Friday, July 10, 2009
By Becky Gillette
Each year there are an astounding 18,500 accidents in Arkansas caused when a vehicle hits a deer. One prominent local resident was killed in a deer collision: Steve Hunt, a former owner of Booze Brothers, was killed when his motorcycle collided with a deer on Roark Road.
There are obviously a lot of deer in town, and quite a few vehicles hit deer, said Eureka Springs Police Chief Earl Hyatt.
"A lot don't get reported to us," Hyatt said. "They hit a deer, and they call an insurance agent and get their car fixed."
HI herd 10 times too dense
Deer are overpopulated in many areas of the state, particularly in urban areas where hunting is not allowed and there are no natural predators for deer. A survey estimated 105 deer per square mile in Holiday Island when resource managers say eight to 10 deer is the ideal density.
The problem can be aggravated when residents feed corn to the deer, which can result in the deer having more multiple births and a higher survival rate.
No doubt people who feed the deer enjoy watching them. The practice is particularly popular with owners of bed and breakfast establishments, some of which advertise "well fed deer" as an amenity. Delighted guests get out their cameras and sneak as close as possible for pictures. Vacation memories are made.
But is feeding the deer a good idea? Besides the potential for an increased number of deer-and-vehicle collisions, feeding the deer can cause major problems for neighbors with vegetable or flower gardens. Some residents, including B&B owners with elaborate landscaping to add to the appeal of their establishment, have lost many hundreds of dollars of landscaping to deer.
Deer predation is also a big problem with city gardens including those at spring reservations. This year an attractive trellis barrier has been erected near the library and Crescent Springs because of deer problems.
And then there is the issue of tick-borne disease such as Lyme disease. Last year, a Eureka man contracted Lyme disease after getting bitten by a tick in his backyard, which is located not far from a B&B that feeds a herd of about 20 deer on a daily basis.
Currently Holiday Island is considering establishing a deer advisory committee to make recommendations to address deer overpopulation. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) has said the deer in Holiday Island are "very dense." A hunt is being considered in Holiday Island, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported urban deer hunts are planned to thin deer populations in four towns: Horseshoe Bend; Cherokee Village; Bull Shoals; and Hot Springs Village.
ES voters nix hunt
In 2002, Eureka Springs held a referendum for an in-town archery deer hunt to address overpopulation.
"People just got up in arms about it here," recalled City Clerk Mary Jean Sell. "They didn't really believe the hunters would be careful. They were afraid small children would get shot or deer would get shot with an arrow and end up dragging up on someone's porch where they would die where children could see it."
The proposal called for 100 licenses to be issued, and each person receiving a permit would have been required to attend a safety school.
The proposal was soundly defeated, and the council also failed to act on requests to outlaw recreational deer feeding stating it would "pit neighbor against neighbor" and be difficult to enforce.
Neighbors already divided
Gwen Bennett, a professional artist who is an avid gardener in Eureka Springs, said deer feeding already pits neighbor against neighbor.
"It has cost me a lot of time and money just to protect myself from the deer," Bennett said. "When I moved here in 1985, deer were not a problem. I gardened with no barriers and it was deer-free until the mid 90s, which might have coincided with more B&Bs in town. I believe the overpopulation of deer is a result of recreational feeding, people putting tasty plants in their gardens and the lack of hunting. There used to be hunting in town."
Bennett said hunting was outlawed in the late 90s after a city alderperson found an arrow on her front porch, which led to all forms of hunting, including archery, being outlawed.
Bennett favors outlawing recreational deer feeding as has been done in her native state of Michigan and other areas of the country.
"This is the only house I've ever owned," she said. "I have a right to pursue my happiness and grow food in my backyard. I shouldn't, because of recreational feeding, have to go to extreme measures just to grow food in my backyard."
The enforcement issue
Alderperson Butch Berry, who was on City Council when it considered banning recreational feeding of deer, said police at the time didn't want to enforce a ban on recreational feeding.
Berry, who was good friends with Steve Hunt, said he still thinks deer hunting would be the best way to control the population. But he said clearly people don't want that.
"Eureka gets divided over a lot of different things," Berry said. "The deer are a real divisive issue, unfortunately. I wish I knew what to do."
AGFC doesn't have an official policy about deer feeding. But wildlife disease specialists say it is a bad idea, said AGFC Deer Program Coordinator Brad Miller.
"Feeding deer corn can have some negative impacts for the health of the deer," Miller said. "There are fungi that grow on spoiled grain called aflatoxins. Aflatoxins can build up when corn is still in the field, or can build up when corn is stored in warm, humid conditions. If the corn is put out in some sort of feeder where moisture gets in, and the mold develops further, that would create a potential for increased aflatoxins. Those can be dangerous for deer and other wildlife."
Recreational deer feeding and deer farms have been banned in some states because the practice can spread Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which is similar to mad cow disease. CWD has not yet been detected in Arkansas deer.
There is a major ecological cost to overpopulations of deer.
"Whitetail deer are a keystone species because they can greatly impact a wide variety of plants and animals as well as ecosystem processes in general," Miller said. "If you have an overabundant deer population, they can greatly negatively affect a wide variety of plant and animals species. When the populations are too high, they can alter habitat conditions and reduce habitat quality for a lot of other species from insects to ground nesting birds to small mammals. They change the vegetative structure in forests. They reduce the number of wildflowers. Research has shown some species in areas with high deer density have been completely eliminated."
There is not enough natural mortality to keep the deer population in check. "We don't have enough mountain lions, black bears and wolves to keep these populations down," Miller said. "The only way we can keep deer populations under control is through regulated hunting. In some urban areas where hunting is not allowed, you wind up relying on disease and starvation to keep deer populations in control. You have boom and bust, a high population that comes crashing down."
AGFC offers hunting alternatives including trapping and relocating, trapping and euthanizing, or fertility control.
"However, they all have substantial limitations," Miller said. "Regulated hunting is the most effective method for population control."
Arkansas has an estimated 1,000,000 deer, and last year saw the second-highest deer harvest in history when an estimated 184,000 deer were harvested. But considering the high number of deer-and-vehicle collisions and the potential negative impact on ecosystems, is there an overpopulation of deer overall in the state? And does it make sense for AGFC to continue to plant food plots for deer at Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs)?
"I think we do a real good job on WMAs to keep deer populations at an appropriate level," Miller said. "Food plots are beneficial to deer and a variety of other wildlife species. Although planting food plots can increase the carrying capacity of an area, as long as you couple that practice with regulated hunting, you will have healthy deer herds and healthy ecosystems.
"There are certain places that I would like to see the deer population reduced further, particularly around some urban areas where we have deer-human conflicts. However, accomplishing that can be difficult. As the human population of Arkansas expands we will start to see increased conflict between humans and deer, and other wildlife, as well."