Saturday, April 18, 2015

Of Deer and Humans

Deer roam with some freedom in The Villages, a gated 4000-strong senior community in a 1200-acre land at the foothills of East San Jose, about a mile west of the Evergreen Valley College (EVC).

While the sight of the photogenic animals indeed “makes the whole world a kin,” it wasn’t so simple in the beginning when the herd was blamed for destroying lawns, shrubbery and property and even scaring residents with their aggressive behavior.

The threat was unfounded, of course, but the initial plan for thinning the herd called for using archers and killing the deer with bows and arrows, reminiscent of frontier America. Only when the Villagers angrily protested the cruel plan was it abandoned.

Controlling the deer population, however, gained urgency in 2012. The three Village Boards (Association, Club and Homeowners) of Directors contracted “White Buffalo” (WB), an organization with 20 years of experience in reducing deer herds using lethal techniques. The Board preferred not to “cull the herd”, and so hired WB to tag and sterilize all female deer inside the Villages. WB applied for, and was granted, an “experimental permit” (SCP 12522) from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to perform this task.

The first formal count of females took place in January of 2013, as part of the sterilization program. WB counted 175 deer comprising 105 tagged females and 70 males. The herd included 30 deer that were relocated to areas outside the Village but who quickly returned.

The sterilization effort was controversial for several reasons. One outcome of the controversy was that a group of determined residents (The Village Deer Counters) decided to maintain their own record of the herd size and composition. CDFW provided training for these residents who, in turn, shared their results with CDFW, the 3 board members and WB. The results of the deer counters and WB continue to be almost identical.

The group performed its own count in July and August of 2013, reporting 126 deer - 75 tagged females, 10 fawns, and estimated 41 males - to CDFW. The group counted again in August 2014, and is scheduled to count in May and November of 2015.

(Note: a deer with a yellow tag is a deer that has been relocated outside the fences. Part of WB’s experiment was to relocated 30 deer to rapidly reduce the population. Eighteen of the yellow-tagged deer returned quickly but the others have not been seen since. It is true that an overbreeding deer population can strip a region bare but the problem in the Villages may be too few deer!)

In September of 2013, WB used a statistical sampling method called Distance Sampling to estimate the deer density and population inside the Villages. Along a line - the transect - that in this case was 9 miles long, the number of deer sighted was counted, along with the size of the social group and the age and sex of each member, tagged or not. A detection function, representing probability of detection as a function of distance from the line - decrease of detectability with increasing distance - was used to estimate the abundance.

The WB estimate came to 143, with 88 adult females, 40 adult males and 15 fawns. A month later, WB revised the count down to 128.

In July and August of 2014, the Village Deer Counting Team reported a deer population count of 101. In November of that year, WB presented to the Board of Directors an estimate of 93-105 deer in The Villages.

The trend is ominous: If 20-24 deer die every year and zero immigration continues, the deer population will be at about 60 in about 18 months. At this rate, the deer population will simply die out in a few years, a situation as undesirable as it is cruel.

What is next for the Villages deer counters?

- Continue monitoring of the deer herd every six months for the influx of any untagged female and for population decrease, until the long-term consequences of WB’s practices are determined.

- If new and untagged does do venture inside the Villages, use robust statistical techniques to estimate the deer population, supplementing the count data.

- Continue researching local, sustainable and cost effective ways to maintain the Village deer population. These may include the use of injectable birth control compounds if approval is obtained from the State. Non-lethal compounds have been successfully applied to deer in other states and in California for wild mustangs and bison.

- Continue working with CDFW experts who maintain an ongoing interest, availability and desire for the success of the Villages deer management efforts, well beyond the scope of SCP 12522.

Many communities and organizations from around the country are watching this “non-lethal experiment” to maintain a healthy herd of deer by a committed group of Villagers.

The deer, the mountain lions and the wolves were here before we usurped their habitats. There is no turning back ‘human progress’ but unless tempered by respect for the original inhabitants of the land, we will only diminish, and eventually, destroy ourselves.

Lock your eyes with a doe as she stands by a row of oleanders in the Villages and you will feel as if she is seeing into your soul, as you into hers. Watch a herd in the afternoon enjoying its siesta under the shade of a pine grove and you will feel a dreamy peace descending on you. Behold a deer poised like a ballerina amid the clovers, the lupines and the honeysuckle and you will sense the truth of Thoreau’s insight: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Watch a herd bound away in slow, rhythmic motion and you will realize that the world would be a poorer place without them.

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