Deer wars and death threats

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In the early 2000s, people began to see not just occasional visitors, but entire families. Deer have spread throughout the borough’s parks, but have also been spotted crossing highways, munching in yards or, on more than one occasion, smashing store glass and smearing dirt. the merchandise. In 2014, an investigation by low-flying plane and infrared camera found seven hundred and sixty-three deer in the 18.7 square miles of green space in the borough, or nearly forty-one deer per square mile of park. . Environmentalists warned it was likely an undercoverage. A rule of suburban deer management, Paul Curtis, a wildlife specialist at Cornell, told me is that “there are always more deer in the landscape than you might think.”

Some people have been delighted by the new arrivals, these magnificent “animals of yesterday” as Burke called them. In Facebook groups, residents urged each other not to disclose the location of the deer for fear they would be poached or harassed. Many people have started to feed the deer: watermelons in the summer, pumpkins in the fall, bagels and Italian bread, and breakfast cereals in the winter. “I saw a deer eat a layer cake,” Stevens told me. Katrina Toal, a native of Staten Island and assistant director of the NYC Parks Wildlife Unit, acknowledged that eating was an expression of both affection and inappropriate empathy. “A lot of people think New York City’s wildlife needs help to survive,” she said.

Other residents viewed deer as the cause of collisions, rodents of expensive landscaping, and vectors of disease, especially Lyme. (The blacklegged ticks that spread Lyme disease could not establish populations on the island without the deer, which they use as hosts. Today, Lyme cases in New York are focused on the island, and a single deer often harbors hundreds of ticks.) Some people demanded that the city capture and move deer to more rural locations in the upstate, not realizing that these places had their own deer problems. . Others wanted the city to start slaughtering the deer or offered to hunt them themselves. A few started to chase them away, which led to arrests.

In 2015, the city captured two deer at a construction site in Coney Island and moved one of them to Staten Island. (The other escaped.) It was a flashpoint that helped link growing frustration with an old grievance. “It looked like another forgotten neighborhood spill problem,” Toal said, referring to years when Staten Island was the city’s landfill. Borough president James Oddo sent a public letter to the city’s parks commissioner, saying: “Whether it’s a deer or a thousand, whether it’s an ounce of garbage or one hundred tons, we refuse to be the solution for another borough. problems.”

Others have taken up a metaphor already common in the suburbs with deer conflicts. When rats are a problem, a resident told me, “They don’t surround them and treat them nicely. And, if there is a distinction between a rat and a deer, I don’t know what it is.

The complaint that deer are “rats with hooves” is a significant departure from the animal’s ancient symbolism, and more accustomed, as icons of the American wilderness. (Think of the buckskin pants of Davy Crockett, Bambi, and “Home on the Range.”) But at least some of that symbolism evolved like nostalgia for an America that largely existed in our imaginations.

The first white settlers of the New World failed to notice that the forests they saw as primitive wild were in reality, for the indigenous peoples they moved, carefully managed landscapes, designed to be, among other things, good habitat. for game. The settlers considered the abundance of white-tailed deer, like that of other animals, to be inexhaustible. In what later became eastern Tennessee, a short-lived independent state used deer skins as currency, with the governor earning a thousand as an annual salary. Settlers exported hides with abandon until their regime of deforestation and large-scale commercial hunting proved there were limits, after all.

By the turn of the twentieth century, deer had been more or less wiped out in many states, from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Illinois; the deer population in New Jersey was estimated at only two hundred. Many believed that the animals had become relics, with little or no place in the urbanized future of the nation. In Minnesota in 1896, a newspaper contributor marked the onset of the game season by writing: “There is nothing like enjoying the good things at the border while they last and before civilization does.” make game rare.

