Deer aren’t stupid. Given a choice, they prefer tender greens in their salad, a quiet home in the country, and a life that doesn’t include being shot at.
In that, they’re much like humans.
They’re like us in another way too. Deer are darn adaptive.
They might dream of the forest primeval, but if they wake up one morning and see a mall where their woods used to be, the deer learn to adjust.
They can’t picket in front of every new Wal-Mart. They can’t block bulldozers from denuding their hills. They can’t protest if the creek where they drink develops a sheen of petroleum, or complain about the harsh feel of asphalt.
What they can do is adapt.
The home range of deer is less than a square mile. If that square mile changes, deer try to change with it. They hide on the outskirts of the new developments, munch on fancy golf courses, jump fences around subdivisions, sample the vegetation in humans’ back yards, and take their chances with traffic.
They can cluster in parks and other places where stands of trees remain, and over time they can figure out that — hey! — there are benefits to living near humans.
In fact, city life offers a couple of big advantages over the old, shy lifestyle of the forest.
For one: Some humans are so glad to have deer in their neighborhoods that they welcome them daily with corn.
An even bigger benefit is that most cities don’t allow hunting.
The deer catch on. Faced with loss of their former environment, they learn to exploit its replacement.
In places where humans have spared themselves predation by wolves and wild cats, deer have learned they can relax a bit too. With a ban on hunting and plenty of food, they double their numbers every two years.
Trouble is, humans are savvy creatures, as well. As soon as deer start to move, in their view, from being pleasures to pests, all bets are off.
When humans stop seeing deer as darling begin to view them as destructive, a metaphorical — and perhaps literal — arrow flies and a community finds itself divided.
In the past 10 years, versions of this scenario have played out in towns and cities across Arkansas. Little Rock, Maumelle, Eureka Springs and the Diamondhead community near Hot Springs are a few that have had to confront it. They have reached different conclusions.
In the view of some environmentalists and wildlife biologists, however, a vote that was held last November in the north-central town of Bull Shoals could serve as what one official called “a template” for the way cities deal with deer in the future.
As recently as 60 years ago, Bull Shoals did not exist. The White River flowed through a largely mountainous, wooded Marion County that had few roads and sparse human habitation.
That landscape began to change forever in 1947, when construction was begun on Bull Shoals Dam. By 1952, the biggest dam in five states held back the White River’s waters. Bull Shoals Lake emerged, and a developer was already selling lots near the dam for retirement and recreation.
Today, the town of Bull Shoals sits on a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the lake. It hosts a population of about 2,000 humans — and an undetermined but large number of deer.
Like many of the town’s residents, its mayor, Margaret Hall, retired to Bull Shoals from another state — in her case, California. She chose the area in part, she said, because she loved the deer. She said she once dreamed of establishing “a deer farm” near her new home, just so she could “see them frolic.”
That idea never developed, but Hall still gets to see plenty of deer. It’s not uncommon for her to see four of the animals in her yard, and a half-dozen or more nearby.
It is an irony of Hall’s retirement, that as mayor of Bull Shoals, she now finds herself helping lay plans for a hunt designed to winnow the herd. She explains, “I wasn’t mayor when this first started.”
One could argue that the situation started a long time ago, when farmers began shooting wolves, or with construction of the dam, and then creation of the town, which citizens made off-limits to hunting. Whatever the combination of factors, by the late 1990s, the resident population of deer at Bull Shoals had grown comfortable and large.
Too large, in the view of humans.
Like the mayor, Dianne and Frank Maise retired to Bull Shoals from California. Like her, they appreciate the deer — but their enjoyment has its limits.
The Maises grow flowers, fruit trees and a vegetable garden. Or try to. More than any other garden pest, they’ve had to contend with deer, who eat their roses, tulips, hostas, dogwood buds, azaleas, clematis, pansies, young arbor vita bushes and “crepe myrtles, if they’re really hungry.”
Sometimes, the couple said, as many as 40 of the animals will pass through their yard during a single night. “You see the prints in the yard the next morning,” Frank Maise said, “and it looks like a cattle drive came through.” The Maises have resorted to extensive fencing.
In 2001, when a hunt was first proposed for parts of the city, the Maises supported the plan. Despite the deer’s impact on their garden, they said they did so primarily out of concern for the herd.
“When you have an overpopulation, it can be an ugly sight,” Dianne Maise said, “and these Bambi-lovers don’t realize that.”
Frank Maise, a lifelong hunter, believes that killing a deer is something that should be done “with reverence.” For the sake of humans and deer alike, he said, the herd living at Bull Shoals needs to be reduced.
“I understand that a lot of people around here have lived in a city all their lives,” he said. “They’ve watched Walt Disney, and they don’t realize that Mother Nature — pardon my way of putting it — but what they don’t realize is that Mother Nature can be a cruel bitch.”
