Review: When Conservation is Successful (Too Successful)

The recovery of white-tailed deer populations is a stunning conservation success. But is it too successful? Photo © The Nature Conservancy (Matt Miller)

Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness. By Al Cambronne. Lyons Press, 2013. 264 pages.

Last week’s wildlife news brought a familiar parade of depressing subjects: Poachers killed more rhinos, this time at Ol Pejeta Ranch, a reserve specifically fenced and fortified to protect the animals from this fate. Seventy percent of forest elephants have been killed  in the past ten years, and conservationists are finding gruesome scenes of slaughtered herds. And on, and on.

Then a completely different wildlife story came across my desk,  Al Cambronne’s well-reported Deerland. In contrast to the stories of rhinos and forest elephants, Cambronne’s book is about a seemingly hopeless wildlife situation that turned into a wildly successful conservation story.

Perhaps, as it turns out, too successful.

Deerland is about the white-tailed deer, yet another of those North American species that we take for granted today, forgetting a century ago the species was facing similar perils to orangutans today.

Whitetails were slaughtered for their hides and meat. Their forest habitat was logged and leveled. Deer, it appeared, were on their way out.

However, white-tailed deer were more adaptable than many conservationists believed. Given legal protection and effective law enforcement, together with the reforestation of logged habitat, deer populations began rebounding.

And thrived: Today there are more than 100 times more whitetails than a century ago. Think we can’t save declining large wildlife species? Maybe we should look to the whitetail.

Conservationists today are fond of talking about building constituencies. Cambronne argues that no wildlife species has a more effective constituency than the whitetail: an active force of advocates in the form of deer hunters, deer feeders and people who just love having large animals around.

And what about science? White-tailed deer are arguably the most studied wildlife species on the planet, with more 3,260 peer-reviewed papers published on the species between 1985 and 2010.

Policy, constituency, science, measurable success: Everything conservation needs, all working exactly as planned.

And yet, as Cambronne vividly portrays, the white-tailed deer conservation effort has become too much of a good thing, creating a host of new problems in its wake.

From an ecological perspective,  white-tailed deer mow down forest habitat—turning once diverse ecosystems into denuded landscapes. Native plants disappear leaving only a few hardy species like ferns. Native birds and other species decline.

Over-abundant white-tailed deer also mean astounding crop losses for farmers, highway accidents, wildlife diseases (including some that effect humans, like Lyme disease) and damage to suburban landscaping.

Deer biologists across the country say the evidence is clear: there are too many deer. But often, they can’t do anything about it.

Why? It’s that all-important deer constituency. Cambronne calls this force of whitetail advocates the “deer industrial complex.” Think he’s overstating? How else could you describe a collection of loosely organized wildlife advocates whose desires routinely trump those of farmers, foresters, ecologists, suburban homeowners and the insurance industry?

Many deer hunters want more deer, regardless of the cost to forests and people. Cambronne tells of deer lovers feeding tons of corn to whitetails in the winter, leading to even greater deer densities. Hunters even complain that deer are going extinct, showing disturbing ecological illiteracy (and I write this as a lifelong and passionate deer hunter).

How do we solve the issue of over-abundant deer, particularly when there are so many competing views?

Scientific research is an important part of this discussion, of course. Cambronne spends a lot of time with biologists and looking at the literature. But here’s the thing: Science will only get us so far.

Science can tell us how many deer a forest can support before native plants and birds disappear. It can point to effective options to manage a population. But science often doesn’t play much role in shaping the values and desires of people. What if people want large numbers of deer rather than warblers? How many deer is too many?

Who gets to decide?

We do, of course. The work of conservationists isn’t over when a species is recovered. In our crowded world, conservation success can bring new issues, new complications.

It’s a good sign that books like Deerland (and others like Jim Sterba’s excellent Nature Wars) begin to ask the right questions, questions that conservationists and all who care about wildlife need to consider.

How should we think about abundant wild animals in the 21st century? Will professional sharpshooters or recreational hunters become ecologically vital parts of the suburban landscape? Could a commercial market for venison be a sustainable and viable meat option? Should state wildlife departments listen better to all constituents and not just hunters? Which is more acceptable, dead deer or high numbers of kids infected with Lyme disease?

Easy issues? Hardly. But, I’m convinced, these are good issues to have, especially when compared to much of the bleak wildlife news today. I think if most of us were offered a future where millions of rhinos roamed Africa as local advocates pushed for still more rhinos, we’d take it. We’d take that future and all its attendant complications in a heartbeat, no questions asked.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

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