by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Recently a horrific fate awaited more than two dozen deer.
London, Ontario, is a small city of a little more than 350,000 citizens located in gently rolling farmland that thrusts like a triangle into the southernmost latitudes of the province. Within its urban boundaries, surrounded by roads, houses, light industry, and strip malls, a wooded parkland surrounds a sphagnum bog reminiscent of the boreal forests of more northern climes. It is called Sifton Bog. Follow a boardwalk into its centre and you pass lichen-festooned tamaracks, leatherleaf and black spruce and vast mats of thickly intertwined sphagnum mosses, ferns and a variety of ericaceous bog plants. Step on this soft “ground” and a strange thing happens ... the earth moves, in ripples, and you realize your weight is supported not by solid ground at all, but by this dense and spongy mat overlaying anaerobic muck and water. In the middle, surrounded by the matted vegetation, is a small, crystalline lake of water, dark with the blackness of the black, mud bottom.
This is home to a suite of plants rare or absent elsewhere — sundews, bladderworts, various orchids, and such other heath-loving plants as bog rosemary, wintergreen, black huckleberry, pale laurel, highbush blueberries, wild cranberries, and Labrador tea. Here are pitcher plants who, like the tiny sundews, trap and consume live insects, and skunk cabbages, whose colorfully mottled first spring growth quickly gives way to broad, acid-green leaves.
It is also home to a herd of varying size of white-tailed deer. For a couple of decades my colleagues and I have fought to protect those deer from a lethal cull proposed by both the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and by various local residents and some (not all) municipal politicians. Most recently there was a concerted effort to reduce the “herd” from its current estimated number of 35, to 3! Three deer were, it was claimed, the number that could live in Sifton Bog without damaging its ecological integrity by “overpopulation.”
In fact, whatever ecological integrity exists has long been compromised by pressures from the surrounding city, and by the present of a variety of non-native, “invasive” plant species, particularly the ubiquitous European buckthorn, a small tree that displaces native flora and is nearly impossible to eradicate. A Master Plan for managing the bog states, “If buckthorn control is not started immediately, the entire swamp could be classified as a buckthorn thicket and the invasion of buckthorn on the open bog mat advanced.”
Concerns were also raised about deer entering backyards and eating hedges and gardens, jumping into swimming pools, being hit by cars, and even attacking people. There was a deer study plan underway, supported by some politicians and a city ecologist, but others couldn’t wait, calling the situation urgent, even though deer numbers in Sifton Bog are apparently in decline from the previous year. Their impatience arguably reflects the fact that next year there will be a municipal election, and the councilors wanted this contentious issue behind them by then. They proposed a bow-and-arrow hunt since guns were too dangerous in such an urban setting.
Our plan was multifold. Of greatest interest to me was the debunking of various rationales mounted to rationalize a cull. It was argued that the deer were overpopulated, but characterized “overpopulation” as producing disease and starvation. The deer were clearly sleek, fit, and healthy. Concerns were raised about the transmission of Lyme disease, via ticks, but it was shown that the Middlesex–London Health Unit found Lyme disease in Ontario was restricted to one small area some distance away, and, “... Lyme disease is not currently a concern.”
We found references to many wildlife agency studies that showed bow hunting leads to as much as a 50 percent wounding rate, and we circulated gruesome photos of mule deer wounded by arrows to show the residents what they and their children might be exposed to, should the hunt take place. We showed how a campaign to educate motorists in Ottawa had resulted in a 13 percent reduction in deer-vehicle collisions and that at any rate police reports showed most such tragedies in London happened in other parts of the region, away from Sifton Bog. We discussed other, non-lethal and cost effect methods of controlling problems deer might cause to property owners, including a mobile, inexpensive fencing solution provided by a Canadian company, Deer Fence Canada.
Although the committee struck to advise council voted (not unanimously) for the cull, in the end our tactics worked, and last week the city council, to its credit, voted no.
The deer are safe, for now.
Just before the crucial vote I made a site visit to Sifton Bog with Liz White, whose indefatigable efforts were surely instrumental to the success we ultimately experienced and managed to spot only one white-tailed deer, the back half only, for less than a second. I found tracks, and browse, and yes, deer are in the bog. But they are native, part of an ever-changing ecosystem, and they belong.