Stephen Hume tells his own story of backyard deer, and asks some hard questions about our attitudes toward wildlife. We want your stories—and photos—too.
CARVED FROM A CORNER OF OUR GARAGE is a tiny office. It’s monastic in its austerity. Writing table, chair, nothing else. I retreat there when a deadline presses and when I want to evade the incessant 21st-century distractions of e-mail pinging, phone ringing, Twitter tweeting, Flipboard flipping or the CBC and the New York Times urging me to some news item to which I must pay immediate attention.
The first attraction of this small space is simple—silence. The only sound is the papery rustle of the breeze through a stand of reed-thin bamboo. This settler-society immigrant provides a light-filtering privacy screen for the large south-facing window. Beyond it is a dense, glossy, knee-deep tangle of native Oregon grape that’s now reclaimed half the garden beneath the canopy of dry-belt Douglas fir and arbutus.
I long ago came to the conclusion that beating back what wants to be here and replacing it with exotic imports is more than hubristic insanity; in botanical terms it’s a full-on manifestation of precisely the colonized mindset from which we’re all ostensibly trying to move on.
Soon the spiky leaves of the natural ground cover—its plump blue fruit provides a dozen jars of tart jam every summer—will be embroidered with the gleaming stars of fawn lilies, chocolate lilies, blue camas and inky columbine.
Native fawn lilies, a favourite snack for black-tailed deer
I know this for sure. The snow drops are already unfurling, the nodding onions are up and nodding, the wild currant is in bloom, its snowy little blossoms erupting amid the small, defiant fists of green buds just beginning to unclench against a sombre backdrop of mountain rhododendrons. When this seasonal machinery clicks into gear there’s no stopping the momentum. I can set my calendar by it, give or take a few brief February snow storms. A week seems forever in the Twitterverse but on the celestial time scale it’s barely a blip.
This morning as I sat contemplating how to begin the piece I’d promised Focus on the rising tide of urban wildlife and how we respond to it, I reached for my coffee, looked up and found myself eye-to-eye with a doe, her delicate face pushed through the unappetizing fringe of bamboo we planted long ago precisely because deer won’t eat it.
Wild deer in the garden and browsing suburban boulevards are a common sight these days, and not just out here in the dishevelled hinterlands. They are seen among the most manicured of upscale and urbane flowerbeds.
To me the deer are a marvel, a reminder of our place not as rulers but as sharers of a natural world that includes them. To others, of course, they are a pest, invaders of the gardens that symbolize how we assert aggressive colonial control over the landscape, just as we do with our practice of naming streets, schools and public buildings after people who got rich and powerful by the very same colonial process that adulates them for exerting cultural, economic and political hegemony over the natural world.
Municipal councillors and the writers of compelling letters to the editor frequently characterize the phenomenon of urban wildlife as a problem of populations out of control almost everywhere. The urban deer are subversions of the natural balance, although that balance is entirely unnatural considered in the larger context.
Black-tailed Columbian deer hang out in a Rockland neighbourhood front yard. Are there as many as it seems?
Too many deer in Oak Bay eating the dahlias! Wild otters are devouring the introduced ornamental koi in a traditional Chinese garden in Vancouver! Too many yipping coyotes and growling raccoons menacing tourists in Stanley Park, itself a manufactured fabrication of the wild, built on the site of long-expunged indigenous villages and populated with imported non-native squirrels! Too many sea gulls in Victoria! Too many bears in North Vancouver! Too many noisy, stinky sea lions eating the salmon at Cowichan Bay! Too many elk in Youbou and Jasper! Too many wolves in Wyoming! Too many Canada geese just about everywhere there are Canada geese. Too many badgers and too many foxes in British cities. Too many monkeys in Hyderabad. The list is long.
A Roosevelt elk in a Youbou front yard
The migration of wildlife from backcountry to downtown is a global and continental phenomenon, one of the fascinating developments of the 21st Century.
“Synurbization” is the scientific term. It represents a growing recognition that cities themselves are a new evolutionary force, an explosion of new and strange types of artificial environments arising in the midst of natural landscapes to which wildlife had millions of years to adapt. Those are now under siege from resource exploitation, from commerce—ship noise is rendering some ocean tracts unendurable for marine wildlife—and from the expanding footprint of human population growth and its biggest doppelgänger, anthropogenic climate change. Now suddenly, in conjunction with dwindling native habitats there’s a portfolio of new ecological niches in urban environments for wild animals to occupy.
