Lawn ornament or menace? Credit: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

By Olivia Grubisich

 

 
On an acre of land in a quiet neighborhood where mature oaks shadow the road, my house acts as a buffer between the sidewalks of suburbia and the adjacent forest preserve. This January morning, the yard looks peaceful under a blanket of white snow. But while I was resting, the forest was not. Tracks stitch the ground, weaving intricate patterns through the field of white. Deep indentations near the house and a clear path from the woods mean the deer have come in droves. I enter my kitchen to get some water but stay to watch 10 deer creeping through my yard. Smaller members of the herd lurk near the back line of trees and stretch their necks toward branches of evergreens, while older members reap the benefits of approaching the house. After a snack of low-growing bushes requiring no reach, they lie down to rest on the grass over the septic tank, warming themselves in a way the woods never could.
 
New Lenox, Ill., 40 miles south of Chicago, constitutes the border between farmland and built-up suburb. My neighborhood, one of the quietest areas in town, serves as a gateway for the deer. As of 2019, the white-tailed deer population in the state of Illinois reached 670,000, the largest recorded since 2012. It’s not a population size outlandish for the state, but in the Will County area, residents have noticed increasing deer presence near their homes. Throughout the year, the woods provide little sustenance for the deer. When food becomes scarce, gardens and landscaping are easy options to stave off starvation. Assurance of food and a lost fear of people leave deer with no reservations about exploring neighborhoods. They are easiest to spot in the winter, when their brown coats stand out against the white ground. In the cold months, bushes bordering the brick exterior of my house are a relief from scarcity, but even in the springtime deer find the neighborhood plants more appealing than what the woods have to offer. Every year, fences grow higher around my dad’s vegetable garden, nestled in the back corner of the yard, while the yield declines. His frustration has grown to the point where, for several years, the plot has remained empty. 
 
The most direct damage caused by overbrowsing in the forest preserve is to the plant community. As early as 1993, the Illinois Deer Census showed indications of long-term harm. The report concluded that “white-tailed deer exist at densities well above levels that can be sustained by the preserves without resulting in severe degradation of the ecosystem.” The preserve has since begun conducting vegetation studies to corroborate the findings of the census. One of these studies, completed in 1997, showed negative change to the forest structure in areas over-populated by deer. An additional study from 2007 found a complete absence of large-flowered trillium, a native plant, in study plots exposed to deer browse. Overall, the results showed what researchers suspected all along: Consumption of seeds and buds by deer hinders, and sometimes eliminates, plant reproductive abilities.
 

A doe locks eyes with a bicyclist at the edge of Urbana’s farmland. Her fawn patiently waits in the bushes behind her. Credit: April Wendling

Overbrowsing endangers not only native species but other components of the ecosystem. Loss of ground vegetation accelerates erosion of forest floor, increasing runoff into rivers and streams. This encourages flooding and degrades water quality, which harms aquatic life. The forest floor becomes bare, and the deer wander further from their home toward mine in order to sustain themselves.
 
Data collected from these studies eventually led to the Will County Forest Preserve’s implementation of a deer culling season. The program began in 2010 with the goal of returning the deer population to a size compatible with the ecosystem of New Lenox and the surrounding area. Since then, anywhere from 85 to 226 deer have been taken annually. In the 2020-21 season, the preserve proposed removal of deer in five separate forests across the county, and 200 deer were killed by county sharpshooters.
 

People who imagine culling as a bloody free-for-all might be interested in the perspective of Joseph Albanese, a wildlife specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Wildlife Services. Albanese participated as a sharpshooter in several government sanctioned deer culls in the Long Island area, and in a 2014 blog post details what actually occurs during deer culls performed by the USDA. Wildlife specialists most often use two methods. In the first method, mobile units drive through designated areas with elevated deer populations. Among members of the unit are sharpshooters stationed on the vehicle roof and spotters who use infrared cameras to scan the terrain for deer while the unit creeps through the darkness. Mobile units lose effectiveness in crowded suburbs, where a significant portion of encroachment occurs, so stationary units take their place. These methods involve close monitoring of deer activity via site scouting and trail cameras. Sites with the most traffic are then baited by shooters in an effort to concentrate deer in a single area. Shooters wait poised on high platforms to strike. 

