The solstice is less than 3 weeks away but the long days already feel like summer. Many of us will be heading out to the San Juan Islands to enjoy nature and undoubtedly, we’ll encounter at least one and more likely, several black-tailed deer. Locals have a love-hate relationship with these gentle animals. They’re beautiful to look at, especially now with their velvety new antlers. This time of year they’re relatively tame and you can observe them from a close distance. The main problem with deer is that they eat almost everything in sight. I’m not just talking about garden plants, which you may as well forget about unless you have a tall fence. They significantly decrease the shrub understory that so many birds, pollinators and small vertebrates depend on. It’s well documented that on islands where the deer population is the highest, the richness of species — plants and animals — declines dramatically.
They no longer have significant predators and hunting season is only for a few short weeks in the fall. Summer living is easy and they’re free to roam and graze, take a little rest. There used to be wolves and cougars on the islands to keep the deer population down but with the introduction of livestock and domestic pets, they no longer exist. If you were to even mention reintroducing these predators, you’d get shouted down in any community meeting. On some of the Canadian Gulf Islands, they have even banned hunting.
For a nature-lover like me, this presents a huge dilemma. It’s hard to imagine life without some of the most iconic island plants like the gorgeous Madrona trees. These trees are extremely sensitive and very difficult to cultivate under the best circumstances. I’ve noticed many small sprouts that do manage to come up are gone before they can grow into full-fledged trees. Bracken ferns are much more plentiful but it was disconcerting to see that every single fiddlehead had been eaten the week after I took this photo.
During the winter, the deer feed on Douglas fir, western red cedar, salal, deer ferns and lichens. In the summer they add grasses, trailing blackberry, willow leaves, maple, salmonberries — you name it and if they’re hungry, they’ll eat it. Surprisingly, they haven’t eaten any of the herbs that I’ve planted. They’ve stepped on them but haven’t even nibbled yet. Fingers crossed.
The songbirds are often the biggest losers in this scenario. Loss of food and protection leave them greatly affected.
All this said, I still get a thrill every time I see a deer. I’m very careful when I drive on island roads — for their safety and my own. This is fawning season and I’d be over-the-top excited to catch a glimpse of a tiny white-spotted little bambi. I don’t pretend to have an answer to this problem. It makes me more aware of what a delicate balance our environment depends on. In nature, too much of a good thing can lead to not enough of something else. It appears that being a good steward of the land might involve some “harvesting.” Any thoughts?