Wednesday, October 18, 2006

OKLAHOMA NEWS: Deer Versus Farmers

Deer take toll on farmers' crops

Good habitat and high population add up to big losses

By Mark Parker

Sixty-odd years ago, there was hardly a whitetail deer left in Oklahoma and a restoration program was initiated to rebuild the herd.

Looking out across a nearly bare patch of Verdigris River bottom ground near Claremore, Charles Coblentz would tell you that the program has been successful.

Maybe a little too successful.

It’s a soybean field or, rather, it’s supposed to be a soybean field that he’s looking at. The rich ground was planted to soybeans after wheat but, today, you’d have to get down on your hands and knees to find an occasional 3-inch nubbin of something that’s trying in vain to produce a soybean.

Deer have devastated that 35-acre field and more. Coblentz, who farms in Rogers, Mayes and Wagoner counties with his son, Charlie, figures the deer have wiped out about 135 acres at the Claremore farm - and that doesn’t count many more acres where deer nibbled away yields at the edges of other fields.

Back to the east in Mayes County near Salina, Okla., farmer Mack Hayes surveys his newly established 3-acre vineyard where the whitetails have robbed him of a year’s growth.

“It takes three years to get the vines to produce and we just lost a year,” he says with disgust, elaborating on the costs of wells, pumps, irrigation equipment and the plants themselves.

The deer, he adds, also wiped out 350 tomato plants and an acre of watermelons - in one night.

“We used to get some deer damage but nothing like this,” said Hayes, who used to operate a dairy on the farm where he’s lived his whole life.

Head north into Kansas and you’ll hear plenty of similar stories. Near Prescott, farmer Ed Samyn fights an ongoing battle with deer. He estimates that deer will claim 10 bushels of soybeans per acre at his place this year, taking his expected yields from about 30 bushels to about 20.

“We’ve had a problem for years, but it’s gotten a lot worse,” Samyn said. “It might be a little tougher this year because it’s been dry but the deer problem just seems to get worse all the time.”

Deer seem particularly fond of soybeans although corn after it hits the roasting ear stage is also a target, as are several other crops.

A small amount of deer-inflicted damage is common on most farms but for those near good whitetail habitat, the damage can be staggering.

Of course farmers aren’t the only people affected by deer. It’s estimated that there are 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions annually in the United States, causing $1.1 billion in damage, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

If you talk to game officials in Oklahoma or Kansas, they’ll tell you that the whitetail population in both states is stable but they will admit that there are problem areas.

The primary solution offered is to issue depredation tags, which allow the landowner to kill a certain number of antlerless deer out of season. In both Kansas and Oklahoma, a game official will visit the farm to verify the problem and then issue the permit - usually for five to 10 deer at a time.

Captain Jeff Brown of Nowata, district chief for the Oklahoma Wildlife Department, said the program can be effective.

“We want to be good neighbors and we recognize that deer can cause a lot of problems for farmers in some areas,” he said. “We want to work with those people to solve the problem.”

In some of those cases, though, it appears that deer numbers are so overwhelming that the extra hunting has little or no impact on the problem.

Charles and Charlie Coblentz are farmers with more than enough acres to keep them busy. Since they have no desire to hunt, they have leased hunting rights on the field near Claremore.

“We’ve been able to make some money off the hunting leases but it’s not enough to offset the crop losses and it hasn’t taken care of the problem,” Charles Coblentz said. “There have been 120 deer killed on this place in two and a half seasons and I’ve still never been out here without seeing several deer.

“One evening Charlie counted 45 while he was planting wheat and another night the game warden said he counted 110 and never made it all the way to the back of the place - there are just too many of them.”

Both Hayes and Samyn can tell similar stories and it would be no trouble to come up with a lengthy list of farmers whose crops are being eaten by deer.

A common point is that, although deer, like all wildlife, are owned by the public at large, it is individual farmers who provide the majority with food and shelter.

As Mack Hayes put it, “Wildlife rides on the back of the farmer.”

Some game officials say that the deer population is not out of control and point out that lease hunting has become an important source of income for many farmers.

It is clear, however, that deer are a serious problem for a good many agricultural producers.

There probably isn’t a single reason for the situation. Some people point to the trend of city folk buying up pasture land and letting it go back to brush to provide deer habitat.

Some observe that hunters these days tend to be more interested in antlers than meat and, as a result, the number of does living long productive lives throws the population out of balance.

Others aren’t all that interested in the cause but they are very interested in finding a solution. Many landowners and operators would like to see a dramatic increase in the number of doe tags issued. Some would even like to see a requirement that buck hunters also take a doe or two.

Mack Hayes, in fact, is circulating a petition aimed at getting Oklahoma state government to extend the hunting season for antlerless deer and/or provide financial assistance for protective fencing.

“I’m not mad at the game people,” he said. “They have been more than cordial and they’ve done what they can to help but they can only do what the law allows them to do. They could give me a permit to kill all the deer I wanted to and I don’t think it would make a difference. We need management. We need control. We need help from Oklahoma City.”

In the meantime, farmers already facing a long list of potential calamities - from drought, hail and flooding to unpredictable markets - will keep whitetail deer in their sights as one more problem to deal with.

Mark Parker writes for Farm Talk in Parsons, Kan.