21 May 2012

Natty Bumppo Comes to Suburbia; Is that a Deer in Your Pocket?

A mild discussion has been in my mind much of the day. It began with the proposition that there are too many deer in communities and suburban areas and so thinning them out with some kind of hunt will help restore the Balance of Nature.

Some of the basic premises are okay. There are a lot of deer in some communities. Many people find the presence of deer annoying and usually it has something to do with eating gardens or ornamental vegetation. The “natural enemies” of deer (wolves, big cats) are missing in the eastern United States and are unusual in most of the Western United States.

Some communities have tried suburban deer hunts.  They found that if you kill a bunch of deer, you end up with fewer of them.

I rather like deer. When I go out in the morning and see that they have been breakfasting on the ornamental whatevers in the yard, I’m thinking “Good for them.” I do not hunt them.

On the other hand, I can hardly throw stones at people who do them hunt them. The turkey in that sandwich at lunch today didn’t die in an auto accident.

What disappoints me is that anybody thinks that we as humans are smart enough to do anything which amounts to other than an onageristic stab at restoring any kind of natural balance. If humans were eliminated by some big cataclysm, it would still take centuries for the rate of change to slow down to the point that anybody could say that Nature was in balance.

Do a little experiment. Call up MapQuest or Google Earth. Randomly pick areas in North America 3 or 4 km on a side. Look at both the map and photograph function and see how many of them show profound change by human action. That’s not necessarily bad, that’s not necessarily good, it is simply a whole lot of change.

One little example of human change is an area in Tucker County, West Virginia, called the Canaan Valley. Survey parties (including George Washington) passed through the Canaan Valley in the mid-18th-century. They described it as the most heavily wooded and wildlife rich place they ever saw. The valley was a large and dense habitat for bear.

Toward the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, the Canaan Valley gave up its trees to the timber industry. The hillsides and valley floor was clear-cut, leaving nothing to hold the soil. Much of the soil washed away leaving a large area with terrible drainage – not unlike a little swamp. I recall camping in the Valley in 1970 in the middle of heavy rains and having a difficult time keeping running water out of the tent.

Over the years, birds brought new plants into the Valley via their alimentary tracts, including some plant species which do well in a wet environment. At some point, everybody was getting all gushy over the fact that the Canaan Valley was this unique high altitude wetland. Okay, it is. But it is as an adaptation to human development, not as an evolution per the undisturbed process of nature.

Humans can do some absolutely stupid stuff which modifies the environment. Ever heard of the passenger pigeon? In the 19th century, they covered the eastern United States with the flocks of billions upon billions. They were also good eating.  Oopsie.  They were hunted to extinction.

Even when we fiddle with some part of nature with good intentions it’s tough to predict all of the consequences. DDT was a really effective insecticide. It boosted crop yield, it held down disease, the styff was great.  Another oopsie.  It interfered with the healthy reproduction of various bird species, most of which are still in the early stages of population recovery.

No, I do not want to see the picture of all the bald eagles on the beach in Alaska. One of you was about to pitch that well-known bit of anecdotal evidence that you damn well know s far from typical. Bald eagles used to be common birds of prey in West Virginia. Now, I am happy to know that there is one nest Marion County.

So, go ahead with the deer hunt if you can swing the votes.  But, for heaven’s sake, don’t get the idea that it will do God’s work and restore Nature’s Balance.

None of us are smart enough to do that.

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