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posted: 9/1/2012 9:11 AM

Urban deer pose long-term problem in Bloomington

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The Herald-Times

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A mother gives birth in a front yard near the corner of Hillside and South Longwood drives, a single tree offering cover. Cars pass by, and she stares blankly with her big, brown eyes.

Her offspring will be just as comfortable with city life. They will join with family, jaywalking across roadways, venturing to backyards for a snack of potted plants.

Man has claimed Bloomington as home, but an expanding deer population has had no trouble carving out a niche in the same ecosystem. The deer are undemanding citizens of nature. Woods become neighborhoods, but residential gardens remain fit for grazing.

"This is really deer paradise," Indiana University biologist Angie Shelton said of Bloomington, weighing its abundant feeding grounds against a lack of natural predators and regulations on hunting.

The people's debate about how best to live alongside these animals has become more complex. An 11-person Deer Task Force -- a broad mix of experts and politicians -- was assembled by the Bloomington City Council, and monthly meetings have spanned nearly two years.

District 4 city council member and task force member Dave Rollo said a "lethal solution," culling the herd with sharpshooters, appears to be the most viable option for the committee to recommend for the council's vote and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' ultimate approval.

As the process drags on, however, residents grow impatient. Deer dart into cars, crash through windows and trample residents' yard ornaments. House pets have encountered fawns and drawn attacks from defensive does.

But the task force continues to work the problem thoroughly rather than hastily. Its next meeting is scheduled for September to review a draft of its report before handing it off to the city council sometime in October.

"The Bloomington community appreciates decisions that are based in substance and research and are grounded," said Stefano Fiorini, an anthropologist, IU professor and task force member. "It's better not to rush something and then discover not all aspects of the issue were considered. We have shown respect for every perspective on an issue that can be very sensitive to some."

Barbara Restle was a "city lady" when she moved to Bloomington in 1961, she said, her refined accent a product of childhood in Paris and schooling in Vienna.

Restle is a retired landowner, much of it in Mississippi, but she hadn't seen a deer before she arrived in south-central Indiana, living on 35 acres at the top of a hill, occupying an estate with 75 windows.

The majesty of her lush surroundings, its inhabitants romanticized by "Bambi," was quickly tarnished by neighbors with a tale of warning for her young children.

Once, they said, a man ventured into the forest. He saw a fawn and reached down to touch it. Nearby, a doe saw the man and charged out from the trees, striking him in the skull and killing him.

In August, Restle, a member of the Environmental Resources Advisory Council, heard another story that brought back her original fears. Her nurse, Paula Thatcher, had her corgi attacked by a doe protecting a fawn. The veterinary bill was $200, but Restle has greater worries.

What if, she says, a child decides to not heed a parent's warning and reaches out to touch a baby deer?

"When I heard about the dog that was attacked, I thought back to 1961," Restle told The Herald-Times ( ), "and all of a sudden I wasn't a city girl anymore."

Deer attacks are extremely rare, according to wildlife experts. Deer may show aggression when protecting their young, especially toward dogs because of their similarities to coyotes, a natural predator capable of snatching a fawn. Otherwise, scientists agree they are a gentle species.

Accidental collisions between deer and cars is a greater danger, Rollo said, one of the many reasons deer have reached their "social carry capacity" in town. How to resolve the issue and bring nature back into balance touches off conflict between animal lovers and less-sympathetic residents.

The task force is charged with offering a solution to "fix someone else's mistake," said Sarah Hayes, CEO of the Monroe County Humane Association. Deer were eradicated from the state in the late 19th century but were reintroduced in 1934 without natural predators, such as black bears and cougars, to mitigate their population growth.

Keith Clay, an IU biologist and task force member, advocates for reintroducing natural predators. That idea is a nonstarter because the DNR, which manages the deer populations, will not allow it. Moreover, if Bloomington doesn't have an appetite for deer in backyards, wolves and mountain lions have their own specific risks.

Balancing Bloomington's diverse opinions on the issue, as well as what the DNR will allow, has guided the task force in its deliberations. Hayes considers lethal options to be "a last resort," while Rollo said such methods as sterilization for does are cost prohibitive.

Trapping and relocating deer is prohibited by the DNR because it is inhumane; research has shown about 90 percent die of stress during or after the move.

