Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Deer Insight

Don’t you love summer weekends? There’s no other time in which one can feel truly justified in doing absolutely nothing of consequence. Last weekend was one of those times – no responsibilities, no timetables, just four days in which my husband, our dog and myself could do anything (or nothing) of our choosing. We spent the weekend near Long Point, a UNESCO world heritage site on the shores of Lake Erie in extreme southwestern Ontario.

Cruising around checking out the marshes, the forests, and the fields, we had no particular goals, and yet were able to experience so much in the few days we had to spend in the area. We saw so many beautiful birds (Long Point’s claim to fame), inspected and sketched an incredible diversity of plants, swam in the surprisingly substantial crashing waves of the Lake, and marvelled at expanses of wetland one rarely gets a chance to witness.

While the natural loveliness of the area is undisputed, we couldn’t help as we strolled field and shore being struck by the paradox Long Point represents. As a protected area, and one renowned for the significant habitat it offers wildlife, Long Point sees a great many human activities that are enough to jar those accustomed to the ‘hands-off’ approach to wilderness protection. Hunting is permitted in the area; bumper to bumper traffic fills the road running straight down the Point; bustling villages and busy campsites jostle for space among the migratory birds and rare flora that grace the area; and fishing competitions are held in the waters within the heritage site’s boundaries.

Long Point does, in many ways, represent one of our most significant contemporary conservation challenges: reconciling human use of an area with its ecological needs. The answer to such a conservation dilemma, particularly in heavily-populated areas such as southern Ontario, remains elusive. Such locations are precious both ecologically and to the human inhabitants of the area; the success of the balancing act currently being attempted in protected areas such as Long Point remains to be seen.

Interestingly, the Long Point area has long been the subject of intense conservation debate. Well over a hundred years ago, deer were extirpated from the area as a result of a variety of pressures. Driven by an awakening conservation ethic, those distraught by the elimination of such a previously important species reintroduced the animals to Long Point in the early 1900s. Such a decision could be considered by modern standards to be quite progressive.

Only one flaw marred the plan to bring back some semblance of ecological balance which, it was believed, the removal of the deer had undone. Those who wished to see the return of the lovely ungulate failed to notice that along with the disappearance of the deer had come the collapse of an entire web of which these animals were a part. The large predators of the area – black bears and wolves – had also been extirpated from Long Point, and the reintroduction of the deer in the absence of such predators meant an uncontrolled population explosion of this prey species.

The deer population ballooned to such an extent that, by the 1980s and 1990s, decisions were made to cull the deer in an attempt to minimize the havoc they were wreaking on their already highly stressed habitat. Brought down to a level deemed appropriate for the extent of habitat remaining, the managed deer population is now considered to be ‘under control’.

Hindsight is 20-20, there’s no doubt about it; a million and one observations could be made about how the Long Point deer situation was handled, and how it all could have been done so much better. But the opportunity to look back at previous conservation attempts and learn from them is a privilege of which we should take full advantage.

What is it about the Long Point deer tale that provides us with insight on how to behave in a more ecologically appropriate way today? It’s easy, right? Don’t extirpate species in the first place. Close, but my holiday brain couldn’t help thinking that there was something even more fundamental in the Long Point lesson: putting something back together is a heck of a lot harder than taking it apart. It’s not just that losing one piece of the puzzle sucks; it’s that the puzzle is so darn hard to figure out that we have no idea if we will ever be able to see the whole picture again if we misplace even just a couple of elements.

Ecological complexity is so great that foresight (in addition to, and based on the benefit of hindsight) remains our best chance at achieving sustainability. So come on, let’s use those mighty human brains to look around us at the complexity of the natural world and recognize the limitations in our understanding. Knowing what we don’t know may be the most important part of getting where we need to go.

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working toward a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at zk_dalton@hotmail.com.

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