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Comment: Scientific approach could make us a leader on deer

The management of urban deer continues to create controversy across B.C.

The management of urban deer continues to create controversy across B.C., as municipalities grapple with how to balance the wishes of residents who consider deer a nuisance to be eradicated against the wishes of those who enjoy the presence of deer and would like non-lethal policies to reduce human-deer conflict.

Most municipal governments view urban deer as a provincial issue and want the province to provide guidance and funding. In response, the province last fall unveiled the Interim Provincial Urban Deer Operational Cost-Share Program to which municipalities can apply for support for ready-to-go proposals.

The Greater Victoria-based Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society has proposed a comprehensive program for Oak Bay that is ready for implementation and which could be the cost-effective gold standard for the province and beyond. Along with humanely stabilizing and reducing the urban deer population in areas where the number has been scientifically determined to be high, our proposal would showcase what’s possible when a community works together and thinks long-term and ethically about how humans can co-exist with indigenous wildlife.

Our recently submitted proposal to Oak Bay council meets the “scientifically rigorous” requirements of the province’s cost-share program and fits with recommendations from wildlife biologists, scientists, the province and the Capital Regional District for an effective deer-management program.

The first component is public education, which is the best way to address health and safety concerns. This can engage a community in a positive and non-divisive manner, reduce human-deer conflict and build an understanding of roles and responsibilities in managing deer in an urban environment. It needs to be ongoing and provided through multiple channels, keeping in mind that problems that develop over a long time defy quick and easy solutions.

And, while the province has stepped up with an offer to cost-share, each municipality has its own perceptions and tolerance of deer. This is why some responsibility for deer management must be accepted and financed by local governments. Partnerships among the two levels of government and the community are essential to success.

The second is determining and documenting community concerns, attitudes and interactions with deer through a survey of residents. A survey has already been developed and reviewed by independent experts. It would collect information on how concerned residents are about deer on their properties and in Oak Bay generally, whether the level and types of concerns vary by neighbourhood, and the types of issues that cause concern.

Generally, municipalities react to complaints, and while complaints do inform a government of some concerns, they are skewed toward negative comments and often don’t provide a comprehensive picture of community values. The stewardship society believes that if residents understand there are feasible, non-lethal, humane, sustainable and economical alternatives to the invariably expensive, ineffective and divisive approach of lethal culls, they would strongly support them.

Third is the development of a scientifically rigorous population model, which would be used to understand, explain and predict the number of deer in the district and establish the best population goal. An independent contractor or graduate student would use existing data along with observations to model the four elements of a deer population — birth rates, death rates, immigration and emigration.

Fourth, scientifically administered deer counts must take place to provide a baseline understanding of environmental capacity, urban deer trends and movement patterns, including seasonal deer counts, such as the one that was conducted in the fall of 2015 by the CRD with the participation of stewardship-society biologists.

Finally, our project calls for the inoculation of does with an immunocontraceptive. This part of the project is intended to manage deer in Oak Bay to a scientifically defined population objective by making does sterile and reducing the number of fawns born each spring, without creating vacant territory into which other deer will move. This approach has been tried with success in several jurisdictions, including locally at James Island and CFB Esquimalt.

No one denies that human-deer conflict needs to be addressed in urban areas. A citizens’ group of scientists, biologists, educators and past and present public servants overseen by a scientific advisory group has done the research and pulled together a comprehensive and thoughtful proposal to help solve the issues and with the potential to position Greater Victoria as a world leader in this area.

Having tried the alternative, it’s now time to turn to a science-driven, evidence-based approach.


Bryan Gates is president of the Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society and is the former manager of wildlife resources for B.C.’s Ministry of Environment.