The Maises cite starvation as the most serious threat to a herd that has outgrown the available food, or carrying capacity, of its environment. “People say, ‘Let Mother Nature take its course,’ ” Dianne Maise observed. “But starvation is a terrible death.”
Wildlife biologists agree. Plus, they worry about the potentially rapid spread of disease through overcrowded herds. Biologists particularly fear an emergence of Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD, which attacks the nervous system. So far, CWD has not been found in Arkansas, but it has infected herds of white-tailed deer in Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Wisconsin, where dense herds have been severely impacted.
Bull Shoals residents who favored the proposed hunt in 2001 worried about themselves as well. Accidents involving vehicles and deer are dangerous to both.
One collision has reached nearly mythical levels, it’s been retold so often. By most accounts, the deer went through the front windshield of a van and burst, fatally injured, through its back doors.
People also fear Lyme Disease, a potentially serious illness spread by ticks that are carried by deer. The spread of Lyme disease was a health issue no one took lightly.
As interest in holding a hunt grew, Bull Shoals officials contacted the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which has the “exclusive power and authority” to regulate hunting in the state. In September 2001, Donny Harris, chief of the agency’s Wildlife Management Division, went to Bull Shoals to help forge a plan.
“I have to tell you up front that it’s not going to be a simple task,” he told the city council. “We’re dealing with urban deer populations all across the state of Arkansas. ... All you have to do is travel around and you’ll see deer in the city limits of basically every metropolitan area and suburban area in the state of Arkansas and beyond.”
Harris noted at that 2001 meeting that, after wrestling with a deer problem for years, the community of Diamondhead, near Hot Springs, had recently instituted a hunt, limited to property owners. He described it as having been “largely successful.”
Harris was not so pleased, however, with officials’ response to deer in the state’s capital.
“Some of you might be aware that we’re dealing with the same kind of situation in Little Rock,” Harris said. “Little Rock went ahead and passed a city ordinance about two years ago that had provisions that basically handcuffed our ability to deal with the deer population. Their ordinance states that it’s illegal to discharge a weapon in the City of Little Rock, including archery equipment. That really doesn’t offer us many options.”
At that time, the matter seemed fairly urgent. Game and Fish was struggling to control a statewide deer population that appeared to be veering out of control.
From a population of white-tailed deer that was estimated to have dwindled to fewer than 500 statewide in 1930, restoration practices over the next 30 years led to what officials later described as “an alarming recovery.”
By 1985, the state’s deer population was estimated at 500,000 animals. Just 15 years later — by 1999 — it had doubled to nearly a million. And that was even with annual hunts that “harvested” more than 100,000 deer per year.
In the late 1990s, Game & Fish changed parameters of the hunt, chiefly by encouraging hunters to kill does — the reverse of an ethic that had been inculcated into hunters for decades. The approach was generally successful — even a bit too successful in some northern counties — and today the state’s overall herd has been brought back down to an estimated 800,000.
Still, protected pockets where deer thrive remained a problem. In Bull Shoals, city officials, in cooperation with Game and Fish, decided to hold the state’s first urban hunt between December 2001 and February 2002. Only bow hunters would be allowed to participate, and they would have to undergo special training and obey special rules.
Fifty-four deer were killed in the hunt; 21 bucks and 33 does. All of the meat — almost 2,500 pounds of venison — was donated to a local food bank.
The experiment was repeated the next year. During the winter of 2002-03 hunt, archers killed 39 deer; 21 bucks and 18 does. This time, the hunters were not required to donate the meat, though most of it still went to charity.
Many in the city considered the back-to-back hunts a success. But, if the deer herd was reduced, sentiment against hunting among many residents was inflamed.
By the time Margaret Hall decided to run for mayor, in the summer of 2003, the debate over the hunts had reached such a pitch that she campaigned on a pledge to put the matter up for a vote.
Hall won the election, and last November, Bull Shoals residents got to decide whether deer hunts would ever be repeated in their town. The proposed ordinance would have allowed a hunt every other year.
Hall herself opposed the notion. “I hunted years ago,” she said. “In Texas. I killed two deer. But I don’t know if I could do it now or not. If I saw those eyes, I don’t know if I could pull the trigger.”
Hall felt confident that the proposed ordinance would be defeated. “I think almost everyone thought it would be,” she said.
But Hall was wrong. News reports placed the count at 337 votes for the hunts and 225 against.
In one form or another, the question that confronted voters in Bull Shoals is facing city-dwellers all over the world. While some animals are becoming extinct, others, such as deer, are flourishing in unprecedented numbers.
Last month, BBC News reported, “Some experts believe that the deer population in England is at its highest level for a millennium.”
In the eastern U.S., deer populations have grown so large that foresters worry they are harming the future of forests. By eating every young sprout that tries to grow, deer in New York, Pennsylvania and other states are destroying forests’ ability to regenerate.
