How the B.C. deer population may soon face a problem
// Victoria Fawkes

According to some critics, the city of Cranbrook, B.C. may have already made Santa’s naughty list this year, thanks to its recent plan to combat the deer that have trespassed in the community. After concerns about the overpopulation of deer arose, the city of Cranbrook decided to exterminate any deer that found itself unlucky enough to be inside the city limits.

Other cities currently at risk of getting on the naughty list? Victoria, Grand Forks, Saanich, and Kelowna are all currently considering their own culls in the coming months. In fact, Penticton announced on Jan. 12 that they would be the next municipality to begin a deer cull.

Deer aren’t the only animals that have been marked for extermination by B.C. cities: wolves, bears, and coyotes are just a few of the animals that have been targeted at one point or another in B.C. municipalities. Reasons for the culls range from an unnaturally high population, to a fear of animal attacks.

Just last year, the exploding rabbit population at the University of Victoria reached a fever pitch, with over 1,600 rabbits taking over the campus. While prospective students may have seen the abundance of bunnies a definite selling point of the university, the school’s personnel did not agree, and took steps to remove them. In spring of 2011, UVIC declared the campus rabbit-free, thanks to the removal and sterilization of the majority of the rabbits by animal welfare groups. Although the university allowed many of the rabbits to be transferred and sterilized, some were killed. Additionally, UVIC announced that any abandoned pet rabbits released on the campus in the future would be humanely trapped and killed.

With the end of UVIC’s rabbit removal came the beginning of a new cull, halfway across the province. In February 2011, Cranbrook’s original cull recommendation was first made, targeting specific herds of deer taking up residence in the downtown area.

Cranbrook communications officer Chris Zettel, who helped organize the cull, says it was one of five different recommendations initially made to take care of the deer problem: “Other than the cull, a comprehensive education program and a trap-and-release program were both suggested, but ultimately rejected.” The province also suggested the city create an urban deer management facility, but that, too was passed over in favor of a cull.

Under Cranbrook’s permit, granted by the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, 25 mule and whitetail deer were trapped and killed from Dec. 2, 2011 to Dec. 17, 2011. “After being killed, the deer were transported to the butcher and processed. Twenty deer went to the local food bank, and the other five went to Street Angels, a community outreach program managed by a local First Nations group,” explains Zettel.

Zettel goes on to explain that the city of Cranbrook created a council to discuss the possibility of a cull in early 2011. To help make the decision, two members of city council and a wildlife specialist were some of the experts trusted with making the decision; Zettel himself sat on council as non-voting member. In addition to the council, a community survey was taken, in which Cranbrook residents ranked the seriousness of the deer overpopulation issue. Once all the results were collected, it became clear that Cranbrook residents believed there was a problem with the aggression, garden damage, and vehicle collisions the deer caused. “A cull seemed to be the best option,” says Zettel.

Although the cull only lasted half a month, Zettel insists that the verdict was not reached hastily: “The decision to even consider this came after the better part of nine months of consultation and debate.”

By calling a cull, it is clear that the residents of Cranbrook saw a problem with the presence and occasional aggression of the deer in the area. In fact, a hostile situation involving a deer was caught on camera just last year.

In 2010, a video of a deer attack shot in Cranbrook, B.C. hit the internet. The video featured an initially docile deer first threaten a housecat and then attack a nearby dog before leaving with the fawn it was protecting. The video currently has over 700,000 hits on YouTube, and its content went on to provide speculation into whether Cranbrook’s ever-present deer population was really as harmless as it looked.

This speculation sparked the idea of a cull in the community, which is still received with mixed opinions. Although the city of Cranbrook may believe the cull has impacted the city’s overpopulation problem, any idea that involves the mass killing of animals is bound to raise controversy and incite critics.

Lesley Fox is one such critic of the recent deer killings in Cranbrook. Fox is the executive director of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, an organization whose primary objective is to educate Canadians about the fur trade and promote coexistence between animals and humans. The Cranbrook cull, she believes, was unnecessary and inhumane.

“The method that was used was really stressful on the deer. The bolt guns they used were never designed for wild animals, and the nets that were used can cause the animals unnecessary pain,” says Fox.

As someone with concern for both animals and the environment they live in, she also worries about the impact on the entire deer species: “The problem with a cull is that you’re killing off an entire population and messing with the gene pool. You could be taking out some of the strongest of the population instead of the weakest, without letting nature do the opposite,” she says.

On the other hand, Chris Zettel saw the cull as a necessary step for the city of Cranbrook. He believes that the citizens voted as a whole, and the majority ruled. Although Zettel knows that part of the problem is caused by the deer’s draw to humans, he also thought that the easiest and most effective way of handling the deer problem was with a cull.

Fox believes there are two reasons for the increased number of urban deer in B.C.: “The first is that for years, the province has been killing off wolves and coyotes, which leads to a decrease in the deer’s natural predators. The second reason is that people love wildlife. People want to feed and care for the animals in their backyard, and we’re seeing dependent animals that lose their fear of humans and are more likely to cause a problem,” she explains.

However, from Fox’s experience, she knows there are many alternatives to a cull that the province could be practicing. “Other communities have had success with sterilization programs. While this doesn’t help in the short term, it helps with population in the long term,” she says.

Fox goes on to explain that the community must do its part, too. “Education is key, and the main thing is being smart. We need to cut off access to food sources and minimize attractants, like backyard gardens,” she says. From what Fox has seen, everyone can do their part to coexist with the wildlife in their area.

Whether the deer are really a threat to B.C. communities or simply a group of animals whose environment and security has been threatened by humans, it will only become apparent in the coming years as to whether the cull will help with the population problem. Whatever the long-term outcome of Cranbrook’s cull, animal welfare activists such as Lesley Fox will be keeping a watchful eye: “We live in B.C. If you don’t like the wildlife, maybe you should move to Toronto.”

//Victoria Fawkes, writer

/Graphics by Sarah Taylor

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