Eleven down: the Oak Bay deer cull

By Leslie Campbell, April 2015

Questions around costs and justification remain

Despite Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen’s attempts to put a positive spin on his municipality’s recent deer cull, to most—opponents and proponents alike—there is little to cheer about in 11 dead deer, especially given the community angst left in its wake.

One of the “lessons learned” according to a CRD press release is that “Our mild coastal climate and the onset of an early spring resulted in an abundance of food sources for the deer, which deterred some from entering the baited traps.” Speaking with local wildlife biologists would likely have saved the CRD having to learn that lesson the hard way.

Perhaps less predictable was that the traps were more attractive to rats and raccoons than deer: “Raccoons and rats triggered the traps on a regular basis. They also challenged the process by chewing the nets, resulting in damage that required repairs.”

While the final budget for the cull is unknown as yet, it will probably include contracted public relations services. The PR strategy seemed to be for Mayor Jensen to repeatedly reference “aggressive” deer and the rising number of deer killed in automobile accidents.

Trouble is there were no numbers for the former and paltry numbers for the latter. ICBC showed 13 deer fatalities from auto accidents in 2013. Compare that to Nanaimo whose mayor has so far rejected the idea of a cull. In 2012 that city had an average of one deer-related traffic accident a day, according to Mayor Bill McKay. In 2013 Nanaimo reported 260 automobile-related deer fatalities. Saanich and Victoria also have far higher deer-automobile accident numbers than Oak Bay.

The Oak Bay pilot project will be evaluated over the next month by CRD staff who will report to the CRD Board in late April.

A compelling question about Oak Bay’s deer cull is: Why did the Province allow it? The Province, which has responsibility for wildlife management, theoretically requires a broad public education campaign and other mitigation efforts—like speed reduction, as well as a public consultation program and a deer count—before a cull is approved.

On the matter of public education, Oak Bay’s permit application states: “The focus of the strategy has been largely centred on public awareness and education.” That’s a claim with which many Oak Bay residents would disagree. As Kerri Ward and Kristy Kilpatrick have complained to the Province, “Residents have not been adequately informed on suitable and effective means of reducing human/deer conflict. Two CRD brochures (lacking information specific to urban environments) were sent out…No media campaign has ever been implemented with information on urban deer or reducing human/deer conflict.”

As for the required deer count, the permit application (viewable only at MP Andrew Weaver’s constituency office) shows that a count taking place between April 8 and 16, 2014, during two hours each day at dawn and dusk, found 26 deer on the busiest deer-day. Other days included counts of 14 and 17.

A new report on the cull by Animal Alliance of Canada and Deersafe, among many other criticisms, condemned the “Lack of transparency and accountability with the Ministry, the CRD and the District.”

Barry MacKay, one of the authors of the report, came to Victoria from Toronto to do his investigation. He later explained in a blog: “In exploring the streets, parks, golf courses, and school grounds of Oak Bay, I saw virtually no signs of the heavy browse lines or denuded foliage one finds when deer populations are high. ‘What’s a browse line?’ I was asked by locals. It is the line that appears at the highest point deer can reach when consuming vegetation. If the vegetation is denuded below that line, it means food for deer is getting scarce…In Oak Bay, in spite of driving and walking through the community, I saw one deer…These deer are not over-populated by any definition.”

MacKay’s and Liz White’s report takes the Province to task for accepting at face value Oak Bay’s various justifications for moving to kill deer, saying “It does not require proof of mitigation measure implementation…It appears fairly evident that Ministry staff have minimal involvement other than approving the permit and providing training, equipment and traps.”

Asked to comment, Greig Bethel, a provincial public affairs officer with Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, stated: “Ministry staff have worked with Oak Bay for many years providing advice and expertise…There was extensive correspondence and discussion through the urban deer workshop, provincial wildlife veterinarian and face-to-face meetings.”

At an upcoming Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities meeting in Courtenay (April 10-12), Oak Bay council is hoping to pass a resolution requesting the Province to provide more resources to cities, including conservation officers and urban wildlife biologists, as well as build partnerships with Health Canada (ostensibly to explore the immunocontraception option), to address deer populations. The Province will likely prefer to avoid all that, letting municipalities deal with the divisive issue and its attendant costs largely on their own.

Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus Magazine.