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Deer Under Fire

Whitepaper by Susan Russell | Copyright 2006

"Nowhere else in the world," Henry Miller wrote of the United States, "is the divorce between man and nature so complete." And nowhere else in the United States is the disunion more violent than in New Jersey. Overrun by development and a burgeoning human population of 8.4 million, the state has institutionalized pogroms against displaced wildlife. For Miller, “the end is a cold, dead mystery.” For Garden State deer and Canada geese, the end is no mystery, and it is no garden: the state is an abattoir. In a politically compromised and factually coy campaign, the New Jersey Audubon Society has added fuel to the fire.

The society released a white paper in early spring advocating a massive expansion of deer hunting to prevent deforestation. Accepting the report as authoritative, regional editorial writers called for blood. Pitting deer against “millions of American gardeners, farmers, bird-watchers, drivers, fence builders, claims adjusters, body-shop operators, roadkill scrapers, 911 dispatchers and chiropractors,” The New York Times concluded, “White-tailed deer are a plague”.

The Audubon white paper short-sheeted the public in more ways than one. According to every biological law but one -- local annihilation -- employing hunting as population management will create more, not fewer, deer.

Major deficits in the report include:

 Failure to acknowledge the population ecology of the white-tailed deer;
 Failure to acknowledge related government and private hunting groups’ reliance on hunting and altering habitat to stimulate deer fertility;
 Failure to acknowledge peer-reviewed data that contradict the group’s overheated, forest impact scenario.

Deer Biology
Scientists uniformly report that well-fed does breed earlier, and have more fawns. Ranking deer biologist Rory Putman explains that in natural populations, birth and death rates ‘reach a balance, so that the net rate of increase becomes zero and the populations numbers stabilize at some equilibrium level.”

Both hunting and associated habitat management thwart the whitetail’s natural coping mechanisms at every turn.

Habitat Manipulation
Mature forests do not support large numbers of deer, as tree canopies prevent growth of forage-level herbaceous plants, forbs, and grasses for deer. Deer thrive in edge habitat, where forest and grasslands meet. State wildlife departments create edge by clear-cutting, burning, mowing, and planting deer-preferred vegetation to stimulate breeding. This type of low-growing habitat is called early successional, and it is the key to managing habitat for deer.

Describing the benefits of clear-cutting, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources notes that “habitat has a major influence on deer reproduction” because clear-cutting forces earlier breeding. At higher numbers, “deer may not be bred until the 2nd or 3rd estrus.” As the number of does increases, births decline, because “there is relatively less food available per deer.” The percentage of fawns and yearlings who breed early depends on their physical development, “which is based on food supply (Verme 1967).”

Creating early successional habitat for deer on public and private land is an admitted, overarching goal of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife:

Habitat development and maintenance to benefit deer are conducted on 73 state owned Fish and Wildlife Management Areas totaling over 192,000 acres. Habitat management is encouraged on other public and private lands. Limited burning, wood harvest and planting of various agricultural crops favored by deer can increase the carrying capacity by increasing the quality and quantity of food available.

Yet this ongoing “development” turns up nowhere in the New Jersey Audubon report. In fact, the New Jersey Audubon Society supports state Wildlife Habitat Incentive Programs (WHIP), even as "early successional habitats are a priority habitat for WHIP NJ," It is these very habitats that create more deer.

Audubon’s endorsement of so-called habitat incentive programs is indeed problematic. Canada yews are “easily killed by fire” and “any disturbance that opens the canopy is detrimental” – yet Audubon targets deer for yew damage, and endorses clear-cutting and burning.

Edge Effects
According to Partners in Flight, “The plight of many forest-nesting songbirds has brought into question the benefits of certain traditional wildlife management techniques.” While creating edge may benefit some birds, “we now know, however, that forest-interior species may disappear from areas that contain extensive edge, and that edges may serve as ‘ecological traps’ for some breeding birds.” Audubon gingerly defends the practice.

Ornithologists studying the aftermath of Bureau of Land Management forest cuts report that many birds associated with mature forests declined. Experts report that forest management for deer “may not hold for other organisms, such as forest-interior birds, salamanders and wildflowers.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service admits these practices impact “significant acreage” required and used by non-hunted species, as burning and clear-cutting destroys habitat, claiming direct and indirect animal casualties as well.

