By Shawn Perich
A photograph of a whitetail doe graced the cover of a recent issue of Time magazine. Above the doe was a provocative headline: “America’s Pest Problem, Why the rules of hunting are about to change.”
To anyone who has been aware of the management issues associated with burgeoning urban populations of Canada geese and white-tailed deer dating back to the 1980s, Time’s cover story, though well-researched, was hardly breaking news. The story said that since they were nearly wiped out 50 years ago, many wildlife species have recovered to the point where they now live in close proximity with people, perhaps uncomfortably close. Thus, Time proclaimed, it is “time to cull the herd.”
As an example, the story looked at New Jersey’s bear hunt, which began in 2010 to cull an abundance of bears. The state’s population had grown from an estimated 50 bears in 1970 to about 3,500 bears in 2010. New Jersey is heavily populated with people, who were bothered by bears in their backyards. Hunting has reduced the bear population by about 20 percent. Wildlife officials would like to reduce it even more.
New Jersey’s bear “problem” is emblematic of America’s bear problem, according to Time. The magazine reported that in this academic year, suburban grade schools in New Mexico, Colorado, Virginia, Idaho and Florida were placed on lockdowns due to bears being sighted nearby. But does this mean we have too many bears? Maybe it means we have an over-reactive society.
Time says “beasts” are on the rise, striking a tone one might expect in reporting on the zombie apocalypse. An accompanying graphic showed how populations of common wildlife species–all game animals or furbearers–have grown since the mid-1900s. In the context of most readers of this column, such a list of recovered wildlife populations, which includes once-endangered species like the American alligator and gray wolf, are considered conservation accomplishments, rather than part of America’s pest problem.
But hunters ought to ponder what people with minimal exposure to wildlife and little understanding of conservation may think about the wildlife they encounter in their backyards. Too often hunters and wildlife managers dismiss the nonhunting public as “bunny huggers” simply because they don’t understand or embrace hunting as a wildlife management tool. But more common than the bunny hugger is the urban or suburban dweller who doesn’t think about wildlife at all. Such a person, when slowing to avoid a deer on a city street or cleaning up after the neighborhood raccoons raid an outdoor garbage can, is very likely to consider wild animals as pests.
Addressing this urban “pest problem” is not as simple as placing some rat poison under the porch. Wildlife managers’ basic tools for controlling animal populations—hunting and trapping—are often restricted or outlawed by municipal laws, which often vary from one suburb to the next. Changing the rules to allow hunting or trapping for wildlife control usually requires an action by municipal elected officials, who may have balance constituent concerns ranging from animal cruelty to public safety.
Even when they have favorable regulations in place, wildlife managers must find adequate open space where allowing hunting is practical and safe. The Time story mentions Durham, North Carolina and Rock Island, Illinois, two communities that recently initiated urban deer hunts. Safety precautions they’ve taken include allowing archery only, requiring hunters to be in elevated stands or shooting into ravines so shots taken have downward trajectory, and limiting hunting to golf courses, parks and private land. Still, the story reports some local officials remain skeptical hunters can effectively control deer populations.
Fortunately, there are many examples of successful urban hunting programs, especially for species such as white-tailed deer and Canada geese. Here in Minnesota, urban hunting has been part of state wildlife management for about 20 years. While hunting isn’t a panacea for every situation, especially in places with lots of people and little open space, it has been effective at keeping urban wildlife populations at tolerable levels for their human neighbors.
An excellent example is the city of Duluth, where an urban bow hunt for deer has occurred annually since 2005. The Duluth News-Tribune recently reported that nearly 400 bow hunters participated in 2013, killing 399 deer—the lowest harvest since the first year of the hunt, when 331 deer were taken. Not just anyone can hunt for deer in Duluth. Archers must pass a shooting proficiency test for the city hunt. They must kill and register a doe before they can kill a buck. Hunters may kill up to five deer, but only one may be a buck.
Duluth’s deer management strategy also includes a ban on feeding deer, which previously had contributed to deer abundance and conflicts with people. In portions of the city where little open space for hunting is available, but deer have become a nuisance, specially trained archers kill deer within the close confines of a backyard or similar space.
During the years of the hunt, whitetails have remained common within Duluth, but their numbers have been reduced to a tolerable level. The lower kill in 2013 may have less to do with a hunting-induced herd reduction than with deep, lingering snows the previous spring that limited fawn production. Even in a metropolitan environment, a harsh winter will knock down a deer population.
Since hunting is embedded in our Minnesota culture, perhaps it is easier to set up urban hunts here than in may be in Massachusetts or Connecticut. But it is fair to say such hunts are already happening all over the country. Time’s premise that urban hunts are about to deliver change to hunting seems, well, at least 10 years behind the times. Sure, controlling wildlife populations in urban settings is an ongoing challenge for modern wildlife managers. But let’s keep it in perspective. It took a century to restore America’s wildlife following its devastation during the pioneer era. Managing the abundance of today’s urban wildlife is an easy task in comparison.