The deer question

By Leslie Campbell, March 2015

Living with wildlife can be a community-building project. Oak Bay chose a different path.

Reading Oak Bay’s Request for Proposal for the contractor that will kill up to 25 deer, one gets a glimpse of the difficulties envisioned. Besides the required covered truck, steel-toed boots, smart phone, and data plan, the RFP warns applicants in bold: “Experience dealing with angry, aggressive or hostile people an asset.”

The successful contractor, who can earn a maximum of $600/deer or $15,000, must set and bait each trap in the evenings through March 15. Before first daylight, any trapped animals must be “dispatched” with two contractors present. “The first contractor will collapse the trap while the second contractor puts their full body weight on top of the deer and collapsed trap, then holds the head still while the first contractor dispatches the deer quickly and humanely using the bolt gun.” If that doesn’t work, reshooting is advised; if another misfire occurs, the contractor is advised to reload “or utilize exsanguination.” A black plastic bag must be used to cover the head of the dead animal, which must be “under cover and in the back of the truck, away from public view and be bled within 15 minutes of euthanasia [sic], to reduce meat spoilage.”

There are more instructions about getting to the butcher on time—within no more than an hour from killing—and transporting the entrails to the Hartland Landfill.

There’s no guarantee the contractor will be able to kill 25 animals. The deer in Oak Bay are not going hungry so may decline the opportunity of dinner in a cage. And whatever number is killed, a portion of them will likely be males. As wildlife biologist Rick Page explained to me, males do not stay put—they have been tracked moving from Esquimalt to Queenswood in Saanich. Which means that any males trapped and “dispatched” may well have nothing to do with Oak Bay’s munched tulips. Killing them will do little to reduce Oak Bay’s resident deer population. 

No one knows what Oak Bay’s deer population really is, but, Page says, the deer population is not out of ecological balance yet. “If the population is 200 [likely the upper limit] and they remove 25, no one will notice any difference at all.” Some plants will still be eaten; some deer will still be injured or killed by car accidents. And those aggressive deer Mayor Jensen talks about? Chances are they’ll elude the traps.

And chances are the community will still be in an uproar, especially in the lead up to next year’s cull. The mayor says “population reduction is a multiyear undertaking.”

Former mayoral candidate Cairine Green says she’s never experienced such a divisive issue through her nine years on North Saanich and Oak Bay councils. The pages of letters in the Oak Bay News also attest to the divided community. The BC SPCA has condemned the cull, expressing concerns about the humaneness of the method and noting that, “Using lethal control measures in Oak Bay is not a sustainable or evidence-based option for managing deer in particular in this area.”

 

That Oak Bay would risk community cohesion along with its reputation as a paradisiacal seaside village full of amiable people and charming gardens for the sake of killing 25 deer is a surprising turn of events. 

While the mayor trumpets “public safety” as the main motivation for killing deer, damaged gardens constitute the main type of complaint that has driven the whole process, at least in the urban areas of the CRD.

Such complaints, along with those about farm damage in rural areas, led the CRD to develop a Regional Deer Management Strategy, a strategy that allows a lethal cull, but also suggests many other pre-cull remedies. Jensen and his council could have chosen to simply put more energy into public education and traffic and fencing projects to address complaints. Biologist Page notes, “There’s always going to be some deer here. Residents’ only option if they want to have a pristine garden is a fence and people need to get used to that.” Biologist Gayle Hesse, author of the Province’s foundational ungulate management treatise, concurs: “Fencing is the only viable option when damage cannot be tolerated.”

Traffic accidents are also brought up to justify the cull, sometimes citing public safety, other times pointing out what a cruel fate it is for deer. Oak Bay had 13 deer-involved collisions in 2013 (ICBC), out of a total fatality count of 40. In 2014, according to Oak Bay public works department spreadsheets, total deaths had slipped to 37, with 17 of them being vehicle related. Three were fence-related, one was killed in battle, one by an arrow.

A full 15 fall into the “unknown” category. It might be worth pointing out that deer—like human beings—die of old age and disease. We may not like finding a sick or dead animal in our back yard, but it hardly seems a valid reason to go out and kill more of them.

As for the traffic issues, speed-reduction campaigns can work wonders. Over a four-year period, Ottawa reduced its 344 deer-related collisions by over one-third (to 214) through an award-winning “Speeding Costs You Deerly” campaign.

In answer to Oak Bay’s assurances that it “strengthened its signage” to reduce deer traffic fatalities, Oak Bay residents Kerri Ward and Kristy Kilpatrick recently wrote to Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Steve Thomson: “Oak Bay has made no attempts at speed reduction or installing appropriate deer signage in the municipality. A total of six small and ineffective signs were installed in two locations where car/deer collisions are most frequent…The speed in these areas continues to be 50 kmh.” 

Ward and Kilpatrick’s letter also alludes to a more fundamental omission: “No survey of Oak Bay residents for their opinions or values on appropriate urban deer management has ever been conducted.” They point out that the Province itself recommended that “a survey of public opinion must be conducted.” 

