Oh Deer

Deer are a symbol of all things wild—and all things gone wrong with the wild. Wisconsin’s white-tailed dilemma, caught in the headlights.

by Erik Ness

Milwaukee Magazine, August 1999

A darting flash of tan tickles the corner of my eye and I quickly pull to the side of the Root River Parkway. There, a doe and two fawns lope toward a pair of apple trees. Within seconds, one fawn boldly changes course across the road, preferring crab apples instead. After a long pause, the doe crosses with the other fawn skittishly in tow. While the mother and her brazen seed sweep up the tart treats, the wary one keeps retreating to the hedge beyond. The doe follows and patiently nudges it back.

I have never been so close to white-tailed deer for so long. Never counted the spots on a fawn or seen the graceful capering of sinew, muscle and bone under velveteen fur. From 30 feet, I watch one fawn rise on slender hindquarters and pluck an apple. The other, meanwhile, has taken notice of me and is circling about for a better view: 25 feet, 20, 15 feet. Finally, risk disarms curiosity and the fawn wheels away after its family, white tail flashing farewell into the woods.

That bobbing tail speaks in one voice or another to much of Wisconsin. A boy of 14, huddled with his father and his father’s father in the bracing dawn of his first hunt, hears of history and legacy. A farmer, always one step ahead of losing his land, surveys acres of lost crops and hears the night rustlings of a pestilence he calls the corn rat. A woman flinches at yet another deer in the headlights and hears the voice of her husband and others: thirty-three killed in vehicle-deer accidents from 1985-1995; 6,706 injured. Nature lovers hear November’s cannonade and see the autumnal parade of deer splayed and displayed on rooftops and bumpers, destined for dens and freezers.

Deer are beautiful and powerful and, whether you like it or not, they remain essentially in charge of much of our landscape. Deer are what some biologists call charismatic megafauna. Because they are large and beautiful, you don’t have to be a naturalist or even a nature lover to appreciate their charm. And with popular images ranging from Bambi to the wall-mounted trophy, they evoke an emotional response from many Americans. “Deer can live anywhere on the land, almost, and it seems they can live almost anywhere in the psyche, too,” says Richard Nelson, a Wisconsin native and author of Heart and Blood: Living With Deer in America. “They’re as adaptable as a symbol as they are as an animal.”

Not so long ago, deer in Wisconsin were hunted to the vanishing point. By the middle of this century, there were still few deer in southern Wisconsin, but they were overrunning the north. Though the landscape has changed fundamentally, deer remain a dilemma on the Wisconsin landscape, north and south, city and country. Last year’s mild winter has left the herd at near-record proportions—in the vicinity of 1.25 million, 25 percent greater than the DNR’s optimum size of about 1 million. Too many deer.

It may seem a merely Malthusian problem, but the issue is more than simple overabundance. Coal miners used to bring canaries into the mines, and when the birds died, miners knew to flee the mine for better air above. It’s harder to make the connection to ecological health when an animal is thriving, yet deer are canaries as well. Too many deer is evidence of a land out of balance.

‘’A lay person’s impression of a healthy deer herd is a lot of deer. A deer ecologist’s impression is: ‘That’s a red flag,’ “ says Don Quintenz, director of education and land management at the Schlitz Audubon Center in Bayside. “There’s this balance point. Too many deer is just as bad as too few.”

Indeed, Wisconsin may be reaching a point where deer spill dangerously out of the woods and fields and range wildly in our political discourse. They reside at the fulcrum of a host of hot-button issues: urban sprawl, endangered species, the ethical treatment of animals, population growth, property rights, even global warming.

Deer overabundance is a national problem with, as yet, very few success stories. How we deal with our deer will say a lot about Wisconsin’s future landscape, but such a richly symbolic creature creates its own political dangers. It seems only fitting that the hunter’s garb of blaze orange is the color of caution.

