The most significant issue in Australian conservation and land management in recent memory is unfolding before us with the unprecedented scale and impact of bushfires across eastern Australia over the 2019–2020 summer.
Despite all of that, while fires continue to burn and to threaten life and property, the news cycle has largely moved on as life in the cities returns to its usual frenetic pace after the summer break.
From an ecological perspective, the story is grim — while there has been a heavy news and public focus on relatively abundant charismatic megafauna like eastern grey kangaroos and common wombats, countless species of birds, reptiles, insects and plants have been pushed by these fires, if not to extinction, to its precipice.
The human cost is also substantial. Lives have been lost, homes destroyed and entire communities are facing the impacts of crippling loss of revenue as the peak tourist season was all but cancelled.
While the culture wars are being fuelled by the assignment of blame, local communities, land managers and naturalists are left to try to pick up the pieces.
As the leading advocates for deer management in Australia, the ADA needs to consider the impacts of wild deer and of deer hunting in what is a dramatically changed paradigm in much of the traditional deer range.
We know hunting is an important economic driver for a number of the fire-affected communities — government studies in Victoria, NSW and federally have proven this fact without a doubt. It is important hunters return to these areas when it is safe to do so with full wallets and empty Eskies.
We also know fire can play a significant role in the dispersal and fecundity of wild deer and, in the right numbers in the wrong places, that wild deer can have an unacceptable deleterious impact on environmental and agricultural assets.
The Australian Deer Association is actively involved in wild deer management across Australia.
Our interest and expertise extends far beyond simply pulling a trigger.
It’s easy enough to describe the “problem” — the challenge is to first articulate, then execute on, practical, workable and realistic solutions.
The opportunity for all stakeholders in wild deer (particularly governments) right now is to do something real about wild deer management.
A well-resourced, strategic post bushfire deer management plan, if implemented now, could set the stage for far more sustainable wild deer populations going into the future — after 20 years, or more, of gradually losing control of wild deer management, there is a rare and slim opportunity to get ahead of the curve.
Such an approach perhaps won’t serve the short-termism of three- or four-year government cycles, but, it will serve the interests of our forests, of agriculture and of the broader community (including hunters) for a generation or more.
We believe all management programs (whether they are using volunteers or paid shooters) should be underpinned by solid data to quantify the problem, a clear understanding of what needs to be achieved, appropriate resourcing to ensure targets can be met, and continuous monitoring and review to ensure that programs are meeting expectations. In almost all instances, this should include monitoring of vegetation, monitoring of deer abundance and, in the case of programs utilising volunteers, monitoring of volunteer sentiment.
Before public resources are expended on programs some simple questions should be asked and answered, such as:
- Is the problem clearly quantified?
- Is there a clear understanding of what is required to address the problem?
- Is the treatment possible/feasible through simply opening the area in question to recreational hunting?
- Is there robust monitoring of all species of wildlife involved in the undesired impact?
- Is there robust monitoring of the asset that is being impacted?
- Is there adequate resourcing to achieve the desired outcomes?
- Is there monitoring of stakeholder sentiment?
In the scale of the issue we are looking at, there also needs to be a clear assessment of the application of resources according to the greatest need.
Whilst there will be a temptation to treat all deer and all places as equal, the cold hard reality is that such an approach will inevitably deliver little in the way of tangible, lasting results.
In New Zealand, ongoing management of wild sika deer to acceptable densities is achieved using helicopter culling above a density threshold and recreational hunting as the management tool below that threshold. This approach allows for resources to be applied for best use and for both hunters and regional economies to benefit from the recreational opportunity.
There will likely be a temptation to roll out helicopter-based culling in burnt areas with little understanding of the long-term goals and consequences — this method of control is both highly effective (in that it gets lots of animals dead in a short period of time) and highly expensive. Consequently, risk averse (and resource poor) land managers tend to report ‘success’ based on a ‘catch per unit of effort’ equation or, even more crudely, on the basis of raw numbers shot. Without a clear understanding of purpose of the exercise, of the ‘deer/damage relationship’ and without ongoing monitoring and, potentially, follow ups with ground shooting etc. it is highly likely that large sums of money will be spent, at best, on pure speculation and short-term headlines.
Control efforts need to be specifically targeted at high-value assets and sustained over years — otherwise it’s little more than a PR exercise.
Practical measures governments should take now to set deer management in burnt areas on the best path are:
- An assessment of the likely available resources for deer management over the next five years (financial and human).
- An assessment of the priorities for management action based on a realistic understanding of resourcing — focus should be on high-value environmental assets and vulnerable agricultural assets.
- An empowerment of agencies to take a tenure blind approach as far as is practicable (it should be non-negotiable when it comes to public land tenure).
- A commitment to regular and transparent monitoring.
Yes, it will cost money, but not doing it will cost considerably more in the next two decades. A stitch in time saves nine.
Reading and resources:
The Forest Deer Project; Max Downes, 1983
Effects of large-scale high-severity fire on occupancy and abundances of an invasive large mammal in south-eastern Australia; Forsyth et al, 2012
Can recreational hunting contribute to pest mammal control on public land in Australia?; Bengsen & Sparkes, 2016
Hunter led approach leads the way for wild Sika deer management in New Zealand,