But the most glaring failure of Oak Bay’s approach, say many, is the ignorance around the deer themselves. Sara Dubois, chief scientific officer of the BC SPCA, says, “It’s the biggest missing piece. We need to know where the deer are, why they’re there, what they are being fed, and why incidents happen.” She notes there’s a university with keen researchers and students right in Oak Bay’s back yard. The amount of money the CRD has spent without really learning anything about the deer astounds her. (The CRD’s budget is $220,000 not including staff time. Oak Bay’s budget is $25,000.)

As Mayor Jensen himself admitted in October, “the CRD pilot program that Oak Bay has embarked on is truly uncharted waters.”

 

The process that led to the CRD’s Regional Deer Management Strategy began in 2011 and has been controversial ever since. 

In a June 2013 letter, Craig Daniells, chief executive officer of the BC SPCA, wrote of the CRD’s formation of a Citizens Advisory Committee, “having been a part of the process, the BC SPCA found the experience to be fraught with difficulties…including a lack of representation, individual bias, lack of attendance, as well as several committee resignations.”

The two members who resigned from the Citizens Advisory Group (CAG)—museum consultant and archivist Kerri Ward and lawyer Robin Bassett—cited an “irretrievably flawed” process that relied on anecdotal evidence rather than science. A letter elaborating some of their complaints also noted lack of independence: “It was established early in the process that the CAG members were not allowed to either meet with or speak to the expert panel except through the offices of the CRD.” In an email, Ward told me, “there was never any discussions of science, research etc; every meeting was micro-managed by the facilitator.”

The limitations of the process were reflected in the report which is prefaced by a laughably defensive preamble. Describing the issue as “emotional, economic and politically-charged” with “a lack of scientific evidence,” CAG Chair Jocelyn Skrlac and Vice Chair Robert Moody wrote: “It is, however, important to note that ‘anecdotal evidence’ and ‘convincing evidence’ are not antonyms, nor does ‘anecdotal’ mean ‘unscientific.’ Sometimes anecdotal evidence is not only all that is available (as in this case), but it can often be enough evidence to support a decision.”

The anecdotes relied upon, along with provincial government-supplied information, led them to recommend mitigation measures as well as “population reduction measures” that included “capture and euthanize.” (Orwellian as it sounds, executing a healthy wild animal is called “euthanasia” in BC and CRD reports.)

The Advisory Group rejected immunocontraception, an option which could potentially satisfy the goal of reducing the deer population without a lethal cull—and therefore avoid the intense community discord that culls everywhere seem to inspire. The CAG seemed to feel there were too many unknowns about it. But the same could be said of a lethal cull—or indeed the local deer population. 

Right here in Victoria there are at least a couple of biologists who know a lot about one immunocontraceptive. Ten years ago, Sidney-based biologist Mark Fraker purchased the patent rights for Spayvac for use on wildlife. Spayvac was developed at Dalhousie University in the early 1990s to treat seals. It uses pig protein to create antibodies that prevent sperm from binding to the female’s eggs. Similar contraceptive vaccines are used on wild horses in the US and zoo animals. The antibodies, being a natural product of all animals, has no environmental impact say proponents. 

In BC, case-by-case approval is needed to use Spayvac, says Page who is an advocate for Spayvac. “It’s only manufactured on demand and we haven’t asked the company to make it, but we have no reason to believe they wouldn’t.” He estimates a six-month to one-year lead time to obtain it, due mostly to regulatory hurdles.

Page says, “For as little as $10,000 we can get started, but we prefer to have $25,000 for a pilot project.” The Province’s main deer management document (British Columbia Urban Ungulate Conflict Analysis, by Gayle Hesse, 2010) noted: “The cost of the immunocontraceptive vaccine itself is relatively inexpensive…The main cost of a fertility control project is associated with the cost of capture and vaccine administration.” Provincial Wildlife Veterinarian Helen Schwantje has estimated the drug cost to keep does infertile for six years at $200 each. Add in the trapping or tranquilizing costs and it comes in about the same price as the trap and kill method.

Page says Schwantje was supportive of earlier experiments. She needs to apply to Health Canada for what’s called an “emergency drug release—a single piece of paper that goes to Ottawa which would rubber stamp it…A proper study is a more elaborate process.” 

On James Island off Sidney, Spayvac was used on the overly abundant fallow deer. Page says it was 100 percent effective—meaning the injected deer were still sporting the antibodies that prevent pregnancy after five years. No fawns were born over a six-year period. An experiment in Maple Ridge with 10 does proved similarly successful. Mark Fraker described it this way to the Victoria News in 2013: “Five years down the road after they were treated, there was only one born instead of 60…a 50-times reduction in fawns being born.”