The deer debate in the Wisconsin of today actually began in the Great Northern Woods of yore, the seemingly endless stands of sugar maple and yellow birch sprinkled with hemlock and pine. Deer are not woodland animals and were not overly abundant. Those that lived in the forest found food in clearings formed when the great trees toppled or in open areas maintained by fires, both natural and those set by Native Americans.

The heyday of logging wiped that slate clean, but since the clear-cutting of the 1920s and ‘30s, the forests have been rebounding and regenerating. So have the deer, rescued by the imposition of tighter game laws—in particular, forbidding the shooting of antlerless deer. Following the clear-cutting, virtually the whole of the north was deer pasture, and with does off-limits, the herd exploded dramatically. In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service was asking for aggressive hunts to stave off winter starvation in the Chequamegon National Forest in north-central Wisconsin.

In the early 1940s, Aldo Leopold, newly elevated to the Wisconsin Conservation Commission, argued that a dramatic herd reduction was necessary. His concern was addressed in his posthumous conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac:

“I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.”

Now, more than 50 years later, we’re in the midst of another crisis, argues Don Waller, University of Wisconsin-Madison botanist. Deer populations remained moderately high into the 1970s, but they “began to climb again through the ‘70s and ‘80s in an alarming way,” says Waller. “We biologists, ecologists, wildlife managers were a bit slow on the uptake. We should have been aware of the history here and the concerns that were so eloquently expressed by Leopold and others back in the’40s. People considered the ‘40s extreme. We’re at or beyond those extreme values.”

Waller explains that deer, by virtue of the amount and kind of plants they eat, strongly influence the forest. A study in Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains first projected that deer browsing of seedlings could lead to almost complete elimination of hemlock, white cedar and possibly white pine over the next 150 years. Waller’s concern is the loss of herbs and wildflowers. “Most of the plant diversity in the forest is on the forest floor,” he says. “It’s not in the canopy. We may have a few dozen tree species in the state, but we’ve got 1,700 species of other vascular plants.” The loss of plants ricochets through the forest, affecting insects, birds, small mammals, amphibians and on up the food chain.

Looking at the blue-beaded lily on the Apostle Islands, Waller found that when there were 12 deer per square mile, the plant ceased reproduction. With more deer, it disappeared altogether. The catch: Twelve deer per square mile is lower than any target deer density for any deer management unit in the state of Wisconsin. Most are managed for an over-wintering deer density of between 20 and 30 per square mile, and those targets are often exceeded.

“What we have is an intentional management policy that’s ensuring the demise of several plant species that were once common elements in the forests of the state,” says Waller. “The reductions are not temporary. What are the future forests of the upper Midwest going to look like? Are we losing our ability to ever regenerate those mixed forests that once dominated the landscape?”

Keith McCaffrey, state deer biologist in Rhinelander, does not share Waller’s worry for forest plant diversity. “The plant community that is often held up as the paradigm for all future time is the 1863 plant community,” he says. “That forest was a product of the so-called mini Ice Age, so even if there were no deer and the Europeans went back to Europe, we’re not likely to regenerate the forest that existed at the time of settlement because the climate is different.”

But McCaffrey does acknowledge that the herd is large and likely to get larger. “Clearly in the last decade, we’ve had far more deer than the goal calls for because the climate went away. We were 20 percent above goal going into this last winter, a near-record mild winter, and the herd is going to bounce considerably going into this fall.” Under those conditions, the DNR is unable to market enough permits to control the herd.

At least part of the problem is the practice of state residents feeding deer over winter. Though the problem hasn’t been quantified, he knows it’s prevalent. “That artificial infusion of energy into an otherwise more or less natural system, I don’t view as healthy.”