Why would that surprise anyone? We humans are part of the process. Human relocation from undeveloped hinterlands to constructed landscapes occurred first and represents one of the most rapid and extensive species migrations in the evolutionary record.
A century ago more than 80 percent of us lived rural lives, some of us hunters and gatherers—part of the natural ecosystem—others were agricultural intruders but still largely wedded to the natural cycles of those habitats. Today, fewer than 15 percent of British Columbians are rural inhabitants, and many of those are actually urban but on the scale of small towns instead of huge cities. It’s now the wild that intrudes into the domesticated and built spaces where most of us live and the wild is exotic.
It’s not just Bambi moving into your neighbourhood
Vancouver Island is an example of natural landscapes transformed by rapid human population expansion (almost a million people arrived in a brief century); vast industrial denuding of the original forest cover (over 80 percent of its old-growth forest cover has been removed); the altering of hydrology by damming of rivers, draining wetlands and carving through watersheds with a network of roads that now fragments about 67 percent of the landscape. Finally, urbanization itself in which 32 distinct population centres—one for every 1,000 square kilometres—create heat sinks, enmesh themselves in transportation grids, and transform the native flora and fauna with astonishing rapidity and reach.
For example, while Island wolf and cougar populations decline, domesticated canine and feline populations favoured by the colonizing human population, explode. It’s estimated that one in five households on Vancouver Island owns a dog. That math says we now have almost 400 domestic dogs for every remaining wild wolf. There are now more than 500 domestic felines for every bobcat or lynx—although we know almost nothing about these trace populations of small wild cats. We know more about cougars but even there the ratio is now roughly 118 domestic felines for each of the big predators.
Should a cougar, having had the ancient food sources in its natural habitat disrupted, start preying on the abundant domestic food source of dogs and cats, we are quick to call for conservation control which usually results in the killing of the cougar. One 2016 study of a 30-year data set found that in British Columbia more than 1,200 cougars—equal to more than 35 percent of the present provincial cougar population—were killed in conflicts with humans and their pets or livestock. Add hunting, trapping, road and train mortalities and it rises to 8,500.
This pattern is significant because it’s not just Bambi who’s moving into your neighbourhood, either. Deer moving uptown have brought company. Their main predator, the shy and reclusive cougar, has followed its principal food source. Media is now rife with sightings in back yards, on patios and even in downtown parking lots.
It’s something to contemplate when walking the dog off leash. If there are deer, there is most likely a cougar not far away, usually invisible but there, nonetheless, and while a human and a dog give it pause, a small dog alone in the underbrush might look more like an appetizing meal.
24 generations of fawns
I thought of that as I exchanged glances with the deer at my window.
I took note of the hand-sized discolouration on her right haunch. A couple of years ago she was one of a pair of fawns frisking around my back lawn. Now here she is, doubtless preparing to deliver another small spotted miracle, part of that larger cycle that surrounds us and to which too few of us pay much attention amid the distracted, increasingly frantic, sheer busyness of urban life.
“I know you!” I thought. Her large liquid-brown eyes implied the same recognition. We gazed at one another. Then she demurely withdrew, her hooves tick-tocking down the walk as she headed for the back garden.
I left my keyboard and followed to observe. She stopped to nibble the leaves of the old-fashioned stock that volunteers here and there. Some people are unenthusiastic about the dusty green straggle of leaves, spindly stems and unassuming flowers but I like them—they seem to survive just about everything. When you’re getting well into your eighth decade, the ability to endure and survive no matter what seems an increasingly admirable trait.
She moved on to sample the tender tips of the watershoots freshly pruned from the Cox’s Orange Pippin and the Sunrise apple trees, piled up awaiting their trip to the compost, turned her nose up at the thimbleberry canes with their still sparse buds—perhaps that’s part of their strategy, don’t put out your leaves until the rest of nature’s buffet is already stocked—looked over and dismissed the lavender, stopped to browse on new grass on the lawn and ambled off into the salal.