In the U.S., habitat enhancement for deer, or, more aptly, for hunting, is systemic. Timbering, mowing, and planting deer-preferred crops are deeply embedded in government policy, and are carried out not only on state wildlife management areas, but on lands managed by The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Bureau of Land Management, The Forest Service and state forestry and parks divisions, The Departments of Defense and of Agriculture, and more. Private or leased tracts are managed by hunting clubs, and by private landowners for tax incentives initiated by state game divisions. The cumulative impact is apparent.

Hunting has the same effect, creating more food by removing competitors, sometimes doubling reproductive rates, or keeping rates high.

Putman explains: “[w]ithin such populations, hunting acts to reduce numbers. In so doing, it brings the population once more below the level at which it is limited by environmental resources, effectively releasing the density-dependent brake on population growth. Reproduction increases, juvenile mortality falls, and the whole population age structure shifts towards young animals . . . productivity of the population rises.” And: “We have repeatedly stressed that most natural populations respond to reduction in numbers by increased productivity.”

In the absence of hunting, fertility declines. Fertility reduction, not killing, is the most important factor in naturally limiting deer numbers.

In sum, it is management for deer, not deer, that is out of control.

The Audubon position singles out deer for grazing on trillium, an endangered plant, ignoring scientists’ findings that deer also dispense trillium seed. Cornell researchers report that while deer disseminate noxious weeds, “[t]he good news is that deer might facilitate the spread of native plants to habitats recovering from disturbance, where the seeds otherwise wouldn't be able to reach.”

The Audubon position blames deer for the demise of the eastern hemlock, whereas climate variation, land use, natural disturbance and natural regeneration cycles -- not deer -- are known to be key factors in hemlock decline. Moreover, killing deer does not improve hemlock regeneration. This countering information appeared in the same peer-reviewed, published text as the negative source cited by Audubon. Moderate to heavy deer browsing can actually increase plant diversity at certain stages, preventing the spread of fungus and other diseases. Wildlife management clear-cutting supported by Audubon can increase nest predation on forest interior birds.

Contrary to Audubon claims, editors of the Smithsonian Institution text, The Science of Overabundance, caution that “The hypothesis that deer are more abundant now than they were prior to European colonization is equivocal at best.” And, “No static number of deer per square kilometer can provide an accurate reflection of the dynamics of the system.”

And again, a caveat regarding managing forests to meet hunter demand for deer: "At the forest-stand level, deer densities sufficient to satisfy hunter demands may be too high to permit sapling recruitment for a preferred browse species. Unfortunately, the old adage that good forestry management is good wildlife management may be appropriate for encouraging species such as white-tailed deer or ruffed grouse, that thrive under early successional conditions that may not hold for other organisms, such as forest-interior birds, salamanders and wildflowers."

Claims that hunters replace natural predators are spurious. According to the Smithsonian text’s editors: “In addition, the idea that predators can serve to maintain prey populations at stable levels may be incorrect. Therefore, attempts to create a mythical stable population density through hunting may not be a sound strategy, if the goal is to maintain ecosystem health.” Text authors warn that “Concerns about deer density may be misplaced in the presence of more severe impacts on understory composition . . . not only do large herbivores respond to plant heterogeneity, but they are important agents in creating it.” The editors ask: "Clearly, deer browsing affects some species, but is this effect sufficient to affect ecosystem function?" And, "Does a forest composed of browse-resistant species have any less biological worth than one with a significant complement of browse-sensitive species?"

Equally irreconcilable Audubon positions include:

 Recommending hunting to protect birds, when wildlife refuge managers identify hunting as the primary cause of disturbance to birds, disturbance that leads to death, nest failure, and aberrant behavior;
 Some Audubon groups, including the national and many but not all state chapters, tacitly or otherwise support bird hunting, an activity responsible for the deaths and crippling of an estimated 13.5 million ducks, 4.7 million geese, and 20 million mourning doves each year, (these numbers do not include indirect impacts, such as nest failure, cited above) yet target household cats, foxes and deer for impacts on birds. Foxes and deer have incalculably less overall impact and are targeted for engaging in natural, ecologically sound behavior. Moreover, the group ignores early succession/edge wildlife management for deer that is affecting forests and forest interior birds. The group’s deer-bird indictment was largely non-specific and “potential”; hunter-inflicted mortality is absolute.