Arkansas foresters report a much healthier situation here. In places where deer proliferate, such as the pine growing areas in South Arkansas, heavy hunting keeps populations in check.
But in places where hunting is not allowed, such as on the 700 acres at Arkansas Post National Memorial, the situation is dramatically different. Ed Wood, the superintendent at the historical site, said it’s not unusual for him to see three dozen deer, “right here, around the visitors’ center.”
“Ecologically, speaking,” Wood said, “they’re probably too numerous. The forest itself is relatively healthy, but the regeneration is limited by the deer population. They’re eating more than we should allow — the small trees and things like that.”
Wood said visitors to the park enjoy seeing the deer, and that many come just for that purpose. Though he has no scientific data, he said that various factors appear to be keeping the herd’s size from exploding.
Most of the area surrounding the park is open to legal hunting, Wood said. And inside the park, “We do lose deer to disease, injury and sometimes to predation from coyotes and occasional stray dogs.”
The losses are something visitors don’t usually see. Wood, however, has seen some animals that appeared to be seriously ill, “with ribs sticking out, although there’s plenty to eat here in the park.”
Additionally, many of the fawns born in the park don’t survive. “The ticks do a fairly good job of limiting the very young,” Wood said. “We’ve had many occasions when the very young fawns become so infested with ticks that they just succumb.”
Despite that grim depiction, Wood said he believes “natural selection” is limiting the herd “pretty well.” And he’s glad that deer are not hunted in the park.
“Given the hunting all around here,” he said, “most of the locals agree that the deer have to have a place to rest. So this is a sanctuary, for all intents and purposes.”
How much sanctuary deer actually find is open to question. As recently as five years ago, a large herd browsed so heavily at Mount Nebo State Park in western Arkansas that the evidence remains visible today, although the herd that did the damage has now all but disappeared.
Where did Mount Nebo’s deer go? Did they succumb to starvation, disease, wild dogs or parasites such as ticks?
“I don’t really know,” said Mike Hall, who’s been the park’s superintendent since 2003. “Nobody knows what happened to them.”
In Little Rock, hard data about the scale of deer-related problems is equally hard to come by. Deer abound at the city’s Two Rivers Park, and to a lesser extent at Murray Park and Garrison Road Park. But Jason Rhodes, who oversees the situation for the Department of Parks and Recreation, said, “We don’t have a problem with an overabundance of deer. We have a problem with an overabundance of [illegal] hunters in our parks.”
Even groups that oppose hunting agree that deer populations in many places have outgrown the carrying capacity of their habitats. However, leaders of the group In Defense of Animals argue that, “sport hunting is not only an ineffective wildlife management tool, but a cruel and unnecessary practice.” IDA members call for a ban on hunting so that deer populations can “regulate themselves naturally.”
Other environmental groups take a different view. Scott Simon, Arkansas director of the Nature Conservancy, noted, “It’s our responsibility to maintain, as much as we can, some balance in our ecosystems. It’s because of hunting and hunters in Arkansas that the deer population is being kept at manageable levels, where the number of deer don’t have a negative impact on the habitat itself.”
Simon added, “I think hunting can be humane. Essentially, we are substituting ourselves as predators for things we can’t restore, such as the mountain lions and wolves.”
Ken Smith, director of Audubon Arkansas, agrees. In his view, it’s not hunting that poses the biggest threat to wildlife, but the scourge of urban sprawl.
“Right now,” said Smith, “even as we are trying to restore habitat, we are destroying thousands of acres of viable, healthy forest land. And what are we putting in its place? Box stores and developments.”
Smith believes it’s imperative that humans stem the spread of suburbia. But where it already exists, he said, “We have to learn to live with deer in our communities. If we want to enjoy wildlife, including birds, we’re going to have to manage species like deer.”
For residents of Bull Shoals that means that next December, and alternating winters thereafter, bowhunters will fan out in wooded areas to cull the herd. To be licensed, they will have to have shown they can shoot three consecutive arrows to the kill zone — the area around the heart and lungs — of a life-size target from a distance of less than 20 yards, the range at which most deer are killed by archers. Tom White, president of the Arkansas Bowhunters Association, said that a deer “usually dies within seconds” when struck by an arrow in its kill zone.
Hunters who kill deer in the city will have to keep the animals covered while they’re being carried to vehicles, and they will have to obey other rules intended to protect citizens, both physically and emotionally, during the hunt.
Even so, many of the city’s residents say they will find it hard to endure. One woman, who did not want to give her name, said the town had grown so divided on the issue that she feared risking harm to her business if she voiced her opposition in public.
She scoffed at the suggestion that the herd had grown so large it risked disease or even starvation. “We take care of our deer,” she said. “We feed them. They’ll never starve.”