Bare stems stand as grave markers of the devastation on native plants of deer browse in our forests. (Icel Dobell photo)

Guest column: I come not to praise hunters; nor to bury Bambi

I’m talking about over-populating deer who are decimating our forests’ understory

By Icel Dobell

In this year beginning four public consultations about the future of North Cowichan — four plans covering basically everything — I’ve noticed that once again our community is avoiding one of the most important, controversial discussions in our Valley affecting the health of the forests, wildlife, and all of us.

I’m talking about over-populating deer who are decimating our forests’ understory, and have been for decades. Over-populating deer with a limited food supply eventually become malnourished which makes them susceptible to disease. Healthy or sick, deer carry copious amounts of ticks, some with diseases, including Lyme Disease — here, now, increasing. Also, comes the ecological devastation of complex forest ecosystems.

Fifteen years ago, I was alerted to this threat. I heard a biologist give a talk about the potential end of the forests as we know them, on the South West Coast of B.C., because of the balance of nature thrown off by humans, by logging and development, and the result: over-populating deer and the over-consumption of native seedlings — something they’d been doing for the past 40 years. This includes trees and plants, with their flowers and berries, the food of many animals aside from deer, including birds, bees, bears, etc. All part of the forest’s balance.

The biologist said, take a walk through the forest with eyes open and see for yourself.

I did this and was shocked. I’d never noticed that just about everywhere I walked there were no new native species coming up — though invasive non-natives were moving in with abandon.

After the lecture and realization, I became inspired. I decided to create a native plant sanctuary for the birds and bees (though not for the bears, I’m sorry to say). I would do my small part.

Around that time I heard about an expert on deer “herbivorie” in our archipelago and since I live on a sort of island, I eventually reached out to biologist Peter Arcese. Fate. This was years before Where Do We Stand’s forest campaign and our municipality hiring the UBC forestry department, including Professor Arcese, as advisors.

Arcese confirmed that “deer browse” is a serious problem and then gave me this advice: one, build a deer fence. two, reach out to world renowned biologist — our Valley’s local forest expert — David Polster.

I built the fence (or I helped). Then I contacted Polster who became my go-to expert. Within a few years, the silent land became an aviary of singing, buzzing rhapsodic native song birds and bees (with the occasional bear, scaling the fence). I was in heaven.

Two weeks ago, as I write this, a deer managed to scale the precipitous oceanside banks, where branches are piled as obstacles — the weak link in my defence wrapping around the little native plant reserve. Other deer have got through before. Usually it takes a few hours to coral them out the gate before they have time to realize they have arrived in heaven.

This deer took one look around and figured it out; he had arrived at the banquet and was not leaving. For two weeks he trotted gaily in front of me and my dogs — my Sheltie who would rather chase her tail, and my duck hunter who was once attacked by a deer so now gives them a wide berth. I’m not kidding, deer can be aggressive; attacks on humans and dogs are a problem in Victoria.

Finally, our little deer friend, leading us a merry chase, pulled back from the banquet, burped, and trotted out the gate. In his wake remained thousands of little leafless stems indicating like grave markers the baby oaks, arbutus, Douglas fir, cedar, alder (more on alder — the magic and mystery — coming soon), ocean spray, huckleberry, oregon grape, Nootka rose and others that had been there and were no longer.

This is my personal story — I could go on and on and you can google the facts. You can read about Oak Bay’s sterilization program. It’s an option. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and, from what I’ve read, is not possible in the forests. You can read about Haida Gwaii hiring New Zealand hunters and helicopters to deal with their devastating deer problem. (Must it come to this?) You can read about hunting in North Cowichan that is only in certain areas, and limited to shot guns and pellets.

Before reading this, if you didn’t know deer over-population is an important issue in our Valley, you are now alerted. The affect is long term so we can stick our heads in the ground and pretend the problem is not growing — one we are leaving for our children — or we can talk about it now: sterilization or hunting, the only potentially viable solution I know of.

I could write a book in defence of the art of hunting. My son is a hunter. I know many hunters because I’m from here and hunting has been part of life here, going back millennia. When I began to write this article, I was warned that to even mention hunting is dangerous and divisive. Some people think of hunters as “Bambi killers.”

Why are people so divided on hunting as an ethical subject? I don’t get it. I love Bambi. I tried to be a vegetarian. I got sick. I cannot bear to eat domestically raised animals. After visiting two commercial barns and a slaughterhouse, I’m grateful to my son for the meat I do eat.

What I don’t understand is how people who eat meat can believe it is more ethical to eat cows, pigs, chickens and deer raised and slaughtered in inhumane circumstances versus deer who live full lives and die instantly — if the hunter is experienced. Marksmanship and human safety are part of the big conversation.

It is beyond time we began having this conversation. Can we do this, North Cowichan? All of us? Hunters? Biologists? Ecologists? Meat eaters? Vegetarians? Animal Rights Activists? Anti-gun lobbyists?

Now, embarked on four public engagements, including our Official Community Plan, it is the most critical time to have the conversation. In the 10 top most important things to address in our OCP, over-populating deer should be on the list. Biologists, ecologists, conservations and hunters know this. Every person who has been walking through the forests for decades should know what I’m talking about — but if you’re like me, maybe you thought you were observant, present and aware while walking in the forests, and yet have been oblivious to one of the biggest threats to the understory.

One way to begin this conversation is through letters to the editor of our local newspaper, the Citizen. A local newspaper is gold. For those of you who don’t realize the value of this resource for our community to debate together important issues Black Press cut us back from two papers to one due to COVID-19. The loss is enormous.

Now, more than ever, with four public consultations we need at least two papers a week to cover everything important going on here.

Use it or lose it: it is our choice, and it is our responsibility to prove to Black Press we value our local newspaper. There is no greater way to do this than through letters to the editor. It proves to local business the value in advertising. Advertising pays for the paper. The more people who write in letters, the more advertising goes up — if we do this maybe we will get back our lost edition. And yes, let’s keep it civil.

Here is your chance to make a difference. It feels good to be an active, contributing member of one’s community. It feels amazing to look one’s children and grandchildren in the eye and be able to say, “I spoke out. I tried my best. I didn’t stand idly by.”

I’ve now raised two of the most controversial subjects in our Valley — deer and hunting. Maybe you feel strongly about these subjects. If so, why not share your thoughts and knowledge? Why not pool our resources and put our minds together? There are so many intelligent people living in our Valley not speaking out publicly — you may be one of them. Try it, you may like it. It may become a great habit. (Submit to editor@cowichanvalleycitizen.com)

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