The Block Island Times

The Book Report:  "Deerland"

By Renee Meyer | May 02, 2014

In the past 100 years the pendulum has swung from a United States left almost bereft of a deer herd to one that is burgeoning with just too damn many of the critters. As we have heard in discussions of the deer situation on Block Island, an estimated 10 to 12 deer per square mile is deemed an appropriate amount for ecological balance. It has been approximated that the island has 80 to 90 per square mile. If you think that’s bad, (and it is), some urban and exurban areas of the country have up to 300 deer per square mile.

“Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness,” by Al Cambronne, (published in 2013 by Lyons Press) explores the tug between man and deer, and much more. It claims to be an objective book, exploring all sides of the topic, and I think that the author is quite successful in this. The reader may be rolling their eyes over the practices of some, but Cambronne does not. Indeed, as an explorer of the many facets of Americans’ relationships with deer, whether they may be hunters or wild-life lovers who would never think of shooting one, or people who are profiting by an over-abundant herd, his lack of prejudice is what makes him so adept at drawing out those whom he has chosen to interview.

The United States now has a deer herd of approximately 30 million. They are considered a public resource; they belong to the states (and the residents therein) and deer management is conducted on a state by state level. Deer hunting has traditionally been conducted on public lands, unlike in Europe where the deer (and other game animals) are considered the property of private landowners.

How did the deer achieve such a rebound? A lot of it has to do with their biology, and the first section of the book focuses on just that. Cambronne takes us through how deer see, smell (better than a bloodhound) and hear. He describes their lifestyles, communications with others, and eating habits. By the time I was done with that section, I almost believed that deer are smarter than my dog. While any successful hunter is apt to know a lot of this stuff already, I did not. And I found it fascinating.

Another reason the deer have been so successful in reproducing is because we the people, to whom the deer herd “belongs,” have enabled them. We find out in this book that deer have become “big business.” There is a lot of money to be made from an abundant deer herd, and it’s not just in hunting equipment, which, by the way, has gone high-tech. (Would you like a trail-cam with that fancy new bow?) Butchers cash in during the winter hunting season, which is convenient for filling out their production schedules. Autobody shops cash in. Even the real estate business cashes in. In some areas of the country, the presence of deer, along with enough acreage to hunt them, has become the monetary equivalent to an ocean view.

Yet another focus of the book is the ecological damage created by deer. Deer love to live at the edge of the forest and while they may have been successful in their rebound, the forests themselves aren’t doing so well. Cambronne writes that what happens on the forest floor “ricochets” up into the canopy. Forests replenish themselves from the ground up, but when too many deer are around, they may lose the ability to sustain themselves. This damage comes from not only the deer eating the tender young vegetation on the forest floor, but from the damage they cause to young trees by rubbing their antlers on them.

While Cambronne resides in Wisconsin, his exploration of the deer topic takes him far afield. Too many deer in suburban areas are a menace, and reducing their numbers is difficult. So, in one chapter we are in Fairfield County, Conn., and in another, we’re up a tree in a harness on a small lot just outside a large East Coast city. There don’t seem to be too many ‘solutions’ to the problem of deer in suburbia, but there are a lot of ways to try, and the author explores many of them.

Without trying to stir up any controversy, Cambronne does interview Anthony De Nicola, head of White Buffalo Inc., the Connecticut-based not-for-profit that was contracted by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management to perform a deer cull on Block Island. Despite however one may feel about that recent development, this book may give the readers some insight. We are, after all, as a community, supposed to be spending the intervening months reflecting on this and coming up with some sort of solution for next year.

I think this book may be just what Block Island needs to open up the conversation. And, besides, did I say it was fascinating?



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