Thursday, March 31, 2016

Deer in the headlights

            The most successful deer hunters in Rhode Island are named Ford, Toyota and Chevy.  And they are driving changes to hunting rules in the state.
Although it’s unintentional, cars and trucks kill more than 1,000 deer per year in the Ocean State, and those numbers are growing. Since last March, there have been more than 1,100 vehicle collisions with deer – a 9 percent increase over the previous year – with the most dangerous areas being the busy roadways in the coastal communities from Cranston to South Kingstown. Major highways throughout the state are also frequent deer collision zones, especially Route 295.
Ruthanne Applegate’s experience is typical.
“I was driving on Route 1 in Charlestown at night, and I didn’t even see the deer until his little face was right in the corner of my windshield,” she said. “It was probably a young one, and it tumbled down the side of the car and broke the mirror off. There’s no way it survived.”
The incident caused $6,000 damage to Applegate’s Subaru Impreza and left her frightened and sad.
White tailed deer photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider
            According to Brian Tefft, the wildlife biologist responsible for tracking deer statistics for the RhodeIsland Department of Environmental Management, October to December is prime time for auto strikes with deer. “That’s breeding season, and the males are roaming around widely and chasing females,” he said. “There’s also a lesser peak that occurs in June and July right after the birthing season when mothers are moving around with their fawns.”
            Tefft said the state’s management strategy for reducing the number of deer in the region is largely motivated by a desire to reduce the number of vehicle collisions. Hunting rules have been liberalized in the coastal communities where the human and vehicle populations are greatest and where deer strikes are most abundant. But those densely populated areas are also where hunters have the most difficulty finding a legal place to hunt, which makes it harder to manage the deer population than in the more rural regions of Rhode Island.
Based on Tefft’s statistical index of what is considered an acceptable number of deer collisions, the northern and western parts of Rhode Island have relatively few collisions – fewer than the statewide target of 1.5 per unit of habitat. But most coastal communities in the West Bay have twice that many, and Warwick and Cranston have four times as many as the index suggests is acceptable.
            The problem is that Rhode Island is home to more than 16,000 deer or about 15 deer per square mile. It’s a healthy, well-fed herd, but there are simply far too many of them for the habitat – and the state’s drivers – to safely sustain. Last winter’s brutal cold and continuous snow cover for much of the season caused a significant number of young deer to starve, but the overall population remains robust. And hunters can’t seem to shoot enough deer to keep the herd from growing.
            Jim Gordon of Exeter has been an active deer hunter for more than 30 years, hunting three or four days every week of the hunting season, which runs from September through January. He typically harvests six or seven deer in a good year, but the recently completed hunting season wasn’t good.
            “I hardly saw any deer,” said Gordon, who primarily hunts in the Arcadia Wildlife Management Area in Exeter and on private property in North Kingstown and Hopkinton. “They just weren’t coming out of the woods. I knew where they were, but they just weren’t making themselves visible.”
            Gordon said he put in his usual amount of hunting time but only killed half as many deer. And his hunting buddies struck out entirely.
            Gordon’s experience was typical of hunters throughout the state, according to Tefft. It was a good year for acorn production and other natural foods that deer eat deep in the woods, so the deer didn’t find it necessary to wander to the edges of the state’s forests – where most hunters were waiting for them – in search of food.
            As a result, Rhode Island’s deer harvest, which runs from September to January in most of the state, declined by 20 percent in the 2015-2016 season to about 1,800 animals. That follows a year when the number of deer harvested was down by 13 percent (although the previous year was a near record-high). Nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut have experienced similar declines in deer harvest numbers in recent years.
            Tefft said that deer hunting hasn’t declined much in popularity in recent years, as it has in some parts of the country. The state continues to sell about 20,000 deer hunting permits each year, and about 9,000 hunters participate. Interest in archery hunting has even increased. Yet deer remain abundant.
            Vehicle collisions aren’t the only reason for reducing the deer herd in Rhode Island, however.  As every gardener knows, deer love to munch on a wide variety of cultivated plants and shrubs in residential landscapes, and as a result, Tefft said that damage complaints are very high in some areas. The state also seeks to reduce the deer herd to reduce the ecological impact deer have on other wildlife species from their consumption of native plants and shrubs.
            Part of the challenge of using hunting as the primary means of managing the state’s deer herd is that most hunters want to shoot a trophy buck rather than one of the 8,000 does in the state that are likely to give birth to twins in the spring. If more hunters harvested does, the state’s deer herd would be smaller and much easier to manage, and there would be fewer automobile collisions.
            “We’ve liberalized the rules in some areas to encourage people to harvest female deer, but 94 percent of hunters take only one or two deer, and they mostly take males, which means they aren’t helping us manage the herd,” Tefft said.
            Jim Gordon is doing his part, though. “I’ll take whatever walks out of the woods,” he said. “If it’s a doe, that’s fine with me. I can’t eat an antler.”

Block Island Sidebar: 
            The deer situation on Block Island has reached alarming levels. Brian Tefft said that the population of 80 deer per square mile – compared to 15 on the mainland – is “not a healthy number for people, habitat or anything else.” 
            Officials on the island are aggressively trying to manage the population, and they have even taken the controversial step of paying hunters for killing deer. Despite opposition, the $150 bounty the town paid for each tail resulted in 387 deer killed last year. Coupled with those that didn’t survive last year’s harsh winter, and the island population was reduced by nearly half. Yet the community still has a long way to go.
            The hunting season on Block Island lasts one month longer than in the rest of Rhode Island – through the end of February – due in part to concerns among residents over the high incidence of Lyme disease, which is transmitted by ticks that typically reproduce after first feeding on deer. Deer also cause considerable ecological damage on the island, which is home to numerous rare plants and animals. 

This article first appeared in The Mercury on March 29, 2016.


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