The Deer Teacher: Learning About Human Overpopulation from our White-Tailed Friend
Published on June 20th, 2011
A June story that ran on NPR talked about the white-tailed deer, once a “rare creature across the East Coast,” but now “widely overpopulated.” According to the report, there are significant implications to this deer overpopulation, now estimated to be 20 million across the country. The consequences are nothing short of the ability of forests to survive long term with rich levels of biodiversity. This bold statement is based on science from the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. The Institute surrounded 10 acres with a fence 8’ high. The “exclosure” has kept this experimental space deer-free for 21 years. What two decades of research have revealed is that a wildly diverse landscape has flourished within the protected space, while outside, the landscape is visibly different, sparser. The work of the Institute here illustrates that with deer, invasive species boom, which means fewer native plants and then fewer birds that rely on the native flora for food and habitat. The study also showed less mice and chipmunks in deer areas; there’s too much competition for food. The intention from years past was to repopulate the area with deer, and it worked – too well – demonstrating how delicate ecological balances are. From practically no deer to too many deer, the natural environment has tipped in a direction that threatens the forests. So it’s time for more human meddling to again “adjust” the balance. What struck me listening to the story was how clearly this study shows how overpopulation of one species can have such tremendous impact on every other species. And use of the word “invasive” in the broadcast brings to mind the most invasive of species – the human being. While NPR may be comfortable talking about too many Bambi’s, they’re unlikely to run stories about the broad negative impacts of too many people. Yet, that is the story that so needs to be told and told often until there’s majority recognition of the impacts of human overpopulation on plant and animal species and the natural environment – our overall biodiversity that makes Earth habitable – and real policy changes to address population growth. Looking at how a few deer can dramatically change a habitat, it’s not a stretch to think that 7 billion people (who have much greater ability than deer to impact their surroundings) have the potential to decimate our planet. As a species, we’re often given credit for ultimately making the right choices. That our human population continues to grow overall at what many believe is in an unsustainable manner would seem to contradict that thinking – unless making the right choices will come in at the “too little, too late” level. For all of us who understand the impacts of too many people, we just have to keep riding this horse. Talk and educate about the issue, work towards sound immigration laws to limit growth in order to create a sustainable country, and support women’s education and family planning, among a few of the areas where we can make a difference.