Recently while I was driving along the winding roads and rolling hills of St.Johns I observed a herd of white-tail deer nonchalantly walk across the front lawn of someone’s house.
Two small fawns followed their mother, while the other deer, including a buck, seemed not in the least concerned by their proximity to human habitation.
Seeing deer in Pelham is of course by no means an uncommon occurence. In fact, chances are you are more likely to encounter deer today than 30, 50, or even 100 years ago.
This is owing to an explosion in the deer population of southern Ontario over the last several decades or so.
The underlying factors that have produced this dramatic increase in deer numbers are relatively straightforward.
The deer’s two major natural predators besides humans, wolves and cougars, have been largely extirpated from southern Ontario.
Other, less significant factors, such as an increase in farmland, may also have played a role in the deer’s population expansion.
However, the central factor is clear: the natural food chain has been disrupted.
Gray wolves and red wolves, historically native to southern Ontario, have long since been killed off.
The same was true of the eastern cougar, which as early as 1908 was listed as extirpated from the province.
Rampant hunting of these formidable predators, coupled with a destruction of their habitat, resulted in their populations declining to the point where both red wolves and eastern cougars reached the brink of extinction.
And with the deer’s major predators removed from the equation, nature’s checks on the deer population are absent. Thus, we have witnessed the skyrocketing of deer populations.
While cougars have started to re-establish themselves in the province, including Niagara, their numbers are nowhere near on par with historic levels, and they remain elusive and endangered. (See http://adamshoalts.com/cougars-resurgence-a-natural-success-story/).
Wolves are even worse off; virtually none are to be found in southern Ontario today, and the red wolf remains on the verge of extinction.
The most commonly proposed solution to the deer problem (overpopulation of deer can result in the destructions of farmers’ crops) is simply to increase the annual sport-hunting quota.
Other suggestions sometimes made in this neck of the woods is to permit hunting in Short Hills Provincial Park. That, however, would be an unwise and unsafe solution because of the likelihood of a hunting accident.
Slaughtering deer en masse is understandably not a popular proposal, nor an ideal one.
Ideally, in order to restore balance to the currently disrupted ecosystem, a reintroduction of predator speices that were formally killed off is required. This would repair the broken food chain.
When the requisite habitat exists, wolves can be successfully reintroduced to areas that they were extirpated from. This was proven with the successful re-introduction program of gray wolves from Alberta to Yellowstone National Park in the United States in the 1990s.
As well, wolves can in fact survive in areas that are heavily populated and lack major wilderness.
This is confirmed by the case of Iberian gray wolves and their adaption to urban development in their range. (See Blanco, Juan Carlos, et. al. “Wolf Response to two kinds of Barriers in Agricultural Habitat in Spain.” Canadian Journal of Zoology 83 (2005): 312-323.)
If humans lend a hand by not wantonly destroying natural habitat (i.e. through smart growth strategies, which also make much economical sense) and implement reforestation projects, (which Dalton McGuinty claims to be interested in) then it is not inconceivable that wolf and cougar populations could return to healthy levels across Ontario.
There is no need to fear wolf or cougar attacks on humans; despite folklore and popular perceptions, such attacks are exceedingly rare.
People would do well to remember that this earth belongs to animals as much as humans, and I for one truly believe that we should make amends for past transgressions.
However, I regret to say that barring a miracle, readers can rest assured that no politician with enough gusto and foresight is likely to emerge on the political landscape to carry through such an initiative any time soon.