Think differently about deer, group says

  • Feb. 26, 2003 7:00 p.m.

by Alex Rinfret-The Research Group on Introduced Species wants to change the way islanders think about deer.
Members of the group made presentations last week and this week, sharing their latest research and ideas about the complex problems posed by animals like Sitka black-tailed deer, which did not evolve on the islands but were brought here by people within the last 125 years.
“They’ve done extremely well here,” said Gwaii Haanas biologist Todd Golumbia at a session in Port Clements last week, noting that the current deer population descended from just 39 animals brought over between 1878 and 1925. “They’ve flourished here because when they brought the deer over, they didn’t bring the wolves or the cougar.”
That about sums up the problem with so-called “introduced species” on islands all over the world. Not all introduced species survive in their new environment. But those that do usually thrive due to the absence of predators and an abundance of easy food which has not evolved any defences against the newcomers.
The research group – made up of organizations like Gwaii Haanas, the Laskeek Bay Conservation Society, and federal and provincial agencies – has been organizing studies since 1995 into how deer and other introduced animals and plants are affecting the islands. (The ongoing research has brought more than a million dollars into the local economy so far, Mr. Golumbia said.)
Most islanders are familiar with the fact that deer like to munch on young cedar trees, making it difficult to replace the cedar trees lost to logging here, and making logging companies, among others, acutely aware of the introduced species problem. But the effects go far beyond this. Mr. Golumbia showed an illustration with no less than 10 arrows linking deer with plants, song birds, ravens and squirrels. The presence of deer on these islands, research is showing, eventually affects almost every other living creature, right down to forest snails and slugs.
Much of the research has been done on smaller islands, and Mr. Golumbia described some of it. On islands with no deer, scientists found dense underbrush, shoreline flowers, and now rare native plants like devil’s club flourishing – overall, there are more plants, and more different kinds of plants. The same results have been found in the several deer “exclosures” or fenced areas which have been constructed on the islands in recent years.
Other research shows that on islands with deer, trees grow much more slowly – taking as much as 14 years longer to reach the same height as trees on islands with no deer.
Is there a solution to any of this? The obvious one would be to kill all the deer, but this is thought to be impossible to accomplish. It is also strongly opposed by the many islanders who hunt deer for food. The research group does not support this solution, Mr. Golumbia said.
“We want to reduce the impacts, not eradicate the deer,” he said. “Our goal is to balance the scales a little bit, to slow down the trajectory.”
Ideas about how to reduce the impacts include loosening hunting regulations, urging hunters to shoot more does, and giving islanders more information.
Deer are not the only alien species on the islands, although they are thought to have had among the most dramatic effects. There are actually 16 introduced mammals here, including beavers, raccoons and rats. They have all brought a cascading effect of different problems to the islands ecosystem. There are also introduced frogs, birds, fish and plants.
Mr. Golumbia’s presentation provoked some debate from one islander who attended. Mike Cheney said that while the negative effects of deer are obvious, he wondered why there wasn’t any discussion of positive impacts.
“It strikes me there are some unanswered questions,” he said. “Are there some benefits that are brought here by deer?”
Mr. Cheney also said he found the researchers’ attitudes to deer somewhat like the attitude of his nine-year-old son to spiders: a quick conclusion that they’re “evil”, without looking at the bigger picture.
Mr. Golumbia replied that the research done on deer simply tells us what is happening. Whether these effects are “good” or “bad” is open to debate. But most researchers have agreed that the loss of native species, in both number and abundance, is “bad”.
“It’s devastating to the forest ecosystem,” he said. “And it’s not that they’re evil, it’s that introduced species can wreak havoc.”
If you’re interested in hearing more (and there’s lots more to this issue), the research group is making a presentation Thursday Feb. 27 at the Queen Charlotte visitor information centre, starting at 7 pm.