Oh, deer: San Juan islander looks at local deer overpopulation | Guest column

Oh, deer: San Juan islander looks at local deer overpopulation | Guest column

By Steve Ulvi

San Juan Island

Along with about a hundred others, I attended the library presentation on black-tailed deer by Ruth Milne, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It promised to be interesting given the obvious problems and quirky notions here. Who doesn’t have an opinion about deer?

From library event ads, to her nice introduction, to the child-friendly slides, her commentary was so very careful and respectful of all views in setting the stage for what must, by nature, be a community decision. As an area management biologist, Milne hoped to focus audience comments on how to better deal with a significantly unhealthy overpopulation of deer adversely impacting the already pummeled ecosystems of this trans-border archipelago.

After a number of questions and the usual unfocused statements of personal values (each painstakingly repeated and reflected upon by Milne), a few fellows who enjoy hunting deer and rightfully feel pride in continuing the island tradition of using natural resources for the family table, broke their polite silence. They spoke of frustrations regarding extremely limited areas to hunt (very little state land, etc.) and dealing with adversarial views toward hunters, as key parts of the overpopulation problem. Yet before they could finish their thoughts, the ugly genie of off-topic provocation and identity politics oozed out of the bottle.

Harvest for the larder is a very deep, necessary tradition for some of us that makes us feel whole in a post-modern, overpopulated America; a substantial fund source for the greater public good through licensing and equipment taxes, and a viable population control tool in most circumstances. Increasing hunter harvest is the one realistic tool compared to the ludicrous rigamarole of field sterilization, professional snipers, relocation (Where to? Waldron?) or free condoms for local bucks.

Of course, humans and their best management practices are imperfect, but hunter harvest is a proven tool with far fewer negative externalities than wasteful and messy vehicle slaughter, ecological collapse from overbrowsing or deer suffering through starvation or disease.

Sure, island biogeography exacerbates our deer populations without natural predators, hand in hand with high private land ownership (85 percent of San Juan County), exurban social values, declining interest in hunting, illegal feeding of wildlife and ignorance of the ecological damage we have wrought. It all favors ravens, expensive fencing contractors and local car repair shops, though!

I, too, grieve daily for the excruciating demise of the richness and diversity of the natural world. I knew when we left interior Alaska after 33 years, my outdoor experiences here would be severely diminished in these unwild and unnatural islands, but I did not imagine how over only 12 years we could slide so much further down the slippery slope of ecosystem destruction.

I am going to continue to work toward expanding the allowance for hunting deer on larger land bank parcels — maybe does only, maybe bow only — and am personally exploring options for quietly importing a few breeding pairs of coyotes or bobcats next spring.