Hunting appears to be the most cost-effective approach, but Fiorini reiterated the task force has not made a decision and its members do not want to speculate on what will be recommended before the officials who chose them for this job have had a chance to review the findings.

Nonlethal measures, for instance, replacing plants that deer like to eat with ones they don't, could be part of a broader equation to reduce populations, said Laurie Ringquist, director of Bloomington Animal Care and Control.

"We went through the whole menu of options. There is no one solution," Ringquist said. "People do think we, or the city, can just decide to go out and shoot deer or to sterilize deer. But the DNR sets the parameters."

The recommendation from the task force is a first step, a process the task force has studied as the community continues its debates about uninhibited deer populations. Concerned citizens, like Restle, see the remaining steps and question how much longer Bloomington can wait. She wonders if a recommendation from the task force hasn't been forthcoming because the task force is afraid the public won't like their answer to a problem long documented by university researchers.

"I am a retired farmer. Nobody can come after me," Restle said. "My sympathy is with the young, struggling scientists. I will protect them in every way. But the work they are doing is becoming a total waste."

Walking through Griffy Woods, biologist Shelton has Japanese stiltgrass up to her waist, obscuring the trail to one of 15 fenced-in plant "exclosures" her team has created.

The native plants outside of the fences -- sweet cicely and white baneberry, which deer love to eat -- are chewed up and struggle to grow above the stiltgrass, an invasive species that arrived from East Asia in the 1920s and spread out of Tennessee in the '80s. Scientists have no idea why deer don't like it, only that it is new, and it is thriving in deer-dense environments.

"We are seeing a large change in species diversity," Shelton said.

Along with plants, deer are eating up twigs and seeds and saplings of hardwood trees. They aren't picky. On the other hand, northern deer are more likely to eat honeysuckle, because it's available, while southern deer barely touch it. There are, in fact, cultural differences in cuisine for deer, depending on the menu. Those appetites directly affect the environment.

Shelton began her study in Griffy Woods in 2005 with two exclosures and built 13 more between 2009 and 2010. More than a year ago, Shelton believed she had overwhelming evidence to present to the task force suggesting marked changes in the ecosystem, including chain reactions in the mouse populations outside of the exclosures, an effect of less cover in the forest's understory.

Nature is completely out of balance, she says. And while she is the type of person who will grab a spider from inside her house and release it outside rather than crush it, Shelton has come to the realization a hunt might be the only common-sense approach to Bloomington's problem. The hunts will also have to be repeated, because, in the absence of predators, deer could easily reproduce past social carrying capacity.

"Right now, we are sacrificing the entire ecosystem for one species," Shelton said. "We are holding deer above everything else."

She stares out at her exclosures and sees plenty of issues within the deer population. A three-legged deer, which would have been "easy pickings" for predators, Shelton said, roams the woods. An assistant saw a giant tumor on one's chest. The deer have no fear of humans, as well, and frequently stand outside of the fence, watching Shelton work. She has encountered a buck outside of her brother's house while building a snowman with her niece.

Shelton and Restle, both part of the Environmental Resources Advisory Council, asked the city to look into the deer problem in 2010, concurrent with a petition from citizens in Rollo's district. Rollo said forming the task force took time, and the all-volunteer group had to balance careers with researching all phases of the deer issue from scratch.

Fiorini, who has performed his own studies of deer management, knows it can be a complicated problem. In Scotland, the debate was between conservationists who wanted to preserve plant species over increasing deer, while hunters wanted to boost the game population for sport.

Bloomington's affections are torn by its love of animals and nature, keeping the balance of the forest intact while not plucking too violently on residents' heartstrings. Deputy Mayor Maria Heslin is an animal lover, Rollo said, who has offered new information to the task force within the past few weeks on nonlethal solutions to the problem.

Rollo was initially quoted in April 2010, saying the task force hoped to have its work "wrapped up by September." Two years later, a decision is forthcoming because the truth remains: Man has to clean up his mess.

"What people miss in this discussion is we have already intervened in the deer ecology by removing predators. It's our responsibility to maintain the population," Rollo said. "The evidence is overwhelming. You can't ignore the problem, and we have to take responsibility for it."


Information from: The Herald Times,

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