Schwantje and the CRD have suggested for an immunocontraceptive program to be effective, 70-90 percent of the does in the area must be given the drug—a challenging task. But Page says the math doesn’t bear that out—and the same logic should apply to a cull. It all depends on what your goal is, from eradication to stabilization. Any less fertility in does, which around Victoria tend to produce annual twins, should be helpful. (Killing bucks has little impact.) Page also notes the infertile does still occupy their space in that setting, so other deer will stay away. Sara Dubois of the SPCA agrees, saying contraception “won’t create a sink population,” unlike a cull which results in other deer moving into the territory.

Page, who has worked for the Province in the past, thinks it prefers lethal culling because it’s considered “an operational method, not an experimental method...It’s supposed to just work.” But he adds, “Nothing—when you muck with the environment—just works.” And culling, he says, usually doesn’t work out very well at all. Dubois agrees, citing culls in Kimberley and Cranbrook.

One reason for the ineffectiveness of culls is that deer are smart and won’t enter the traps after being exposed to them for a season or two. In the US—where urban deer herds are three to ten times higher than local populations—the next step after the trap and bolt gun method fails, says Page “is usually sharp shooters, professional hunters that go through the city at night.” Understandably, that comes with its own problems and opposition.

A big advantage of a contraception program, in Page’s mind, is that the deer are tagged—allowing for valuable information gathering which aids in future deer management.

Dubois is in favour of anything that produces good quality information. An adjunct professor at UBC’s Animal Welfare Program, her PhD work focused on public values and attitudes towards wildlife and the effectiveness of wildlife policy (she also managed the SPCA’s Wild ARC in Metchosin for four years). She says good information allows you to track down the cause of the problem and target individual trouble-makers—whether they are black bears, wolves, coyotes or deer—or, though she doesn’t say it, humans. 

Dubois mentions Winnipeg researcher Erin McCance’s fascinating research using GPS collars to map deer movements. She found virtually 100 percent of the human-deer conflict and many deer-vehicle collisions, could be traced to artificial feeding of deer. Educating the people feeding deer helped solve some of the problem; $500 fines help deter others. Oak Bay’s fines have recently been increased to $300 for a first offense, and $500 for subsequent ones. No fines have been issued though Dubois tells me she knows some Oak Bay residents regularly buy deer feed from local merchants.

 

as Oak Bay carries out its LETHAL cull, a small New York State community is carrying out an innovative immunocontraception program with the aim of reducing its deer population by 35-45 percent over 5 years.

Only two square miles in area, up to 120 deer live in Hastings-on-Hudson, along with its 7900 human inhabitants. Traffic accidents involving deer were increasing, as was damage to gardens and the native fauna in parks.

Mayor Peter Swiderski first assumed a “net and bolt” cull was the answer to community deer woes. But after listening to residents, he realized, “With captive bolt, there would have been a polarizing battle every year that wouldn’t have done the village any good.” At a public meeting on the topic he explained: “A cull in a community as dense as ours and as culturally averse to a cull as ours is just not an option. So we put that to bed and are now going to engage in an immunocontraception project.”

To assist in “the first birth-control study of a free-roaming deer population in an open, suburban area in the US,” the community engaged Allen Rutberg, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University. Rutberg doesn’t like culls for two reasons: “netting and bolting free range deer is at best difficult to carry out humanely and at worst is brutally cruel…It also stirs up personal animosity among members of the community.”

In the program’s second year now, the community is being aided by volunteer wildlife vets and the Humane Society to dart female deer with a tranquilizer shot from a dart gun from about 30 feet, then inject them with a contraceptive, and tag them. A host of community volunteers helps in other ways. They aim to get close to 80 percent of the does. 

It has not been without its challenges. Last year, its inaugural, the project was hindered by deep snow and only eight does were immunized. (Legally, the drugs can only be given there during February and March.)

Mayor Swiderski estimated it would cost about $10,000 in the first year, and about half that in subsequent years. He sees it as a good investment. He told All Animals magazine last spring, “If it works, we will have done a great thing, not only for us but for a thousand other communities. If it doesn’t work, we won’t have killed any creature, we won’t have split the community, and we’ll also know it doesn’t work in this kind of community.”

Rutberg, in a thoughtful essay about how killing programs cause strife for communities, contrasted them to his recent experience in Hastings-on-Hudson: “Nearly three dozen people showed up at an organizational meeting last month to volunteer to help track deer, secure darting sites, stock feeders with bait, and measure deer impacts. The community set up a website for reporting deer observations, and a local high school student wrote a program to display the observations on a map….[The project] opens a door to learning and transforming attitudes about nature, and building appreciation for wildlife.”

I don’t relate Hasting’s story to suggest deer contraception is the answer for CRD communities. Hasting’s situation may be different in key ways from Oak Bay’s. We have so little solid information here we don’t even know if we have a problem, except for the strife. What we do know, says Sara Dubois, is that “A real opportunity for leadership was lost by Oak Bay.”

Editor Leslie Campbell sees the deer question as a fascinating way to explore our relationship to other animals. She has a high fence around her vegetable garden.