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Comment: Mayne Island's deer problem needs government action

Deer are harming many plant, bird, animal and pollinator species, with the fallow deer being especially destructive.

A commentary by the chair of the Mayne Island Conservancy.

When I first arrived on Mayne Island, I was enthralled to see so many deer wandering along the island roads and paths. They are beautiful animals, and they would stand and look at me with their big brown eyes as I took their photo.

But I soon learned that the deer population had exploded on Mayne because of human intervention, causing terrible environmental destruction and harming the deer, too. It’s a serious problem that can only be corrected with human involvement — in this case, action by the provincial government.

The combined browsing of overabundant introduced fallow deer, as well as native blacktail deer, have affected and continue to affect vital aspects of Mayne’s natural environment.

Both species of deer are harming many plant, bird, animal and pollinator species, with the fallow deer being especially destructive. Decreases in songbird diversity and abundance have been linked to overabundant populations of deer.

Sword fern, salal and Oregon grape are low on the list of plants deer prefer to eat, so when you see these being eaten, it means all the deer’s preferred foods are already gone.

Arbutus and Garry oak ­seedlings that begin to grow are also sought out by the deer and eaten, threatening the long-term existence of these trees and other animals that rely on them. Generations of new trees have been lost to Mayne’s overabundant deer.

The destructive impact of deer overpopulation extends to the farms on Mayne. Fallow deer decimate the understory in the forested and shrub lands, ­resulting in more runoff when it rains. They also eat the ­forage and orchard crops, and they damage the orchard trees when eating the fruit or rubbing their antlers against the trunks. This could become a much bigger threat to agriculture in the region if the deer migrate to other islands and eventually to Vancouver Island.

While overabundant deer have created one of the most serious ecological problems facing Mayne, having too many deer is also bad for the deer. As preferred food becomes scarce, especially in dry summers and cold winters, the deer are forced to eat less nutritious plants and their health suffers, causing them to be in poor ­condition and hence susceptible to ­disease, parasites and extremes of weather.

Highly concentrated deer populations also have higher rates of disease transmission than would occur under the lower densities of an in-balance population, one that would ­historically have been kept in balance by large predators such as cougars and wolves.

In the absence of natural predators, critical action is needed to restore balance. The Mayne Island Conservancy has been advocating for the provincial government to take that action. The B.C. government has a responsibility to take leadership on this issue, since it licensed the commercial operation of a fallow deer farm on Mayne in the late 1980s.

Now that the descendants of these deer are feral on the landscape, they are considered provincial wildlife. Ever since the deer escaped from the farm, they have roamed and reproduced in great numbers. The result has been devastating.

Our local island trustees and our MLA, Adam Olsen, recognize the seriousness of the problem and we appreciate their support. But the buck stops with the B.C. government and two ministers in particular, Pam Alexis, minister of agriculture, and Nathan Cullen, minister of land and resource stewardship.

We are asking that they take ownership for the overabundant deer on Mayne and provide a funded solution to deal with it.

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