Long before the presence of animal activists and livestock farming, hunting was a necessary cultural norm. Mass animal breeding for commercial purposes rose to prominence in the early 20th century with the invention of refrigerated railroad cars, but until that point individual homesteaders provided for their own. Today, hunting is no longer a survival necessity, but remains a large part of modern culture. In 2020, 162,575 deer were killed over the course of Illinois’ different hunting seasons. Considering the statewide population of close to 700,000, this number seems incredible. In the past year, hunters took approximately 24 percent of the total population, yet more deer than ever traipse through the suburbs. Continual resurgence despite such large numbers taken suggests hunting may not be such a disruptive force to the wildlife as people might think, but a genuine piece of nature’s greater puzzle.

Animal rights activists take issue with hunting, regarding its place in modern society as unethical, despite respect held for hunting cultures of the past. They don’t understand hunters’ motivations, and even more so misunderstand the mindset of agencies claiming to protect wildlife who sanction more killing. But Albanese asserts that all sides involved in the conflict around culling want the same thing. “At face value it would seem that government wildlife control agencies, hunters, and animal rights groups are all at odds, but in the end, they all want the same thing: a healthy, sustainable deer herd. Sometimes, a government deer cull is the only way to accomplish that.” In instances like these, the needs of greater environmental systems outweigh the needs of individual deer. Even for those who lose out, the situation need not remain tragic. Head and neck shots ensure quick kills. Meat from Albanese’s Long Island culls was donated to Hunters for Hungry, and meat from the annual Will County hunt feeds hundreds of people through the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Since 2015, the Will County Forest Preserve has donated 29,475 pounds of ground venison to people in need. As so often goes unnoticed in nature, death provides life.

Miles away from my quaint corner of the Earth, other places feel the same unsettling deer presence. In some cases, the conflict traces back much further than 2010, when the Will County purge began. To get to these places, the deer must journey farther than the short path from forest preserve to my backyard. Off the coast of Portland, Maine, for example, several islands have a large enough deer problem that they, too, have implemented a hunting season. Imagine years ago, the blue water shimmering between the Portland Harbor and Peaks Island. Now see the brown hair of a white-tailed deer bobbing on the surface as it glides through the water away from the harbor toward what will become its new home. 

Three of these islands — Peaks, Cliff, and Great Diamond — face similar damage from overpopulation as New Lenox. Maine has a turbulent history with hunting practices. In 1972, Portland instated a complete ban on firearm discharges. The deer were present on the island at this time, but never at an overbearing level. Deer began swimming from the mainland to the islands back in the 1990s, and once word got back home of lush gardens and unguarded greens, more came in droves. Because of the small land area, the increase was tangible to those who lived on the islands. The war in backyard gardens became fierce, with fences stretching skyward around each plot in an effort to protect the product of human toil. Like the four-legged friends returning to my home night after night, the deer turned to the household gardens of Maine because there was nowhere else to go after they had decimated the forest floor. At this time, an estimated 100 deer populated each square mile. This pushed the ecosystem to its breaking point and put more than just hobby gardens at risk. Because of overbrowsing, several native plants lost their stake in the ecosystem to invasive species like barberry and honeysuckle variants, both of which are overlooked by deer. These marauders took advantage of the vacancies and struck at the opportunity to further their campaign into foreign territory. At the ecological limit, even the stalwart trees on the island had trouble regenerating. In response, the city reinstated hunting season in 2000.

The people of Maine did not find the urge to fight back against their deer invaders simply because they missed the ornamental color of blooms in spring. As deer crept into their backyards near children and pets, on their backs rode the threat of Lyme disease. Subtle changes in plant life went unnoticed by residents, and warnings from environmentalists fell on deaf ears. But Lyme disease made residents notice how close the deer had come, and they wanted a quick solution. The deer themselves do not carry the disease but carry the infected ticks into civilization. Fear of Lyme disease peaked when the deer population exploded in the early 2000s, and that solidified deer culling in the fabric of Maine wildlife maintenance. Gerry Levigne, of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, comments on the ideal island population size: “On islands we recommend 15 to 20 deer per square mile,” he says. “That would allow herbaceous plants and wildflowers to flourish. At 30-50 deer per square mile, you start seeing damage. If you really want the complete mix of native flora, you have to keep deer below 20. Not many have that low a density.” Levigne first made these comments in 2002 when the deer population had reached its pinnacle, but the principle remains nearly 20 years later, as does the danger of Lyme disease. In 2019, a study through the University of Maine tick lab showed that 40 percent of deer ticks in Maine tested positive for Lyme. 

