July 02, 2010

Expert to discuss deer, crops during field day

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- What do a lean steak and a lush stand of corn have in common? Deer control.

Clayton K. Nielsen, a wildlife specialist at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, thinks if more people ate deer, there’d be fewer deer eating corn. He will talk about wildlife management and crops during the College of Agricultural Science’s free annual field day July 15 at the Belleville Research Center, located across from Scott Air Force Base’s Mascoutah gate on Illinois Route 161.

While farmers want to protect their crops, Nielsen thinks many won’t want to hear that increased hunting offers their best solution to controlling deer, the No. 1 wildlife problem in farm fields.

“A lot of farmers are willing to accept some degree of crop damage because they appreciate the beauty of the animal,” he said.

“Even those who hunt wouldn’t necessarily support the kind of expansion you’d need to reduce deer populations because they like to have their pick. If they don’t see lots of deer around, they may complain.”

Trouble is, other methods of deer control just don’t work. Bonemeal, soap, human hair, spray-on chemicals? If deer could laugh, they would. Fencing can help, but if it’s tall enough to stop a deer, it costs big bucks.

“Over large scales, reducing the deer population is really the only choice, “ Nielsen said. And you can’t just open your property to hunting once and consider the problem solved.

“The deer will come back,” he said. “They usually have twins, and they can live to be 10 years old because there are no predators left. We are their only major predators.

“There’s an estimated 30 million deer continent wide, up from less than half a million at the turn of the last century. Without hunting, we would see even greater exponential increases in deer populations.”

Those large numbers have produced some unpleasant results -- and not just in terms of increases in the number of car-deer collisions and tick-borne ailments. In many areas, landscapes are changing as browsing deer reduce not only the height and number of trees but the diversity of tree species. This affects not just the trees but other plants as well as the animals and birds that depend on them. In addition, in very large herds, many deer don’t get enough to eat, making them more vulnerable not just to starvation but to disease and parasites.

In many areas, wildlife management policy has begun to tilt toward keeping deer numbers at sustainable levels through rule changes that allow hunters to take more deer and encourage the bagging of does over bucks. But farmers who decide to encourage hunting on their land face a real problem.

“People don’t always keep hunting throughout their lifetimes,” Nielsen said. “I’m a prime example. I got into the wildlife field because of my interest in hunting, fishing and trapping. I don’t do those things as much as I would like to any more. And kids no longer want to go hunting -- they’re all playing video games. We need to reverse this trend and get children back outside and enjoying the wildlife resource.”

One way to encourage hunting may be to concentrate on the virtues of venison. It’s fresh, local, grass-fed, antibiotic-free meat that comes without the environmental costs of raising, transporting and slaughtering more traditional meat animals.

“It’s tasty and less fatty than the kind of meat most people eat -- and it’s abundant,” Nielsen said with a smile.