The point of having a strategy is that you look beyond the here and now and set actions in place which will, all things being equal, serve you well in the long term.
Victoria should have a deer management strategy in place to guide management efforts by now. It should have been in place before the summer bushfires and it certainly should have been in place long before our lives were put on pause to deal with COVID-19.
A Victorian deer management strategy has been committed to, developed, consulted on and drafted. It is not in place now because the Victorian Government seems unable to reconcile the ideological wants of some vocal lobby groups with the practicalities of an evidence based, pragmatic and realistic approach to deer management.
The draft strategy is a part of Victoria’s Sustainable Hunting Action Plan. It is a part of an objective entitled “Ensuring sustainable hunting” and it directs government agencies to “Develop a deer management strategy that sets a strategic plan to maintain sustainable hunting opportunities while reducing the impact of deer on biodiversity on all land tenures in the state”. In the lead up to the 2018 State election, the Government re-committed to the plan, stating “The draft Deer Management Strategy recognises the important role hunters have in managing deer numbers”.
The problem that a strategy would seek to direct solutions for is very real. Wild deer populations have increased significantly in Victoria over the past decade and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The impacts of the summer bushfires will only exacerbate this. This growth will vary from species to species and bioregion to bioregion. The impacts of wild deer will vary too, ecologically, economically and agriculturally. In some places the impacts will be relatively benign, in some they will be extreme. Not all of the impacts will be negative; deer hunting delivers economic and social benefits across regional Victoria. In 2013, the economic impact of deer hunting in Victoria was estimated at $142 million and deer hunters supported more than one thousand jobs – deer hunter numbers have increased by 65% since that time.
In 2018, Victoria’s recreational deer hunters killed 121,000 wild deer. The majority of them on public land. Contrary to a well-worn misconception about hunters only targeting male deer, harvest data consistently shows a statistically significant sex bias favouring females. This harvest has an ecological impact, it is not well or easily quantified and, like the impacts of the deer itself, it varies from species to species and biosphere to biosphere. A detailed examination of the role of hunting in 2016 urged governments to take a more strategic approach to managing recreational hunting for ecological benefit.
In economic terms, if you were to attempt the replicate Victoria’s recreational deer harvest with aerial culling, the cost would be in excess of $15 million per year – the equivalent of the cost of building one new state of the art hospital every decade.
A sticking point for the opponents of the deer management strategy is the status of wild deer as a game animal. It’s a nonsensical hang-up. Game licencing is a means of managing hunters, not wildlife. In the four States of Australia where game licencing systems are present, regulators have contact with hunters to disseminate important messages, administer testing and collect important data on effort, observations and morphology. In the jurisdictions with no game licencing, government agencies are flying blind.
In Victoria, game licencing poses no practical impediment to humane overabundant deer control. The most significant ‘protector’ of wild deer, by far, is land tenure. The noisy ideologues who are obsessed with the semantics on game licencing either don’t understand the practicalities, or simply ignore them in favour of well-worn jingles.
As hunters, we don’t 'own' the conversation about wild deer and wild deer management. It is absolutely shared with land managers, environmentalists, agriculturalists, regional residents and government. We are however the largest single interest group in wild deer, we are the ones who advocated for this strategy and we are the dominant players in wild deer control. We go to great lengths to work with any stakeholder who is focused on outcomes, who is prepared to deal in evidence, who looks at the bigger picture and who accepts that none of us can expect to get everything that we want.
If the roadblock to delivering the strategy was based on a genuine deficiency or impediment to control we could work productively to overcome it. Given that it’s purely ideological, and that it seeks to damage the interests of 40,000 recreational hunters for no practical gain there really is nowhere we can go to appease this small, but influential subset of stakeholders.
The Victorian Government needs to simply stand up to the bullies who are trying to de-rail this strategy and get on with implementing their clearly stated commitments.