Despite comfort found by residents in the reduction of deer numbers, some evidence indicates immediate removal of deer does not actually result in immediate reduction of tick populations. Tamara Awerbuch is an instructor in the Department of Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health and specializes in emerging epidemics. Her research on the life cycle of deer ticks in relation to Lyme Disease suggests disease-carrying ticks will not be so easily terminated. Similar to the life cycle of the deer, the ecological progression of Lyme disease is complex and cannot be erased with one change. Ticks contract the disease from their first natural host, white-footed mice, and later in life upgrade to a home with bigger blood supply. Once on the deer, ticks lay their eggs and die. According to Awerbuch’s research, deer are an important part of the tick’s life, but reduction of the deer population in the short term only increases the number of ticks per deer. She conducted a survey in Crane Beach, Mass., and the primary results showed that while deer were reduced from around 400 in 1983 to just over 100 in 1991, “Lyme disease kept growing. … We killed deer, but people still got Lyme disease. The biggest lesson learned from observing the lives of the deer is that all social, biological, and ecological systems are inherently complex. The more interconnected the web is woven, the longer it takes for change. Awerbuch addresses this in her research as well, stating about the effectiveness of deer culls in connection with Lyme disease, “Our research showed that if you leave fewer than eight deer for the Crane Beach area, the tick population will start to decrease, but it will take many, many years.” 

A white-tailed deer passes by the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Farm Research and Training Center at the University of Illinois. Credit: April Wendling

In our overstimulated society, lack of short-term gratification discourages continuation. The culls do not immediately eliminate the threat of Lyme disease, yet this does not negate their worth. Long-term culling eventually mitigates the tick population, and although plant preservation did not motivate desire for culls, native plant species re-emerge when not threatened by overbrowsing as well. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Nature does not hurry yet everything is accomplished,” and the result of Awerbuch’s study confirms these ancient words. Just as deer damaged the ecosystem gradually, rehabilitation only occurs when the environment sustains improved conditions over many years. Establishing a healthy population size ensures nature heals on her own time.

Despite its intentions and benefits, a designated culling program still paints a certain picture in the minds of some activists, one that accuses the forest preserve of harming the ecosystem rather than trying to help. A few years into the Will County culling program, a local animal rights group, Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), took issue with the city’s handling of growing deer numbers. The group’s president, Steven Hindi, claimed the deer program utilized unethical methods, such as leaving wounded deer for minutes after shooting, and went so far as to question the necessity of the program as a whole. “Surely we can do better than to simply slaughter innocent animals,” Hindi argued. “Is there a deer problem? If so, use non-lethal options …” From a layman’s perspective, deliberately killing animals appears inconsistent with a desire to protect the environment, but alternative non-lethal options like relocation inflict psychological trauma on the deer during capture and transport. This often results in death of the animal anyway. 

In a study published in Environmental Humanities, Thom Van Dooren describes the phenomena of prioritizing the health of a whole ecosystem over one individual species as “violent care.” In this case, the deer suffer in a meditated effort to return the ecosystem of Will County to a state fit for supporting all participants in the environment. To Van Dooren and myself, as someone with an up-close view of the environment the deer are in, violent care exhibits the sometimes cruel yet always profound way all species are connected to one another in “the inescapable troubles of interconnected existence.” 

Before I go to sleep, the last thing I do is look out my bedroom window. Scattered throughout the yard, eight deer sleep curled up against the cold. From my home in New Lenox to Maine and Long Island, culling seems to have become the standard in deer population control. With the success of maintaining herd sizes and promising ecological resurgence, it appears the logical fix. Yet the place I live seems just as much theirs as mine. Maybe their fate comes from human-driven “violent care,” or maybe the ebb and flow of individual prosperity epitomizes nature itself. I know I am the same as the deer in at least one way: I am connected to everything.