By my count, this will be the 24th generation of fawns to find safety in our backyard. Some of our neighbours are not so sanguine about the visitors. Fences have gone up, although as one bemused neighbour pointed out, your fence is not so hot if a deer gets inside and the dining options are suddenly restricted to your garden buffet until a breakout can be effected.
The bigleaf maple that towers over the western side of the yard—I love it for the stunning wall of wind music and visual texture it provides from May to October—has begun to dismantle the tree house we built almost 25 years ago for a long grown-up child, a reminder of nature’s relentless resilience.
Like other urban spaces we used to think of as belonging exclusively to people, the tree house has been repurposed by generations of raccoons. They use it as a nursery before trooping their little ones off into the wider world. Every few years we’re lucky enough to witness the procession. Not so lucky, perhaps, when they return to banquet in the grape arbour—they seem to have an unerring ability to arrive the night before I decide the fruit is finally sweet enough to harvest.
The other day we had a river otter cavorting outside our window—there’s a marsh across the road and the otters rear their pups up in frog hollow before migrating down a seasonal creek. It connects to the marsh through a culvert that provides safe passage under the road for mother and babies, and the creek bed leads to the beach.
Facts and context regarding Oak Bay’s deer population
There’s an irony here. Road safety for humans is often cited as a reason for stringent animal controls directed at deer. These range from simply killing them to trying to manage local populations with experiments in chemical sterilization.
Yet much of this deer anxiety seems misplaced. In Oak Bay, for example, where the rumpus over deer management has been prolonged and occasionally raucous, data gathered using GPS collaring and remote cameras in 2019 was able to identify a total population of as few as 72 deer, perhaps 128, mostly found in Uplands where there’s a large park—and big gardens—and the Royal Victoria Golf Course. This doesn’t exactly resemble the plague of black tailed locusts threatening to denude the landscape that some rhetoric suggests.
Preconceptions are a powerful engine of perceptions, though. Thus the insistence by suspicious municipal councillors and members of the public that the data is wrong and that deer populations are obviously out of control, destroying gardens and parks and creating traffic hazards.
And, of course, traffic safety is a genuine issue. It’s true that startled deer darting into a street or trapped on a highway by centre barriers can result in unwelcome collisions, most often fatal to the deer. But in risk analysis, perspective and context are everything.
Another comprehensive study of deer carcasses recovered in Oak Bay alone in 2017 estimated that about 30 had been victims of traffic. Deer, like people, die for many reasons. Some of natural causes, some from disease outbreaks—for example, the fast-moving epidemic of a hemorrhagic virus that’s recently been claiming deer in BC—some killed by dogs, some as a result of other injuries, and some by traffic accident. Police shot about 60 injured deer across the entire Capital Region in 2018, although it’s unclear how many were injured by traffic as opposed to dogs or traumatic accidents with fences or other urban infrastructure.
Context helps, though. We routinely euthanize deer injured by traffic because it’s more convenient. Humans we send to hospital emergency rooms.
Interestingly enough, about the same number of pedestrians as deer are struck by cars in Oak Bay in a given year according to the Insurance Company of BC’s data for the city. That’s the average tabulated by ICBC from the last five years. Twice as many cyclists—almost 60—suffer collisions with vehicles in an average year in Oak Bay. Considering that 78 percent of cyclists and 86 percent of pedestrians are injured in collisions with motor vehicles, fretting over the threat from and to urban deer seems a bit of a displaced moral panic.
Some complaints cite aggressive deer. This too is reasonable and true, particularly during the fall rutting season when large bucks can become assertive and territorial about their harems. In October 2016, a homeowner in Oak Bay reported a buck injuring a small dog that was on its own lawn and another woman jogging with her dog reported being knocked down by a buck.
A Black-tailed buck with a full set of antlers can be intimidating to some. But is it any more dangerous than a dog?
These are certainly alarming incidents for those involved, but once again there is a larger context to be considered. In fact, pedestrians and their dogs in Oak Bay are far more likely to be confronted and injured by another aggressive domestic dog than by a wild deer. Animal control agencies are not transparently proactive when it comes to records of dog bite incidents—nobody seems to want to pay for collection of the data—and the emphasis is on encouraging the adoption of pets in their custody. One can understand why dog bite statistics wouldn’t be top of the mind for adoption marketing, I suppose. But across the Capital Regional District, municipalities appear to average a dog bite incident every two days. The total number of dogs in Oak Bay hasn’t been consistently indexed, but based on one well-done 2012 study for a dog-owners’ association, there are about 12 dogs in the district for every deer.
