The following opinion piece by Paul Glendenning of Hamilton was published on March 18 in The Hamilton Spectator. To give it a broader readership along the Escarpment, we’re posting it here. Be sure to leave your comments by clicking on the word “Comment” below.
Iroquoia Heights Conservation Area is a favourite destination for many hikers, bikers, dog walkers, nature lovers, photographers and others. It may however, turn into a killing ground with most of the deer being slaughtered in an effort to calm complaints from a few neighbours and placate hunting interests at Six Nations and the Federation of Anglers and Hunters.
Despite assurances of an open process, both the Hamilton Conservation Authority and Ministry of Natural Resources staff have already publicly recommended a cull or a “controlled” hunt. A written report by the MNR backing this recommendation is to be released soon. Local nature groups appear to be disinterested, divided, or deem the question “too political” to challenge the proposal.
According to a preliminary report, the Hamilton Conservation Authority efforts began in reaction to neighbour complaints about deer. After carrying out an aerial count of the deer in January 2009, the HCA announced a preliminary finding of 102 deer which was later raised to between 168 and 182.
According to the MNR’s Wildlife Monitoring document aerial counts are not widely used in Ontario due to the difficulty in estimating the number of deer missed. Deer typically seek cover as the helicopter approaches, making it difficult to see them from the air. Given the many areas of dense brush at Iroquoia Heights a true perspective by air would be very difficult.
Careful independent observations also contradict the official estimate and suggest a far lower population of 47-61 deer as of February 2010.
Regardless of actual numbers, the HCA and MNR experts maintain that through a generic formula of 1 deer per 6 or 7 hectares only 11 deer are allowed, to keep the population within “carrying capacity”. When carrying capacity is surpassed, deer over-browse vegetation leading to starvation and disease.
As this formula does not account for differences in habitat and with no reports of illness or starvation, it seems many more deer are capable of surviving in the park.
Despite this, an all or nothing approach has been chosen with HCA Chair Chris Firth-Eagland being quoted as saying: “The other path is to do nothing and let nature take its course — disease, starvation and more coyotes coming in to hunt the weakened deer.”
But is doing nothing really the only alternative?
The sole investigation into vegetation health is an exclosure study started by the HCA in late 2008 which fences off small parcels of land to compare to habitat affected by deer. This type of study is unlikely to produce significant results for another 4 years with debatable value. A study aimed at overall vegetation health rather than “proving” deer are causing harm would provide more relevant information.
One of the primary causes outlined by the HCA for deer “overpopulation” is food left by neighbours and visitors. Various offerings have been found along trails, in neighbouring yards as well as park edges drawing deer into nearby communities.
Public education, placing signs, and enforcement would be effective alternative actions which would actually make long-term improvements. As deer population growth is tied tightly to food availability, the population will reduce naturally if an artificial abundance is truly being sustained.
Unfenced yards have also drawn deer to residential gardens, something easily remedied through proper barriers and planting with deer in mind.
Another suggested cause has been the encapsulation of the park by residential housing and highway 403. Without the ability to leave the park it has been proposed that the population will continue to grow out of control
While it is true that no thought was given to the migration of deer by city planning, deer are resourceful and do seem to find ways in and out of the park. Possible routes include the Bruce Trail, a nearby hydro corridor and several holes in park fencing.
By building proper wildlife corridors, something recommended in the 2003 Hamilton Natural Areas Inventory, safety may be maintained without the need for mass slaughter.
So there are many things still to be done which do not include the need to kill.
Unfortunately with no concrete evidence and little talk of solving the real issues, a “stakeholder” meeting is being set up to finalise management plans. An exception to the local firearm discharge bylaw must also be granted by city council. But should special interests succeed over sustainability, there is little hope for the deer of Iroquoia Heights. And with the root concerns remaining we can look forward to killing our deer many more times in the years to come.