Bloomington’s War Of The Deer
In these days of Battles Royal over the minutest of controversies, when one citizen disagrees with another the cartoonish verbiage and accusations fly. The most important, direst threat to our very existence as a nation comes from that guy down the street who let it slip at the neighborhood barbecue that he voted for Mike Pence for governor in the last election.
And, of course, those of us who voted for Barack Obama twice are agents of the resurrected Joseph Stalin. People don’t engage in mild disagreements over current events anymore; they battle to save civilization.
So it is in Bloomington’s War of the Deer. Talk to a homeowner in any neck of the woods in our fair burgh and you might come away with the impression that an endless horde of the ruminants is on the march, trampling garden beds, eating pansies, and dropping their yard bombs as cruelly as the various belligerents of Afghanistan have laid land mines.
The city leapt into action and called for an outside contractor — an army of mercenaries as it were — to come into our war-torn town and save us from the invaders. This action triggered howls of outrage from nature-loving activists who portrayed the contractor as little more than a hooded band of gun-happy guerrillas a la the old Blackwater gang.
Mercenaries (Photo: Gervasio Sanchez/Associated Press)
Last night’s session of the Bloomington Science Cafe promised to offer as much bombast and dramatic leaps from the ropes onto an opponent’s neck as any WWE match. The Parks and Recreation Department‘s boss of natural resources, Steve Cotter, and biologist Angela Shelton were scheduled to speak about the deer swarm around Griffy Lake. Shelton, while working at Indiana University’s Department of Biology, conducted studies of the Griffy deer that led to the City Council action to hire the Bambi hit men. Cotter, natch, is all in on the culling.
Just before the proceedings got underway at Finch’s Brasserie, outspoken opponent of the culling plan, Marc Haggerty, approached Sci. Cafe organizer Alex Straiker. “I just want to be assured that we’ll be given an opportunity to refute the speakers,” Haggerty said. I elbowed my way into the conversation.
“Marc,” I said, “How do you know you’ll disagree with them? They haven’t even started speaking yet.”
“Oh, I know I’ll disagree with them,” he said. “I’ve heard their spiel before.”
Straiker assured Haggerty audience members would be able to ask the speakers questions after their presentations were finished. “Okay,” Haggerty said, although he sounded unconvinced. Haggerty’s anti-culling allies have made their presence known at Council meetings; they were thanked politely for their comments but otherwise ignored. I guessed Haggerty’s feeling a tad frustrated these days.
Cotter led off the session, saying the city’s overall plans for the Griffy Lake area are based in large part on University of Delaware professor Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home. [Shameless plug: You can cop the tome at the Book Corner.] Cotter also pointed out the Griffy Lake Nature Preserve Master Plan (2008) can be found online.
Cotter acknowledged that public opinion is split on the culling plan. “I’d say it’s about 50/50,” he said. He then referred to efforts to control various fauna in Yellowstone National Park, where wolves and other predators were reintroduced and helped control other damaging species. He joked that it’d be his preferred solution to introduce wolves and mountain lions into the Griffy Lake area to control the deer, but that might not be a terribly popular solution.
The city, said Cotter, is contemplating initiating an adopt-an-acre program wherein participating citizens could help monitor and eradicate invasive species on their plots.
A audience member asked Cotter if there’s been a deer count yet and he admitted there hasn’t been. Experts, he explained, feel it’s more effective to note the damage deer have done to foliage and animals rather than do an costly and lengthy census. This prompted another audience member to point out deer are eating invasive species of plants so why not use the population to handle that problem. Cotter said the damage deer cause outweighs that potential benefit. “I don’t think that if you let the deer go they would handle that problem by themselves but they are having a suppressive effect,” he said.
Just at that moment, a late-arriving audience member squeezed herself in the back of the room. “Wow,” she stage whispered, “this many people give a fuck about Griffy?”
Griffy Lake Nature Preserve Trail Map
Cotter said the White Buffalo Inc. (the culling contractor)’s miss rate when shooting is around 2 percent. The company will use bullets that fragment when entering the target deer’s braincase, thereby causing a quicker, more humane death. The Nature Preserve, he added, will be closed to the public for a day or so each time a culling operation is scheduled
Shelton then took the stage. She projected some photos showing denuded areas of the forest where deer hang out. The deer, she said had stripped the trees of their leaves as far as their necks could reach and had munched the ground cover down to the soil in those places. She and her team had set up 15 fenced exclosures to prevent deer from entering those areas to compare their foliage to areas where deer were allowed to roam freely after several years. She exhibited pics of both types of area; the contrast was striking. The exclosures were lush with greenery while the free roam stretches were not.
Her team did pellet counts, Shelton said. I leaned in to ask another Sci. Cafe organizer, Jim Wager-Miller, if that meant they were counting deer shits. “It does,” he said, authoritatively. Shelton said the deer population around Griffy is eight or nine times greater than those of other similar areas in the region. Much of this has to do with Griffy’s proximity to residential areas, where the deer can also feast on garbage and gardens.
Shelton posted some alarming figures and charts, including the revelations that:
- Native trees are not regenerating outside the exclosures
- Spring wildflowers are suffering as deer gorge themselves after winter
- Some wildflowers may go extinct in the Preserve after 20 years if the deer are left to their own devices
- Small mammals like mice seem to be thriving inside the exclosures
- Soil is significantly less compacted in the exclosures
“The deer are having effects on many other species,” she said. “The deer are kind of acting like an invasive species.”
Invasive species, she explained, have the following effects on their environment:
- They displace native species
- They reduce native wildlife habitat
- They reduce forest health and productivity
The deer around Griffy Lake, she insisted, are doing just those things.
White Buffalo will cull up to 100 deer this coming winter, Shelton said. She and her team will continue to monitor the forest’s recovery after that first seasonal kill. An audience member asked if the 100 goal might “extirpate” the deer population in Griffy. Shelton said that’s doubtful but even if it did, deer from surrounding areas would fill Griffy back in “within six months.”
Haggerty then spoke. He complained that the opposition to the cull plan has not had an opportunity to speak against it. He also charged that Shelton’s pix of denuded areas of the forest really were from University-owned property near the Preserve, not city-run land.
“Some of us,” he said, “have gone out there hundreds and hundreds of times and we have found a different reality.”
Shelton responded: “I have spent five years out there and I’m completely convinced.”
Haggerty still is not.