Government reliance on hunting and habitat alteration programs to keep birth rates high is immutable fact. There is no scientific justification for either omission in a report that purports to address deer mismanagement. Thus ignoring the linch-pins of U.S. deer management policy, Audubon instead framed the issue disingenuously, and exactly wrong: hunting and management are not producing too many deer; hunters are killing too few. This breach services the political requirements of the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, and the industry’s interests in general. As such, it is a violation of the public trust.

The key to understanding U.S. wildlife politics is simple: Follow the money.

As defined by the Washington Post in a three-part series on The Nature Conservancy, the term greenwashing refers to trade-offs and deals among influential conservation groups and industries that exploit wildlife and the environment. The somewhat glib rationale is that industry cooperation benefits conservation. The reality, as examined by the Post, is that wildlife and habitat are often dealt the losing hand.

In the U.S., wildlife industries and government regulatory agencies are fused. As a result, commercial interest is not readily apparent. A prime example is the current gun-game-conservation project, Teaming with Wildlife, in which National Audubon plays the enabling role.

The International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (IAFWS) and the Wildlife Management Institute (WMI), whose board consists entirely of gun manufacturers, firearms, equipment and ammo manufacturers, initiated federal legislation called the Conservation and Reinvestment Act, or CARA, specifically to subsidize depleted hunting department revenues. The effort is managed by the Teaming with Wildlife Steering Committee.

IAFWA is “the voice of fish and wildlife agencies” -- and an accomplished ventriloquist. The group is an umbrella trade association that speaks for the wildlife use business. Contributing and/or committee members include: The Wildlife Management Institute, The National Rifle Association, The Archery Manufacturers and Merchants Organization (AMO), fur trappers, trap manufacturers, furriers, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an organization with a membership of more than 3,000 manufacturers, distributors, retailers, sportsmen's organizations and publishers.

Co-mingling government regulators and trade, pooling resources and personnel, IAFWA is a one-stop-shopping hub for litigation, legislation, and public relations. Remington Arms and fur guilds avoid the spotlight, working behind the scenes, sitting on key committees, writing government publications, and influencing legislation. Major IAFWA projects entail extensive poll testing, public relations, and lobbying aimed at countering “anti-hunting and trapping” – or pro-wildlife - public sentiment and legislation. Government officials carry out the trade association’s lobbying and public relations roles, framed in wildlife management parlance.

WMI operates under "partnership agreements" with the Department of Interior and state agencies. "No other organization," the Institute boasts, "has a greater hand in molding state, federal and provincial resource agencies, typically working away from the limelight to catalyze and facilitate strategies, actions and decisions."

De facto control was guaranteed by the federal Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, when firearms dealers (WMI) and trophy hunters designed state and federal wildlife laws to sustain gun sales and animal supply. Manufacturers remain the dominant players in national and state wildlife policy, working through a network of government and private agencies. The Act dedicated revenues from excise taxes on arms and ammunition, later expanded to handguns, to propagation of hunted species, shooting ranges and hunter recruitment. The bill's backers (see WMI) included a proviso: Only states that dedicated hunting license fees strictly to hunting purposes were eligible for federal funds.

Consequently, regulatory state wildlife divisions are salaried by hunting and trapping license revenues, or a hunter-client base. State game or wildlife councils, quasi-legislative boards created to set hunting seasons and bag limits, are controlled by hunters.

The trade defined an impoverished "conservation" lexicon with an all-important aim to desensitize: "populations" versus individuals; "harvesting" versus killing; "crops" versus sentient animals. By then, industry had fully co-opted the term conservation, whose original proponents had included preservationists John Muir and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Gun maker/client control of government policy, and purse strings, remains impenetrable. Tickets to ride are purchased by supporting commercial hunting and trapping.

The original CARA legislation would have appropriated $3.1 billion to state federal and local agencies over a period of 15 years. IAFWA -- representing hunting departments, the National Rifle Association, gun makers and furriers -- is the acknowledged manager of the sponsoring Teaming with Wildlife program. National Audubon, along with other affiliated or hunting groups, is on the steering committee. Only one organization on the committee appears an anomoly.