Once again, context is everything. Based on the deer count from the 2019 study, the human population density of Oak Bay is about 1,710 people per square kilometre, the dog population is about 150 per square kilometre, the deer population is about 12 per square kilometre.
Comparing the risk from deer to the risk from fellow humans offers another perspective.
On average, calculating from crime rate indexes, there are about 80 criminal assaults a year in Oak Bay. This is extremely low compared to other places—the district remains one of the safest places to live in Canada.
However, the hazard residents face from their fellow citizens vastly exceeds any menace from deer. Despite concern about a perceived overpopulation of deer creating road hazards and menacing the public, in fact, Oak Bay residents face the same risk of colliding with a pedestrian, twice the risk of colliding with a cyclist or of being attacked by a fellow citizen or a pet dog and drivers face 10 times the risk of colliding with another car.
Deer population on Vancouver Island has collapsed
While there’s a perception that there’s an overabundance of urban deer, it masks another, more grim reality, which is that the native black-tailed deer population on Vancouver Island has collapsed.
Fifty years ago, the Island’s black-tailed deer were estimated to have numbered up to 350,000. Today the most optimistic estimates put that population at 60,000. More conservative estimates say it may be only 45,000—or fewer. In any event, over the past half century, for every two additional humans added to Vancouver Island’s population, four or more black-tailed deer were subtracted.
Vancouver Island has become a landscape of countless clearcuts that have greatly reduced and fragmented wildlife habitat, including for black-tailed deer. The clearcuts shown above are west of Victoria.
These declines were all forecast by wildlife biologists as the backcountry food supply was disrupted by industry. First there was a sudden increase in forage as old growth forests were rapidly logged. Then there was a sudden decrease in available forage as fast-growing second growth forests matured. Logging then moved into winter browsing areas. Urban footprints expanded.
Deer were never part of this social and economic equation. One particularly bitter winter about 100,000 starved to death without much notice by anyone.
The survivors voted with their hooves and began migrating into urban areas where there was better, more abundant browse.
Now, faced with an illusion of over-abundance where we’ve actually caused a catastrophic depletion, we’re attempting to dislodge that remnant population from its urban refuge.
I doubt it will work. It hasn’t worked elsewhere.
Maybe it’s us who should adapt
Culls almost always result in breeding rebounds. Relocations are thought more humane, but studiers show they initially result in 50 percent or greater mortality—and then survivors often return or are replaced by others who migrate inward from the margins. Reducing breeding through contraception will likely encourage more in-migration to maintain population equilibrium in exploiting the available ecological niche and besides, it doesn’t address complaints about garden browsing or traffic interactions.
Most urban complaints about deer and touted solutions are cosmetic. They have little to do with any comprehension of our place in and duty to the larger ecological framework. They are about perceived affronts to convenience and revolve around native deer browsing upon introduced ornamental flowers and exotic shrubs that symbolize the colonial order, the imposition of a sensibility from elsewhere upon what’s already here.
As mentioned, by my count this will be the 24th generation of fawns to find safety in our garden. I’m grateful for their presence, although it doesn’t come without adjustments. They love tulips, so those flowers are gone. They ate the Japanese holly to a nub, so it’s now in a pot on the deck where they can’t reach it, replaced by native Oregon grape.
Frankly, it’s not such a big deal for me. I like to garden but I’m less enamoured of the colonial footprint I’ve increasingly come to recognize. Deer have been evolving to adapt to North American landscapes for millions of years. It seems the height of hubris to be trying to eliminate deer for trying to adapt to the destructive changes we’ve made to their habitat in our brief sojourn. Maybe it’s us and not them who have the moral and ethical duty to adapt.
Got a photo or a galling, appalling or appealing story about your encounter with urban wildlife? Send it along. We’ll run the best of them here and offer modest book prizes for the five we like best, chosen entirely at the judges’ whim and not subject to appeal!
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.