Another problem is the politics of numbers. Deer hunters advise—some say control—DNR management through the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a group officially designated by the Legislature as an advisory body to the DNR. The Congress is notorious for disputing DNR population estimates and for a tendency to limit harvests in favor of a larger deer herd. “It doesn’t matter what part of the state you go in,” admits Les Strunk of Oconomowoc, 25 years a hunter and 15 years with the Conservation Congress. “[Hunters] could have had a record kill or seen deer coming out of their ears. You’re going to find somebody who says: ‘The numbers aren’t right. [The DNR is] overestimating them.’’’

This disagreement haunts DNR management strategies. Hunting is by default the only management tool the DNR has, but they cannot compel hunters into the woods. They reason Wisconsin has such a devoted hunting population in part because hunters frequently “get their deer.” If they don’t, the DNR certainly hears it. Deer biologists fear that if they keep the herd too low, hunters will get discouraged and stop hunting, leaving the DNR with no means for managing the herd at all. It’s a constant balancing act between those who want more deer—hunters—and those who want fewer—farmers and motorists.

“Our department is culpable to the extent that they’ve permitted the hunters to kind of overwhelm the process and ratchet up the deer population goals so that deer are now so numerous that they’re cheap,” says McCaffrey. “Deer are no longer a breathtaking sight unless they’re coming through the windshield of your car. That is not doing the deer a favor. You’ve denigrated the image of this wild, majestic, beautiful creature.”

Inflated arithmetic has unleashed another deer problem: Monster Buck Mania. Last year, McCaffiey took a reconnaissance trip to the magazine rack of his local grocery store. “There were 18 schlaupuses schlaupus is our term for a monster buck looking at me from different magazines.” The relentless message: Size matters to the true hunter.

“It’s pure pornography because these deer were photographed in enclosures and sanctuaries and parks and refuges,” says McCaffrey. “They aren’t even wild deer.” Two steps to the left and he’s got heads looking at him again, this time without horns, impeccably beautiful models airbrushed past perfection. “I looked at these two sets of magazines and each of them is just stuffed with products that the reader can buy to aspire to what’s on the cover. It’s a distortion of real life because you ain’t gonna get there.”

McCaffrey is disappointed by the commercialization of hunting, and the extreme is those who buy land to grow their own monster bucks. “When a private individual takes charge of his herd, he probably has always questioned the DNR’s estimated deer numbers and he questions his own,” says McCaffrey. As a result, these owners won’t shoot enough does and are soon overrun.

But perhaps the biggest concern is what happens when hunters are forced out of their traditional hunting grounds. Research shows that too often, they stop hunting, and this worries McCaffrey, who recalls an old Leopold quote about the chief spiritual danger in not owning a farm is in “supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery.”

“I think one of the virtues of the hunting experience is the fact that you’ve got 700,000 people that go out deer hunting here,” he says. “A high proportion of them end up with their fingers in a gut pile and covered in blood and end up eating the meat. I think it maintains the connection.”

In May of this year, Christine Thomas, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point resource management professor, addressed the nearly 500 assembled at the 64th annual meeting of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. Already well known in the hook and bullet crowd for her “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program, which teaches women outdoor skills, Thomas spoke with a new feather in her cap: In February, Anheuser-Busch had bestowed upon her its “Outdoorsman of the Year” award.

Thomas presented a four-point agenda to preserve the future of hunting, and her first point confronted one of the most contentious areas of Wisconsin politics: land use. “You need to do something about urban sprawl,” she said. “This is the hardest part but the most crucial. I don’t have the answer here. But I am absolutely convinced that hunting will not long survive in a suburbanized state.”

The crux of the problem: According to federal law, wildlife are the property of the people, not of individual landowners. Fittingly, deer are a product of the larger landscape. But many communities throughout the state and country are involved in fractious debates what about people can and cannot do with their land. Many of these arguments are about the right to subdivide larger pieces of land, decisions that often increase deer habitat while decreasing hunting opportunities.