The Teaming with Wildlife steering committee is an amalgam of many of the same players, under different organizations. Its cross-pollination is heroic: WMI is listed separately from the IAFWA, the business-shooting association, yet is a powerful IAFWA member. The Wildlife Society is listed apart from the IAFWA, and consists of many of the same IAFWA state and federal wildlife employees.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is a bouquet of shooting interests; most of whom appear to be “partners” in separately listed steering committee groups. Board and policy-making groups include Ruger and Company, Remington Arms, Benelli USA, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers’ Association, the Wildlife Society, and that triumph of ubiquity, WMI (Ruger, Remington Arms, et al). The partnership’s stated goal is to increase hunter access.

The Theodore Roosevelt Partnership explains: “America’s hunters, shooters and anglers, and its hunting, sport-shooting and sport-fishing industries are inextricably connected. They depend upon and need each other.” The partnership “would like to thank these corporations for their generous organization. These corporate donors have shown their support of the TRCP and our work of "Guaranteeing You a Place to Hunt and Fish". And for selling ammo.

To fly politically, and to meet Audubon’s non-game requisites, the failed CARA spin-off measures provided for a commendable goal of funding efforts to prevent endangerment of at-risk species. The trade-off: the bulk of CARA-type funds are earmarked for managing hunted animals, “enhancing” the hunting experience, and conservation education. Wildlife managers see the latter as “an opportunity for state wildlife management agencies to reach more of the nonhunting public with positive messages about the role of hunting in wildlife conservation.” With Audubon’s cover.

In sum, the Teaming with Wildlife steering committee is teeming with people who own gun factories, want hunter access, more game propagation, and public cash. This is hardly the appropriate wellspring for executing public policy for long neglected, non-hunted species of greatest conservation need. Any conservation efforts not involving hunter service programs are, from the get-go, outgunned or compromised. Unadulterated efforts for at risk species, the animals for whom the enabling legislation was ostensibly enacted, are sure to be diluted. Most public money will flow, as usual, to gunning-based programs.

CARA has since been split into “State Wildlife Grants” and pro-hunting legislation. As partners who sit on hunting departments’ non-game and endangered species councils, state Audubon societies enjoy increased leverage in dispersal of the grants, and a deeply embedded stake in the status quo. At the national level, leverage includes mastery over hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Constructive programs will have to be included. But there should be no doubt that hunted and trapped animals will pay the price. They are, according to conservationists, expendable. They are the bargaining chip.

Indeed, bolstered by the New Jersey Audubon Society’s deer-forest white paper, and under the unchallenged conservation rubric, the New Jersey Wildlife Action Plan diverts federal and state funds for “at risk species” to hunter advocacy education in the schools, and energetically facilitates increased hunter access to private lands. Revisiting biology, increased hunter access means that white-tail birth rates will escalate, or remain high, leading to the permanent presence of hunters in urban and suburban areas. At the same time, habitat enhancement for deer on state and private lands is on the increase. Audubon made the deal. New Jersey taxpayers did not.

Now a major partner of manufacturers whose bottom line is selling guns, National Audubon has become the chief surrogate for the industry, attacking wildlife advocacy organizations working to break the firearm monopoly and democratize the system. In a related Audubon Magazine article, "Management by Majority: ballot initiatives have conservationists concerned," (by Ted Williams) the only quoted "conservationists" were WMI employees. Readers were not informed that WMI is a firearms association. Richly, Audubon deplored public involvement as "tyranny of the majority." Fur Commission USA used the article for political purposes.

Audubon Magazine has run "Wanted: More Hunters," (by Ted Williams), and "Guns and Greens," (by Ted Williams), the latter to "forge an alliance" between environmentalists and hunters. In editorials, the organization has strained credulity by admonishing readers to eschew opposition to internationally censured steel-jaw leghold traps. Such a position, writes Audubon, is “animal rights”; support for leghold trapping is “conservation.” The distinction, and the tone, is news to the governments of Great Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and scores of other countries which outlawed the barbarous contraption decades ago.

