Monday, July 30, 2007

KANSAS NEWS: Small Park + No Predators = Same Old Problem

On an early summer night, dusk wanes and the sun slips red beneath the horizon of Shawnee Mission Park. A car rolls slowly along Ogg Road, away from the lake, and into the park stables.

The driver parks. He and his family step from their car and walk north to the edge of a pasture. There, as if on safari, they see them grazing:

Ten, 30, at least 50 white-tailed deer.

Like other gawkers, they had driven around the park’s circular road and seen small groups of deer here and there: five by the baseball fields; three nibbling at the edge of trees; four more walking elegantly along a ridge as silhouettes against the sky.

But here, dozens of does and fawns and bucks arch their brown necks toward the grass. The small boy runs excited down a slope toward the field. Alarmed, the deer jerk their heads up, pause, stare and then, flowing like a river, rush leaping and hopping into the woods with their white tails flashing like lanterns on waves.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the awestruck mother says. The stream of deer flees, trailed by their long shadows. “It’s beautiful.”

I t’s morning. Charles Wasson, fit and retired from the Navy, stands at the southern edge of the park, his feet sunk into the dark green lawn of his suburban home.

“We have an infestation!” he says. “That’s how I think about it. It’s an infestation.”

The hoofprints of deer dent his flowerbeds. He looks at his hostas, or what’s left of them. They’re gone, nibbled down to pale green stalks.

“I love them, too,” he says of the deer. From the window of his kitchen, he and his wife watch families of deer — sometimes with majestic bucks possessing eight, 10 and even 12 points on their antlers — loping from the woods along their backyard.

But there’s barely a neighbor in the maze of cul-de-sacs who hasn’t had to swerve around deer in the road. Occasionally, in the wee hours of the morning, people rise to retrieve their newspapers to confront deer just feet from their front doors: huge, curled up, eyes shut.

“They sleep on my front lawn,” Wasson says. “These are not small deer.”

G rant Evans, senior park manager for Shawnee Mission Park, hops in the cab of his truck and cruises along the park road.

He is in a quandary. The collision, he knows, is coming and has been for years — the collision between nature and suburbanization, between booming populations of deer in the park with no natural predators (“Except a Ford,” Evans says) and burgeoning populations of suburbanites.

He points through his windshield at the wall of trees along the border of the park.

“See that?” he says. “See the browse line?”

There it is: a long band — one giant dark stripe extending from the ground to six feet up in the branches — running the length of the trees. From the ground to the top of the line, the trees have been nibbled raw.

“You shouldn’t be able to see back through the trees like that,” Evans says.

It’s a sure sign of too many deer, as if he hasn’t already seen enough signs: White-tailed deer everywhere, like Canada geese, stand fearless in the middle of the road. Cars approach, and they barely flinch. Deer and car crashes are growing ever more frequent. Recently Evans discovered illegal tree stands put up by bow hunters in the depths of the park.

As a conservationist, Evans knows it’s not healthy. Not for the trees. Not for the deer who, should the herd continue to grow, risk starving in the winter. If a wasting disease or virus infiltrated a herd this size, he says, the resultant die-off of deer would be horrendous and ugly. (story continues)