“There are suburban places in the eastern United States where the deer density numbers over 100 deer per square mile, if you can imagine that,” she said later. “I don’t know why we think we’re going to be any different unless we do something about it now.” Too many deer denigrate both the hunter and the hunted, she argues. “These deer aren’t supposed to be parked in your yard like lawn ornaments. In the natural balance of things, they’re supposed to have a healthy respect for you, and you a healthy respect for them. When any wildlife species reaches pest proportions, it is not as respected by individuals or societies. The natural relationship that we should be having with those critters is out of balance.”

How far out of balance? According to a report on “Deer and Development” by 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, a land-use advocacy group, the state has lost a third of its farmland to sprawl since 1950. Southeastern Wisconsin continues to lose 10 square miles of farmland every year. Some results:

—More car-deer collisions. Sprawl increases commuter trips to rural subdivisions and this change in driving patterns is three times more responsible than increased deer populations for a 63 percent increase in car-deer collisions between 1983 and 1996.

—Sprawl leads to land fragmentation, which makes land management more difficult. Furthermore, new rural residents are less likely to open their land to hunting and be supportive of hunting in the community.

—Sprawl increases edge habitat, where woods abut fields and lawns. Edge habitat is ideal for deer, so as sprawl creates more edges, deer populations continue to rise.

Any honest look at deer and sprawl must also acknowledge another unpopular question: human overpopulation. We have more in common with the white-tailed deer than we may wish to acknowledge. “Both humans and deer are a weedy species,” says Waller. “We thrive in transformed landscapes and we eat each other’s resources.”

“People will not address the problem: That’s overpopulation,” says Bill Mytton, the head big-game biologist for the DNR. “All this is good talk, of diversity and ecosystem management. Until the human race stops breeding, it’s not going to happen.”

There is a scene in the movie The Deer Hunter where Robert De Niro’s character is stalking a regal buck. The deer is silhouetted on a mountain ridge, giving De Niro the perfect shot. He misses. Though the animal remains stock still, he does not fire again.

This scene means different things to different people. For an animal rights activist I know, it is a transcendent moment for De Niro, who recently returned from the war in Vietnam: He decides not to kill. Not being a hunter, she missed the fact that he also has his own rules: He allows himself only one shot.

“There is an ethical hunter,” says Richard Nelson, speaking admirably of De Niro’s character. Ethical hunting may sound oxymoronic to many who question the value of hunting in today’s world, but it is a mission and a passion for Nelson. ‘’At what point do we as a society, or as a community of people who hunt, begin to take seriously the immense responsibility that goes along with taking the life of another animal?” he asks.

Nelson is a Wisconsin native obsessed with deer. Growing up in Monona, he despised hunting. Only later, as an anthropologist working with native peoples in Alaska, did he become a hunter himself From hunting deer for sustenance, he turned to the animals for intellectual fare as well, taking seven years to research and write Heart and Blood: Living With Deer in America.

Unlike many hunters, Nelson welcomes the ethical concerns of animal rights activists. “What I share profoundly in common with animal rights activists is a love for animal life,” he says. But “for me, a fundamental part of that love is my organic connection with animal life. It’s an acknowledgment that in order to live, every single one of us has to kill living organisms. There isn’t any option to that. For a society to actually imagine that there is an option is probably one of the most pathetically misinformed ideas that has ever hit the face of the earth. It’s a symptom of a society that has gone dangerously astray from an awareness of our absolute dependence on the earth for every minute that we’re alive.”

For Nelson, the current nationwide overabundance of deer is nature crying for balance. “Here is an animal that is forcing us to acknowledge our role as a predator on the earth. We don’t even have an option at this point,” says Nelson. “We have to prey on deer.”

You need only travel to Brown Deer Road in Bayside to understand just how conflicted we are about deer management. Just south of where the road meets Lake Michigan is the Schlitz Audubon Center, which has been reducing its deer herd using non-lethal methods (such as trapping, darting and birth control) since 1981. The center’s work has been made easier now that the adjacent communities of Fox Point and Bayside are removing deer in earnest. Last winter, more than 200 deer were shot or relocated from the North Shore, but even this may not be enough. Though the areas herd has been cut by more than 40 percent since 1996, biologists say the remaining herd is still more than twice as large as it should be.