With the advent of Teaming with Wildlife, National Audubon (Ted Williams) advises readers that state Sierra Club attempts to outlaw steel traps are misguided, and merely “humane”: "However, there is no evidence to suggest that most legal trapping, including trapping in her state, is anything other than a humane issue. The Rio Grande chapter’s crusade comes at an enormous cost for the national organization because it is the prime example used by NRA types to make the case that the Sierra Club is a bunch of closet 'antis.'”

(We note parenthetically that leghold traps are cruel and non-selective. In the United States, so-called non-target casualties include eagles, falcons, and hawks. Accounting for Audubon’s disregard for intended targets, the above statement is inaccurate.)

Audubon is even attacking its own. The magazine (Ted Williams) excoriated the Michigan Audubon Society for taking a stand against mourning dove hunting. Note the key words: “embarrassing” and “discredit”:

The big green groups such as the National Audubon Society and the Sierra Club have never opposed hunting . . . But they are perceived as anti-hunting because of embarrassing behavior by some of their members. Take the position of certain state Audubon chapters on mourning-dove hunting.

For any sober, practical champion of biodiversity, dove hunting is the quintessential non-issue. Yet when I explained this in the March 1985 Audubon, as part of an eyewitness report on Indiana's first dove hunt, the editor was deluged with mail and wound up printing 49 letters, 26 of them irate. "Are robins next?" demanded one reader. After 11 years I thought that Audubon chapters might have learned something, and maybe they have. But in 1995, when Michigan tried to legislate hunting season for its superabundant doves, the Michigan Audubon Society (the second biggest chapter with 40 sub-chapters of its own) shouted the bill down. "Many, in these violent times, point to the irony of a proposed hunting season on the international symbol of peace,” it seriously asserted. Such behavior plays into the hands of those seeking to discredit the entire environmental movement.”

Perhaps with the gun-game lobby, but no one else. As summed up by a Michigan state representative who opposed the dove season:

"This bill does nothing to improve the non-hunting public's perspective of hunting. In fact it casts hunters in a bad light and is damaging to their image. The vast majority of the Michigan public views the mourning dove as a songbird, not a target for hunting. Mourning doves are enjoyed by millions of residents in their backyards. Just because these birds are hunted elsewhere is no reason for them to be hunted in Michigan. According to a public opinion survey by EPIC/MRA, a majority of the State's residents, including 54% of hunters surveyed, opposed the hunting of mourning doves. There are plenty of other species for hunters to shoot in Michigan."

The bill failed. Any discredit was surely due Audubon’s servicing of its new partners.

Lest any of this be lost, the recurring National Audubon theme is an attempt to marginalize, to belittle – a variation of animal defender Mark Twain’s hated “we don’t do that sort of thing,” even when a manufactured “conservation concern” is limited to gun manufacturers. What is so clearly afoot merits close examination for accuracy, for ethics, and for its regressive, utilitarian impact on wildlife advocacy. For good measure, Williams includes a hunting group official’s warning: “If there's one piece of advice I have for environmental groups it's this: Get right up front and say that you aren't anti-hunting."

The Sierra Club, whose founder John Muir called hunting “the murder business,” is now aligned with those very gun makers, and toeing the line. The Club, a Teaming with Wildlife member, retains a special hunter liaison on staff, and hosts a hunting webpage for its members, 80 percent of whom do not hunt. Among other projects, Sierra Club offers Who We Are (photos of Sierra Club hunters with their kill); Conservation Timeline; Hunting and Fishing Library; Why I Hunt: the Essay Contest, and club-sponsored hunting trips. The move has caused a board-level imbroglio.

The most powerful hunters’ lobby, The Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, (renamed the U.S. Sportsman’s Coalition) directs legislative campaigns in the states, and in Washington, D.C. The Fund “has also worked to weaken the Endangered Species Act,” says Daniel Barry of the Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research, a part of the Environmental Working Group that tracks wise-use activity. “Fund lobbyists are pushing a list of "common sense" amendments, including one that would make it easier to bring back from abroad trophies of bagged endangered species.”

When New York’s Mason Act banned the sale of leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, cheetah, tiger, ocelot, margay, red wolf, vicuna, polar bear, mountain lion, and alligator and crocodile products in 1970 (three years before the ESA), the fur industry (a part of Teaming with Wildlife’s IAFWA) took the bill to court as unconstitutional.

And that is why the New Jersey Audubon Society white paper gave industry a free pass.

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