Wednesday, November 07, 2007

OPINION: Sport Hunting Losing Efficacy

The state's annual November deer hunt, which is the primary method that the Department of Natural Resources uses to reduce the number of deer in the state, begins in another 10 days.

But in recent years, the DNR and many observers have realized that the hunt is not reducing deer populations adequately.

Tom Givnish, Henry Allan Gleason professor of Botany at UW-Madison and a member of the Chronic Wasting Disease Stakeholders Advisory Committee established by the DNR, says he is concerned that recreational hunting can no longer control the deer herd in Wisconsin.

A native of Pennsylvania who previously taught at Harvard before coming to UW 27 years ago, Givnish says that deer densities are much higher than they should be and as a consequence researchers have documented adverse effects on natural communities.

Deer are hindering the establishment of several tree species, such as yellow birch and hemlock, and driving to local extinction dozens of herbaceous species and shrubs.

"It is clear that our forests are much less diverse now than they were 50 years ago," Givnish said.

Because people have eliminated predators, such as wolves and bears, in southern Wisconsin, society relies on hunters to control deer densities.

"There is a social contract between hunters and the rest of society, because deer are owned by the state for all of us," Givnish said. "Hunters are allowed to harvest deer and in exchange the expectation is they will help manage deer so they don't have an adverse impact on the ecosystem. That hasn't worked out in recent decades in Wisconsin or in the eastern U.S."

Givnish points out that this wasn't always the case, as toward the end of the 19th Century people virtually drove deer to extinction in many areas. Conservationists realized that harvest restrictions were necessary.

Those restrictions, including shortening seasons and limiting the way deer could be hunted, worked and populations increased.

"But today we find ourselves hip-deep with deer and they are causing enormous ecological damage, interfering with tree reproduction, eliminating shrubs, there are high numbers of car/deer accidents affecting insurance rates, and they are a reservoir for Lyme disease," Givnish said.

He attributes this to the fact that the country has had a cultural change since the 1930s. The country is richer so the need for wild meat is not as great, and cultural changes mean that older hunters haven't convinced their youngsters to take up hunting.

"The DNR and the hunters have failed to control the deer herd," he said. "Deer have a very high rate of reproduction, sometimes dropping two fawns in their first year. When the deer population and density is high with a limited number of hunters, they escape control, which has happened."

The DNR and hunters are hunting with regulations and an "ethos" that were right in the 1930s and '40s, but are not the right thing now, he said.
"Back then it was right that you don't kill female deer and fawns, they were the future of the herd," he said. "But today the only way to control the deer herd is to shoot female and young deer. It is paradoxical that a system that involves forests, deer and humans, the intelligent part of that system is lagging in response."
In fairness, he notes that the regulations are changing, but there is resistance to things such as the Earn-a-Buck rule that requires hunters to shoot an antlerless deer before they can shoot a buck.

Rather than the traditional views on regulations and deer management, he believes there must be a place for minority and rational views.
Despite the DNR's best intentions, deer populations have not been reduced. But he said the DNR operates under the old rules and ethos, and hunters are currently not able to reduce damage to the environment.

"I would recommend reexamining some of the assumptions behind hunting regulations," he said. "I would greatly lengthen the hunting season, and in some extreme areas we should consider hunting with dogs, using bait, and hunting at night."
There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits that and the situation has changed from decades ago.

Givnish, who is not a hunter but says that he is not an animal rightist and has no problems with hunting and thinks it is wonderful because it gets people outdoors, said he does not know how to recruit more hunters but so far those efforts have not brought out a substantial increase in hunter numbers.

He thinks that many people believe that ethics are timeless, but he believes current
ethics were good under different circumstances. They are learned and they can change with circumstances.

The solution, Givnish says, is to either increase the number of hunters or to increase the efficiency of the hunt.


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