Why So Many Deer and Bears? Our Growing Wildlife Imbalance. | Environment | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the sound of gunshots will echo through deep forests in the Hudson Valley, signaling the start of the regular deer hunting season. This weekend through December 9, rifle hunters throughout the southern part of New York State will be donning camo and taking to the woods. Some hope to fill their freezers with venison. Others are in it for a trophy, or the thrill of the hunt.

Hunting brings out strong emotions in people. For a shrinking part of the population, it’s a culture and a way of life. Some find the idea of killing a forest creature morally abhorrent. For people charged with looking after the health and vitality of Northeastern forests, hunting is an imperfect tool that might be used to help solve a growing problem: There are too many animals.

This seems perverse, in the face of grim news about shrinking animal populations worldwide. Only recently, the World Wildlife Foundation released a devastating report, warning that the average vertebrate population has declined 60 percent since 1970. But when it comes to white-tailed deer and black bears, the biggest and most spectacular animals of the Northeastern forest – our “charismatic megafauna,” as biologists like to say – we have the opposite problem: overpopulation.

Too Many Bears?

A ballooning bear population in the region means more interactions between bears and people – and with that, increasing odds for attacks and aggression. As bears become more accustomed to living with humans and living off their garbage and discarded food, they become more of a danger to life and property, and to themselves. Wildlife managers like to say “a fed bear is a dead bear”: in other words, a bear that has grown too used to human company is often a bear that will eventually be culled.

Foraging bears can be hard on property, but the greatest risk of a growing and increasingly fearless local bear population is to human life. The black bears of the Northeast are less aggressive than their brown and grizzly counterparts out West, but they have occasionally been known to attack and kill humans, and the less afraid of people they are, the more dangerous they can be.  

Nowhere is that danger felt more strongly than in Sullivan County, where in 2002, a bear killed a five-month-old infant by dragging her from her stroller. The death of Esther Schwimmer was a tragedy that brought home the terrible cost of allowing bears to grow dependent on humans, but did little to stop the growing problem of people in the region feeding bears and attracting them to human-occupied areas by leaving out trash. Just last week, a bear eating out of a dumpster attacked a leashed dog in West Hurley, injuring it so badly that the dog had to be euthanized.

In an effort to curb the growing bear population locally, the state Department of Environmental Conservation took a controversial step in 2014: moving the regular bear hunting season from mid-November to early September, when bears are more active and hunters have a greater chance of success. 

Deer: A Threat To Forest Health

In the case of deer, the problem is more ecologically dire: As deer have reproduced far beyond the small populations the primordial Northeastern forest once supported, they have transformed the forest itself, dealing a deep blow to biological diversity and native plant communities.

White-tailed deer, that elegant and iconic creature of the Northern woods, a threat to the forest? The very idea sounds preposterous to a casual observer. But to plant ecologists, who have watched over the past few decades as accelerating deer browsing has decimated the forest understory, overabundant deer are an obvious threat to forest health.

Part of the problem, some scientists have found, is that deer prefer to eat native seedlings, shrubs and wildflowers. Under attack from both hungry deer and invasive exotic plants occupying their territory, native plant populations are shrinking in the Northeastern forest. Deer impact on the forest understory has ripple effects in the ecosystem, reducing the number of songbirds in the forest by leaving them fewer shrubs to nest and feed in.

In 2013, ecologists from The Nature Conservancy declared white-tailed deer a bigger threat to forests than climate change. Part of the problem, they wrote, is hunters themselves:

It will be difficult to overcome traditional hunter concepts of proper deer management as it is counter-intuitive to most hunters that fewer game animals are desirable. Decades of effort, patience, and expense were invested to enhance populations to the point where hunting success is now commonplace. To suggest that populations be reduced and therefore increase the effort needed to harvest a deer understandably generates resistance.

Deep Dives On Wildlife

Recommended reading, for those interested in this topic: a book by the Wall Street Journal’s Jim Sterba, himself an upstate New York weekender. In “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards Into Battlegrounds,” Sterba tells the story of the wild things who are increasingly moving into our suburban neighborhoods – and the challenges of sharing.

Most Americans don’t much like hunting these days, Sterba writes, but that may be because we’ve become so disconnected from the natural world that we no longer see ourselves as a participant in it. As a keystone predator in a world of “nature red in tooth and claw,” he believes, humans must become more comfortable with the messy realities of the natural world if we hope to find a way out of increasing conflict with wildlife. In a conversation with Ken MacQueen of Maclean’s, Sterba says:

We’ve become detached from nature, kind of de-natured in that we’re not out on the working landscape anymore. In the 19th century, two out of three members of the workforce were working outdoors on farms. Now it’s less than one per cent. We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors, in our cars, offices or homes. We’ve been getting our nature as we moved off the landscape, the working landscape, indirectly from books, from movies, from TV, now digital images. 

Here in the Hudson Valley, we are never far from the natural world. Our region is on the front lines of the conflict over increasingly abundant wildlife and what to do about it – and some of the important ecological study of the issue is being done in our backyard, too. As our newsroom grows, we hope to cover stories like these in more depth.

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Lissa Harris

Lissa Harris is a staff writer at The River and a volunteer firefighter. She was the founding editor of the Watershed Post, a site that covered local news in the rural Catskills from 2010 to 2017.
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