Calling All Conservationists

How hunting deer can save an ecosystem

The white-tailed deer is one of the most iconic animals in North America. From midwestern cornfields to the rugged Adirondack Mountains, whitetails have secured their place in the vernacular of the American wild. Their oak-colored hair and magnificent antlers are ubiquitous among the dreams of hunters young and old. They are a staple of American art, literature and table fare. A species of great resilience, they survive harsh winters, heavy predation and the chase of hunters year after year.  When these challenges are removed, the white-tailed deer can see an incredible surge in population. Lake Champlain’s Valcour Island knows this first hand. Consecutive mild winters and a lack of natural predation have caused the island’s deer population to surge. 

Valcour Island was once the site of an important revolutionary naval battle led by Benedict Arnold. The American revolutionaries fought not only for legislative, religious and commercial independence, but for natural independence as well. Under the English monarchy, wildlife belonged only to the king. A common legend says that “if man were to take so much as a hair from the king’s deer, his eyes would be torn out.” The idea behind the American wildlife model was that the land would belong to and be governed by the people. Today, the problem is not one of rights, but of environmental health.

Botanists from the New York Natural Heritage Program have noted in recent years that the rare and unique plants on Valcour Island have been diminished by deer browsing. The Ram’s Head Lady’s Slipper, a rare orchid, has been particularly affected by this. Lady’s Slipper is as lithe as a ballerina. Its bright green stem climbs gracefully upward from the soil. When it blossoms, it offers the world a white strawberry-shaped flower, crosshatched in violet. 

With Valcour’s unique plant communities at risk due to the rising deer population, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) implemented the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) in 2020. This would help reduce the number of deer on the island. 

Typically, only one antlered deer can be taken per hunter during rifle season, especially in the Northern Zone. DMAP offers additional opportunities to take an antlerless deer during the rifle season in specific locations: in this case, Valcour Island.

Sometimes, populations grow so large that humans must intervene to protect individual species and entire ecosystems. If an animal population has grown so large that the natural food source cannot support it, the food source will deplete until the population experiences a massive die-off. What remains is the destruction of a food source and a huge decrease in the animal’s population. Conservation efforts can take a population down to an appropriate size, benefiting both the population and the food source. One way to achieve this is to increase hunting tags for that animal. 

“Hunters are some of the most in-touch land users and can contribute to conservation in a variety of ways,” says Michala Hendrick, a Plattsburgh State graduate and hunter. “Some areas really need hunters. Deer in overpopulation can lead to the spread of disease and destroy entire landscapes.”

Hunting tags contribute massive revenue to New York’s conservation, the 2019 to 2020 season generated $7,298,632 from the sales of hunting licenses. The total number of New York hunting and fishing licenses and tag sales for that same season generated $44,830,601 in income.

“Monetarily, hunters are some of the largest contributors of funding for conservation,” says Hendrick. 

The state is legally obligated to use that money on conservation. Hunter conservation benefits the species in the short term, and it generates enough money to continually fund its research, management and protection.

DMAP found support in the local community. There were 123 applications submitted to the DEC for the 2020 to 2021 season. With the applications, came concern from hunters who regularly hunt on the island. At just 968 acres, the island is relatively small. If too many hunters access the island at once there would be a risk of them unknowingly shooting toward one another. These safety concerns, and the fear of too much competition for the same resource, generated DEC’s decision to grant only 10 DMAP tags for Valcour Island in the 2020 to 2021 season. The program lasts three years which is three consecutive hunting seasons. If DMAP fails to meet their population goals, then other reduction efforts will have to be made. 

“There are many variables to consider,” says Jim Stickles, a wildlife biologist from the Ray Brook DEC office and head of the DMAP program. “Any management option explored would need to be flexible, economical, localized and within our existing regulatory authority.” 

More hunting tags may be offered in future seasons but that has not yet been decided. “Winter severity plays into deer management decisions in this part of the country,” Stickles says. “We need to wait for winter to be over before making a determination.” Harsh Northern winters can lead to starvation among deer.

Unfortunately, many hunters don’t want to take antlerless deer. None were taken through DMAP during the fall of 2020. Even with an antlerless tag in their pocket, many hunters will hold out for a buck before taking the doe in front of them.

“I would make that choice based on how late in the season it is and if it was likely or not that I would get a better opportunity on a different day to possibly take a buck,” says Hendrick. “It’s always a hard question to answer when you’re not in the moment but taking does have value, too.”

Today, our battle for an abundant, public wildlife resource is one of conservation. It is crucial to maintain a healthy ecosystem on Valcour Island so people can continue to enjoy its natural beauty. The deer on Valcour Island are just one thread in a vast ecological web. Managing them allows other species of plants and animals to remain abundant with healthy populations. Creating a balance between flora and fauna is key to maintaining the health and beauty of Valcour Island for all to enjoy. 

Photos by Jade Nguyen

Story by Oliver Reil

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