In fact, civilization quickly did the opposite. Authorities began to implement hunting restrictions to protect deer, and in 1900, the Lacey Act made it illegal to sell them, along with other wildlife, for commercial purposes. Meanwhile, Americans moving to cities and suburbs again changed the landscape. The places they had stripped for logging and agriculture began to grow back, not in deep forests, which are not ideal habitat for deer, but within miles of “borderline” habitat. “- a mixture of woods and cleared spaces and humans. cultivated plants that we often call “spreading” but which journalist Jim Sterba called “a kind of petri dish for white tail propagation”. It is common for hinds to give birth to twins each spring, but females that live in these environments have smaller ranges, larger fat stores, and a high probability of giving birth to triplets. A suburban deer population can double in as little as two to three years.

Places like Pennsylvania and New England began to repopulate deer, importing them from places where they still lived. The new arrivals, whose predators had been hunted and driven out, multiplied rapidly. Soon there were so many deer that people started to complain about the animals destroying forests, crops and gardens. In 1956, a guide for “The Deer of North America” ​​observed that “deer problems often result from too many rather than too few”. Once the land was starved of food, or winter came, animals sometimes died in large numbers, a phenomenon that environmentalist Aldo Leopold described as “the hungry bones of the long-awaited, too-dead deer herd of himself “. Today there are approximately thirty million white-tailed deer in the United States, a hundred times more than there were when the Lacey Act was passed.

As the pressure from the population increased, the deer had to seek further new territory. They followed narrower corridors, through denser human landscapes, in search of a place to live.

Wildlife biologist Anthony DeNicola, who founded White Buffalo in 1995, describes Staten Island as an unusually urban, liminal habitat for deer: “parks, then concrete.” When the White Buffalo team first arrived on the island, they looked at satellite maps, looking for green spaces large enough for the deer to live in or pass through, and then off to look for paths, droppings and navigation patterns. They put tracking collars on the deer they had stung and set up enough cameras to take hundreds of thousands of photographs per month, analyzing the movements of the deer on the island like sleuths. When I told DeNicola that I wanted to know more about his team’s work for the city, he suggested that I go to the top of a certain hill near the Staten Island Expressway and look towards the west, a tangle of trees and buildings stretching out into the distance. . “Think about finding all the male deer in this landscape,” he said. “It can be overwhelming. “

“I have oak, cherries and I want to tell my ex that we made a mistake.”
Caricature by Will McPhail

DeNicola is a fifty-five-year-old man with a square jaw who vibrates with energy, talks fast and swears often. He has been pursued by hunters and animal rights activists, but he keeps his best words for the national wildlife agencies, who he says may be blinded by the fact that their funding comes largely from permits. hunt. “The management of deer is complicated and it is ruled by idiocracy,” he told me. DeNicola once felt he was responsible for the deaths of ten thousand deer, and that was seven years ago and many plans. In a field passionate about emotions, he considers himself a pragmatist and a problem solver. “If I were an addict,” he said, “I would be a puzzle-solving addict.

In the 90s, when DeNicola did a doctorate. On fertility control, the field of deer population management was in its infancy. State wildlife agencies had suggested increased hunting as a solution to the glut problem. But recreational hunting was often unwelcome in residential areas, and studies showed it was not effective in reducing deer populations to levels desired by communities. Unlike biological capacity (the number of deer that human-made landscapes can support), we often talk about social capacity: the number of deer that human societies are willing to tolerate.

Local officials began working with state wildlife agencies and the USDA’s Wildlife Services Division to devise new ways to control deer, often in the same places they had recently worked for them. protect. (Wildlife Services speaks out on a wide variety of “border disputes”, occurring when wolves prey on herders’ sheep, beavers build unwanted dams, or birds fly too close to airport runways. Sometimes the division offers non-lethal solutions, suggesting that perching starlings, whose poop is often problematic, can be forced to move around by harassing them with lasers, but it also regularly kills millions of animals a year.) I did not know of any centralized monitoring of deer slaughter programs or fertility control, difficult to grasp the scale of operations across the country. “I just know there are a lot of them,” Curtis, the Cornell expert, told me. “And there are more all the time.”


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