Thursday, February 21, 2008

WISCONSIN OPINION: Overabundant Deer Vs. National Parks

The latest Pat Durkin column:

SHILOH, Tenn. — While approaching a row of cannons on a famous site called the Hornet's Nest at the Shiloh National Military Park last weekend, my thoughts shifted from the Civil War's awful carnage to the annoyance of avoiding deer pellets wherever I stepped.

Minutes later, I studied the shoreline of the Bloody Pond, another tragic site from 146 years ago. I tried to envision the horror of soldiers and horses, Union and Confederate, taking their final drinks. I tried to grasp the futility of trying to sate thirst caused by fear, fatigue and massive hemorrhage.

Then I noticed cloven hoof marks of whitetails pocking the mud everywhere I looked. The spell broken, I moved on.

After a short walk, I saw large wire cages protecting young trees in Sarah Bell's peach orchard as I approached the eastern end of the Hornet's Nest. When I spotted W. George Manse's cabin in the orchard's corner, a harsh browse line in the adjoining woods validated the need for the peach trees' cages. Overpopulated deer are hell on buds and twigs.

Then, I recalled Jeff Shaara mentioned Shiloh's deer and this orchard in his book, "Civil War Battlefields." Shaara wrote: "The peach trees there today are maintained in the original location of the orchard, though keeping the trees healthy is a constant headache since the park's enormous deer population delights in devouring the trees' delicious leaves and blossoms."

My U.S. Park Service leaflet said Miss Bell's orchard was in full bloom on April 6, 1862, as Confederate troops hammered the Union's left flank. Shaara is more specific: "There are no more poetic descriptions of battle than those written by soldiers who fought here, several of whom described how the fully blossoming trees were so cut by the storm of musket fire that the white petals swirled around the men like a snowstorm."

Problems caused by deer aren't unique to this national park. Whether it's deer browsing down the woods of Shiloh in Tennessee, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania or Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee and North Carolina, or elk strip-mining the herbage of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, we see the pitiful results of overprotection. This is what happens when we set aside treasured areas, then allow almost all forms of human recreation except hunting.

Our nation forever will owe Theodore Roosevelt and other visionaries for setting aside millions of acres for national parks. What Roosevelt couldn't have foreseen was a society 100 years later so disconnected from nature and the food chain that it lacks the common sense and political courage to prevent one species from wreaking havoc on lands that once held diverse species.

Meanwhile, that society somehow produces people who righteously try to remove species they deem alien or exotic if it threatens a native ecosystem. Whether it's lake trout in Yellowstone Lake, or elk and mule deer in Channel Islands National Park off California, the Park Service wants them dead or gone.

Fascinating. If someone took a species from somewhere else in North America and released it where it wasn't living when Europeans arrived 400 years ago, the Park Service crusades with a zealot's conviction, dismissing protests as naïve and uneducated.

But when a species is native to a national park and destroying its home from within, the Park Service merely mopes and hopes the problem goes away. When hunters outside park boundaries don't shoot enough animals to make a difference, the Park Service crafts expensive sharp-shooting plans rather than work with qualified hunters who would solve the problem and be grateful for the opportunity.

The feds should consider Wisconsin's approach. When ecologists show just cause to open a state park to deer hunting, we hold hearings, let everyone bark and open the park to controlled hunts.

A few weeks later, everyone is back to normal, their outrage looking for a new perch. The system works.


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