Dealing with deer starts with a management plan

Derek Kilbourn

Sounder News

Tuesday, August 15 2017

When it comes to determining whether Gabriola has too many deer - and, if so, what to do about it – the responsibility falls on the community itself to make those decisions.

That according to Sean Pendergast, Senior Wildlife Biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Department of the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

Pendergast said, “It comes down to the community to ask what path to take in reducing the deer population. The community can write and publish a deer management plan. It is up to the community to determine what the social capacity is.

“I would encourage all communities to come up with a wildlife management plan.”

He said that when it comes to the biological carrying capacity, one could argue that Gabriola’s deer population is above that.

“Things are not where they should be, there are lots of deer.

“Deer will eat themselves out of house and home. It is natural, but in the absence of predators, black-tailed deer will reach high population levels.”

Add in the factor that in semi-rural communities like Gabriola, predators are tolerated much less than deer are.

Pendergast said another factor is the non-native ornamental pieces that people plant, and that deer find more edible, sustain a higher-than-average population.

Historically, deer populations on Gabriola were controlled through First Nations hunting, as well as by predators like cougars, wolves and bears.

“All those predators would visit, reduce the population and move on.

“Over four to five years, the deer would build up the population again, and attract the predators. Boom and bust.”

Pendergast said that if and when predators do show up on Gabriola, he would encourage people to live with the wildlife as best they can.

“If a cougar shows up, there are lots of deer, especially Nanaimo/Gabriola. Lots of injured deer that are not going to make it anywhere else, but they’re fine on Gabriola because nothing is hunting them there.”

Coming up with an overall plan for the deer is something typically funded through the local government municipalities, so in Gabriola’s case that would be the Regional District of Nanaimo.

Pendergast said the Capital Regional District is currently going through a process of creating a management plan for each member.

“It would be great if the RDN would spearhead it. It would be a great opportunity for Electoral Area B to approach the RDN for some money to hire someone to assess what might be the options on Gabriola.”

Howard Houle, RDN Director for Electoral Area B (Gabriola, Mudge, DeCourcy) said, “It is not currently being discussed at the RDN.”

Part of the plan is to ask what should be done if a population count shows the need for a reduction in deer numbers.

Pendergast said one of the easiest and cheapest options is “to liberalize the hunting season to be in sync with the rest of the shotgun season in BC. Gabriola is one of the only islands other than Salt Spring that doesn’t have an antlerless [doe] season. 

“It is fairly easy, and fairly low cost, and it can potentially reduce some numbers of deer on the island.”

There is a buck hunting season on Gabriola - starting in early September.

Pendergast said if an anterless hunt opened on Gabriola, it would not see a change in safety regulations in terms of the firearms use - hunters would still be restricted on how close they could be to to a residence while using a firearm or bow - and would not be able to go on private land without permission.

“But if someone can hunt a parcel for a buck, they could also shoot a doe.”

He added having a bucks-only hunt does not work for population control.

“You can shoot bucks till the cows come home, there is no reduction.”

Does and fawns also, according to Pendergast, cause the majority of damage to crops and gardens.

“They are residents, usually 500 square metre zone of residency. Bucks move around looking for does.”

A request to open an antlerless season would go through Pendergast’s office.

Historically, he said, the doe hunt on Gabriola was stopped because there were hunters using the ferry service to come over, and conflicts arose when those hunters were going on private lands.

“Times are changing. People are more aware of regulations, most of the islands are private, with better mapping. It’s very hard with current smartphones to be able to say you didn’t know you were on someone’s property.”

If, even with a doe hunt, Gabriola has the option to consider population reduction through a cull. The accepted method by the province is a live trap and bolt gun. 

Animals are trapped, bolt gunned, and the carcass can be processed and is usually provided to First Nations in some way. Some communities have been set up for the meat to be made available.

Pendergast said trapping and translocating the deer is not really an option, as the deer do not relocate well.

“It’s a new environment, they are not adapted, it is very stressful, and higher populations [like Gabriola’s] tend to breed disease, so we would then be taking that disease to a less resilient population.”

Contraception can be used, but is hard to know if it makes a difference in a population.

Seventy to 80 per cent of the resident doe population has to be sterilized. And those sterilized deer are not removed from the population, they just won’t have fawns - which can mean the does live longer, still maintaining the high population.

“So you are not going to see a reduction in the population for quite some time.

“Inject 80 per cent of your deer, in 15 years you finally will see a reduction.”

Pendergast said the hunting option still means convincing a hunter to shoot a doe, and conventional hunters still like to hunt for antlers, though there are many who are meat hunters. I imagine a lot of the Gabriolan hunters are in that boat. Right now, if Gabriola mirrored the east coast of Vancouver Island, you would be allowed to harvest three deer, two of which may be does, or two of which can be bucks.

“Removing a hundred deer isn’t going to solve the problem, but it will help. It is also no cost to the community or RDN because you’re passing the cost on to the hunter. 

“And it is rather timely - we do regulation changes every two years. This fall is when we submit our request for 2018 changes. If someone in the community was willing to entertain this - no one in my section has the capacity to take it on and be the champion - but it could be done if someone in the community was interested. 

“We would need some sort of community support - we could put it in a package to go in this October, it would be something we’d consider. In general that kind of regulation change is met favourably by officials.”