Thursday, August 25, 2005

Fall 2005 Allerton Deer Reduction

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I’m a big fan of the natural areas at Allerton Park near Monticello, and I delight in the sight of white-tailed deer there. Like many other people, however, my pleasure in seeing deer at Allerton has diminished over the years, as I have also seen the damage they can cause to natural areas when their numbers explode. That’s why I was happy to learn that the University of Illinois will continue its efforts to trim the deer population there using hunters this fall.

Because this effort has met with mixed reactions, I think it’s worth revisiting why the University’s plan makes sense from an environmental perspective.

Without cutbacks in the deer population, the ecosystems that University of Illinois environmental scientists are working to preserve and restore at Allerton would suffer drastic decreases in biodiversity.

In numbers such as are present now, deer put extraordinary pressure on native plant life. They eat spring wildflowers before they can grow to maturity and reproduce, and they eat emerging tree saplings, preventing natural regeneration of the forest. Deer are especially hard on oaks, which are a key source of food and habitat for a wide variety of songbirds, insects, and mammals.

Under prior conditions there were a variety of pressures on deer populations. Native Americans and early European settlers hunted deer year round to supply food for villages and towns. Wolves also once had an impact on deer numbers, although they are long gone from central Illinois. The amount of food available may also eventually have limited deer numbers in the past, but the food supply for deer at Allerton now is usually super-abundant. If deer don’t find what they want in the park’s natural areas or ornamental plantings, they need only move into the adjacent agricultural fields to find corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.

In severe winters, however, the deer must turn to heavy use of native trees and shrubs.

A well-planned effort using hunters is a cost-effective way of reducing deer numbers for the long-term health of the Allerton ecosystem. At the same time it also provides participants an important form of recreation and puts the venison to good use.

A key point in the University’s approach is to mandate that a doe be harvested first before an antlered deer is taken. This ensures that the reproductive potential of the deer herd is reduced as much as possible. Another key element that the U of I has built into its approach is the use of sharpshooters to take deer for further study of the condition of the herd.

Nonhunters who normally use the natural areas at Allerton for recreation will be inconvenienced for a short while by this hunt. But in the long-run we’ll all be glad of the results.