problem, one way gates can be installed at regular intervals. A one way gate could be something as simple as an up-ramp leading up to the top of the fence, which is about 8' tall, from which the deer could jump down to the other side, but from which it cannot jump back. All in all it is safe to say that the fencing solution can cut the DVA by over 90%, instead of the 25% using the lethal method.

Fencing is a solution, but remember there are huge costs involved, given that deer can easily clear a six foot fence. Ideally, a fence should be placed on a rise from the wooded side, so that the deer is moving uphill, upon approach. The top of the fence should be bent inward (deerward) and very clearly visible, to act as a further visual deterrent. The bottom of the fence should go below ground, since deer will, to the surprise of many, wriggle through a small gap between the bottom of the fence, and the ground. And of course crusted snow can reduce effectiveness overall, and a deer that is able to get over a fence in the first instance, may then be trapped within the road corridor.

These are not insurmountable problems, just things we have to be aware of. By acting as barriers, fences could also be harmful to the interest of deer or other wildlife in some regions (I'm thinking of pronghorns in the prairies, for example).

And then there is the economic aspect. Fencing is a one-time expense, with a life expectancy of about 25 years. At a range of $5,000-$25,000 per mile or an average of about $12,000 per mile, 20 miles of fencing would cost about $250,000. This would line both sides of 10 miles' worth of roadway. Backyard fencing can be much cheaper on a per mile basis, where electric fencing is sufficient, instead of the more expensive woven-wire fencing. All in all, $600,000, half of the $1,200,000 for shooting 2,000 deer, could fence more than 70 miles' worth of roadways and backyards - far more than enough. Once installed, these fences require minimal maintenance for the rest of their 25 year life span.

I can't imagine electric fencing working, and it is very difficult and expensive to maintain. Deer in rut would almost certainly go through it, if not over or under, and snow and rain may short it, and there are liability problems whenever electrical fencing is used. (Remember the huge numbers of hummingbirds killed by electric fencing because they treated the red contacts as flowers? There could be other such problems that would not be anticipated.)

For those properties that do not accept fencing, there is a full range of deterrents and repellents, including those employing smell, taste, sound, sight, and unchained guard dogs contained by invisible perimeter fences. All in all, $1 million over 25 years should more than suffice, which averages out to be only $40,000 per year, versus the $195,000 a year by the lethal method.

I don't see any of these as being in the least pragmatic. A deer running from forest A, to forest B, with a road between won't be deterred by scent, and we can hardly have dogs and "invisible fencing" along miles of highway.

There are loose ends to tie up. What about the deer behind the fence? It depends on whether their green space is connected to the greater wilderness or not. If yes, they could be positively induced, by means of moving feed stations, to gradually out-migrate, and continuity can be created with overpasses, underpasses and corridors.

Yes...we are just beginning to appreciate the needs for such overpasses, underpasses and that probably most of the highways and roadways of temperate North America are complete.

If the suburban deer habitat is isolated from the greater outdoors, then selective (i.e. a calculated percentage, not all), remotely-administered (i.e. by darting, involving no pre-capture) contraception may need to come into play.

I think contraception can play a role in very isolated populations (such as on Navy Island, in the Niagara River), but I think most populations of deer that are assumed to be isolated are not...they are far more mobile, and far less deterred by "barriers", than most folks realize.

One last problem. City councils ignore animal advocates as a rule.

I can't say that's been my experience in Canada, but I can't speak for the U.S. Up here I find that municipal governments are usually the most approachable. Unfortunately, in matters pertaining to roads, highways, and wildlife management, they often have too little, or no, jurisdiction to be of help.

So how do we get this message across? By two tracks. One, the AR activists will educate the public about it, and seek to inform city councils about it in a town hall setting. Two the AR-oriented entrepreneurs will create a business enterprise to win contracts - in a city hall boardroom setting - and defeat the lethal operators in the commercial arena.

The second method is being tried with regard other urban wildlife issues, and I agree that it is past time to see it happen with regard deer, but one does need the right person, with sufficient funding and interest, in place to get it started. I'd love to see it happen, although, again, I think most of the issues will be decided more at the federal or state/provincial level of government, and not the municipal.

Such a business enterprise is in the process of being created. Its name - Deer Options Enterprise or DOE.

I hope it has start-up dough.

OH, there is actually one more problem. Funding. If interested in investing in this humane enterprise, please contact the author of this article at

[email protected].

The only commercial developments I ever invested in cost me...the first lost me thirty grand, the second when I bought shares at just over eight dollars each, and the last I saw they were selling for pennies apiece. Since then I've left all my investing up to my financial advisor (who has made up my losses, bless him)...believe me, you don't WANT me as an investor with my track record, but good luck.

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