2005-12-08 / News

Deer management up to the hunters, expert says

By Michaela Kennedy

Nationally recognized deer management guru Gary Alt spoke to a near capacity audience in Edwards Auditorium at the University of Rhode Island on Dec. 1.

The retired director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s deer management section, Alt talked about life cycles and destruction caused by deer, but left listeners still wondering about options for deer management.

Alt, a self-proclaimed hunter, told the audience that hunting was the only viable option for deer-herd management. “It’s important to note that the whitetailed deer is not a normal animal to manage,” he said. “It is often managed for recreation. This impacts everyone, whether you are a hunter or not.” He stressed that deer management should start with a focus on habitat instead of the deer.

Hunters define the deer population, Alt said. He criticized their attitude, however, saying, “Hunters like to see more deer than the land can sustain.” He called for an environmentally responsible attitude toward habitat preservation, searching for a balance between healthy environments and deer numbers. Specifically, he called for the hunting of more female deer, does, in order to manage the population better.

Alt talked about the impact deer have on habitat. “Lots of things are remarkable about this animal,” he said, noting that the deer have the greatest range in the world, from Canada, across North America and down to South America. He went on to say that the deer destroy forests and have “tremendous resilience.” He compared pictures of healthy forests to those destroyed by large deer populations. He also showed pictures of crops destroyed by roaming deer. “It will take a generation or longer of continuous deer management to bring back our forests,” he said, adding, “The quality of habitat is eroding, and the whole ecosystem is in danger.”

Alt suggested that the deer breeding cycle should be considered in plans for deer management. Although deer breed continuously in the tropics, here in the north they give birth after winter so fawns can be raised during the warm weather. He suggested more hunting before and during breeding season.

Also known for his success in black bear research and management, the wildlife management consultant noted that about 1.5 million automobile accidents a year are caused by deer, costing around $1.1 billion in insurance a year. But no insurance companies have approached Alt for help with the problem, he said. “It appears that they just raise their insurance rates,” he added.

At the end of the lecture, a member of the audience said that Alt had still not addressed viable options for deer-herd management. Alt replied that the deer overpopulation problem was tied up between hunters’ attitudes and governmental policy. He told the audience to look more closely at governmental policies toward hunting and to educate hunters on their responsibilities in regard to maintaining a healthy habitat. “You can’t run a system that you can’t defend,” he said.

“I believe the future of hunting will be tied to our ability to use hunters and hunting to balance deer herds with their habitat and fix these forests for everyone, providing a free environmental and ecological service for all of society,” he said. “I deeply believe in this cause and that I can be more effective outside the game commission than within it. That is why I retired.” Alt was game commissioner in Pennsylvania from 1999 to 2004.

According to the state Department of Environmental Management, deer overabundance leads to a high frequency of deer colliding with vehicles, as well as excessive damage to commercial forests, agricultural crops, nursery stock, and landscape plantings. The DEM has reported 44 deer harvested through hunting on Conanicut Island last year, and 18 were killed by collisions with motor vehicles.

After the lecture, David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, told the audience that the RINHS was considering starting an online forum for citizens in the region concerned about deer herd management. For those interested, he suggested contacting the consortium through its Web site at www.rinhs.org.

A group of Rhode Islanders who are joining together to share ideas on regional deer herd management have a meeting scheduled at AMICA insurance company in Lincoln on Jan. 10. For more information, contact Jules Cohen by e-mail at julescohen@ cox.net.

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