Dear Ashland City Council: A Call for Deer Research
Deer don’t respect human-made boundaries, whether that is the line between the countryside and Ashland city limits, or looking both ways before crossing a highway.
Likewise, deer are not terribly concerned with whether they fall under the jurisdiction of the City of Ashland, or a state agency.
But that difference—and which human governmental agency should be dealing with the massive deer population in Ashland—is a primary reason that deer population continue to be unchecked.
Just check out the City of Ashland’s website, which plainly states that “the City is severely constrained in its ability to address the deer problem… the management of deer populations is the exclusive purview of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Ashland for its part has done what we are legally permitted to do.”
But Mark Vargas, a wildlife biologist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, told the Messenger that they are not prepared to do a census, estimate the carrying capacity of Ashland, or address overpopulation. Nor are they interested in whatever data is produced, because it is not their job to micromanage deer. Vargas said Fish and Wildlife cannot manage the deer in Ashland, or any other city. “We don’t get to that level because it’s impossible to manage at a micro-level like that. We deal with huge chunks of landscape at a time.”
“There’s no easy solution,” he added. “We just keep trying to educate folks and what have you.”
While deer roaming through public spaces and backyards in Ashland may not be a new issue, over the years, a dull roar of frustration has turned into a wave of outrage over the City’s handling—or not handling—of the deer. As one woman said at the July 2015 City Council meeting, “There’s a lot of passing ‘the buck,’ back and forth.”
Sure, the City has populated its streets with “Do Not Feed the Deer” signs, warning citizens of the pre-existing $435 fine for feeding wildlife. But isn’t a lawn simply deer food? Certainly a garden is.
Councilor Pam Marsh assured the Messenger that the ordinance and the signs are meant to address the intentional feeding of deer, rather than the inadvertently abundant habitat we have created for them. Yet the absurdity of this solution is not lost on many of the people I know in Ashland. The City’s website directs citizens to a pamphlet titled “Living with Urban Deer,” which educates the public on the behavior of black-tailed deer, and suggests that they have not become more aggressive.
But, aggressive or not, the deer may be a problem for other reasons. Overpopulation of white-tailed deer on the east coast has been linked to severe ecological and economic impact. Over-browsing of native plant species have been known to change the structure of forests; the same could be happening in the wilder parts of Ashland.
Deer obviously damage landscapes, raid gardens, farms, and orchards, as they can eat a ton and a half of vegetation each year. (And, according to The New York Times, they are “deadlier than sharks, alligators, bears and rattlesnakes combined.” That may be a stretch, but there are dozens of deer-car collisions each year in southern Oregon; all told, humans have killed 250 deer with their vehicles over the course of ten years in Ashland.)
Two years ago, it was estimated there were 300 deer in Ashland’s 6.5 square miles. That’s nearly 50 deer per square mile. The Forest Service estimated that a typical cherry maple forest could sustain a carrying capacity of 20 deer per square mile for regeneration of undergrowth to occur.
According to Vargas, “wild” black-tailed deer in Southern Oregon migrate 20-60 miles every year, but “urban” deer in a city like Ashland stay in Ashland—meaning, it would seem imperative to manage the population, as they do not tend to leave. Vargas said some local residents have named the deer familiar to them, and even have photo albums of them.
Even so, he does not believe sterilization or contraceptive measures are an option for Ashland. He claims that contraception would not work. “Primarily because you’ve got to do it often. It’s expensive. And you’re using all kinds of methods to catch these deer, and that’s dangerous. And then you’ve got the Ashland Watershed right above it.”
So far, it seems, the only long-term studies of deer contraception seem to have been done in fenced suburban areas and islands, where the deer have nowhere to go. The only way it would work, he said, would be “if Ashland had a ten-foot fence all the way around it,” which sounds a bit too Trumpian.
Councilor Pam Marsh agrees that contraception is not an option for Ashland. “I’ve read about communities that have done birth control,” she said, “and it’s extraordinarily expensive. Really beyond what we’re willing to do at this point. And really, not yet proven. Over time, we might get more ideas about how to do that, but at this point that just doesn’t seem feasible.”
Relocation, she said, almost certainly results in death for the deer, and this seems to be consistent with research. And, she said, that culling deer is not going to be an option for many citizens. “We’re very open to constructive suggestions about how to deal with them,” said Marsh, “and we just haven’t figured out what that answer is.”
But Councilor Marsh seems to think something should be done. “What is happening for the deer is clearly not healthy for them. This is not the right environment for them to thrive. They’re not eating things that they would naturally eat. And yet, all those lines of logic lead us back to the same conundrum, which is, we just don’t have a very good idea what to do about it.”
And yet, the city has no estimate for the cost of various contraceptive measures, nor have they sought testimony from experts on the potential efficacy of such methods. There are many forms of wildlife contraception, and they don’t all require anesthetization.
The PZP vaccine, for instance, can be administered with a 3-inch barbless dart and has been shown to prevent pregnancy 90 percent of the time. It has undergone 30 years of trials. According to the Humane Society of America, it is biodegradable and does not enter the food chain. In fact, it is a naturally-occurring protein. It is non-permanent, reversible, only lasts one breeding season, and has limited to no side-effects. Offspring of treated females are just as healthy as those from untreated does. Wild horses treated with the vaccine have actually been shown to have longer lifespans. It has been used by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as many states.
In 2012, the EPA registered the PZP vaccine as a contraceptive measure for wild horses and burros, and the Humane Society says it is “currently working to amend the registration to expand its use to white-tailed deer and other wildlife, which will significantly expand the vaccine’s potential to offer a humane solution to conflicts with wildlife.” The vaccine costs between $10 and $25 per dose, but most of the cost associated with any management program comes from labor and administration, depending on the level of volunteer involvement.
“The issue is really not money,” said Councilor Marsh. “The issue is what do you do and how do you do it. I think if we had a really solid idea and if the community was determined to do something, we could probably pay for it.”
Not knowing if a non-invasive contraceptive measure would work is a weak reason for not exploring it as an option. Ashland could even serve as a test site to see if a non-isolated urban deer population can be managed with contraception.
The City should fund research to study the deer population, in order to properly assess the ecological effects of the deer as they impact our ecosystem. Ashland may be a city, but one of its best features is, or could be, integration with the natural world. How can we be environmentally friendly if we are not doing everything we can to ensure that our ecosystem is sustainable? And how can we rule out potential solutions before we have had a chance to seriously consider them?