Part of the problem can be found little more than a quarter-mile west on Brown Deer Road. At the Bayside Garden Center, they’ll give you a list of plants that deer (usually) don’t like or sell you any of a variety of chemical repellents, including coyote urine, for upwards $15 a quart. Of course, your neighbors may walk a few yards farther down the aisle to purchase corn, the feed of choice for deer, available in 50-pound bags.

One hand gives life; the other takes it away.

Indeed, over the past five years, sharpshooting, suburban hunting and trap and release programs have been expanding throughout the greater Milwaukee area, a belated adjunct to the residential sprawl that spawned the population boom in the first place. What is not clear is whether citizens understand that these are not quick fixes but long-term commitments. “It’s an annual thing and it will probably always be that way unless you have major land-use or habitat changes,” warns Tom Isaacs, a DNR deer biologist for the region.

Are we prepared to weave these predatory instincts into the fabric of urban services? Consider the brief, fervid testimony of a paid sharpshooter who would not divulge his name: “We try to keep it as low key and as clandestine as possible. The communities we work for, they like to keep it that way,” he admits. “Face it, when it comes to animals, people arent rational. And dealing with irrational people is unsafe. That’s why you don’t want to talk about it, that’s why you don’t want to be identified. I don’t want people picketing my house. I don’t want my house fire-bombed. I don’t want to get shot some night because some idiot wants to end this ‘cruel and inhuman thing.’”

The question all communities now face: Should wildlife management in a democratic society be a clandestine operation?

Overlaid upon all of this is an escalating statewide debate over urban sprawl and land use. Practically every state agency and local municipality has an opinion and a stake in the complex questions that govern our built landscape. Concerns rise from the concrete realm of property taxes to the overwhelming complexities of property rights and quality of life. The deer are players because no other single species comes closer to rivaling our power to transform and define the landscape. As Nelson writes: “Deer become expressions of the land that nurtures them, as surely as the land itself reflects their presence.”

Les Strunk of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress believes that the state has reached a turning point in its relationship to deer. As vice chair of the Deer Management 2000 and Beyond project of the Conservation Congress, Strunk is partaking in an exhaustive and public two-year effort to reexamine every aspect of deer, deer hunting and deer management. “I wouldn’t necessarily say this is a crisis,” he says. “Crisis to me is Kennedy and Castro. But a lot of things have changed about deer and deer hunting, and it’s time to rethink everything. We’re looking at approximately 100 years worth of band-aids put on a program.”

Surveying this contested landscape, Strunk is a little intimidated by the task. “We’ve reached a plateau where now we’ve got to get up to the next level, understanding that things have changed. We need to address a lot of these different issues.” At this stage, he has no idea how any of this will be resolved, but he’s hopeful: “Don’t try to look at the bottom of the stairs. You’ve got to take the first step first. As long as we cover each one and we take it systematically, I think it will work.”

That seems overly optimistic given the extraordinary adaptability of the whitetailed deer. The two fawns I watched along the Root River Parkway wait without concern. Between them they contain all the skills necessary for the white-tailed deer to continue to thrive in our midst. If the country gets more dangerous for white-tails, the inquisitive fawn will likely wander into the cross hairs. But in a world of leisurely urban living, the wanderer will grow fat on easy pickings, while the wary fawn will grow thin on the margins. One will no doubt survive. Natural selection will take care of the rest.

Leopold, as usual, said it best: “The real problem is not how we shall handle the deer in this emergency. The real problem is one of human management. Wildlife management is comparatively easy; human management is difficult.”

One Comment

  1. Continues to be so relevant. I need to check in with NY’s DEC regulations for our region.

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