One of the most ecologically sound approaches, depending on the available habitat, is to reintroduce or support the recovery of native predator populations. But where that’s practically or politically impossible, the options on the table are traditional hunting, culling by sharpshooters, and fertility control. In a 2020 paper, Texas A&M University environmental ethicist Clare Palmer and coauthors suggest that the last of these might be best “in terms of deer welfare,” but “in terms of naturalness, lethal control may have the edge,” because it’s similar to predation. Limited resources might also tip the scales toward lethal control, because it’s cheaper and logistically simpler. But, Palmer and the others write, “there is no simple or single answer as to what constitutes ‘ethical management.’”
One thing is clear: it’s unethical to do nothing. “If you’re worried about ecosystems,” Palmer says, “it seems like that’s a reason to reduce the deer population. If you’re worried about human welfare, given the ways we live, it seems like that’s a reason to reduce the deer population. If you’re worried about animal welfare, it seems like that’s a reason to reduce the deer population.”
“Traditionally, conservation and preservation has been all about not intervening,” she concludes. But with the additional pressures of climate change, “interventionist conservation seems much more pressing.”
On Staten Island, a borough of half a million people, city officials ultimately chose a vasectomy program. They felt it would be more humane and less controversial than killing deer through an organized cull, and it was cheaper than ovariectomies. By 2020’s close, a team of veterinarians had sterilized 93 percent of the estimated 1,719 male deer on Staten Island, at a cost of US $6.6-million. As white-tailed deer have an average lifespan of 10 years, it will take at least a decade to gauge the effects. Still, over a four year period, the deer population dropped from 2,053 to 1,555, and both vehicle collisions and Lyme disease infections declined.
In the end, such choices are often more political than ethical. James Oddo, past president of Staten Island Borough, initially supported a cull, but got behind the vasectomy option because it “was the path of least resistance,” he told the Staten Island Advance. “Proponents will argue it was the only way to do something sooner rather than later because we knew a cull would eventually involve litigation. The money that was spent gave the city the plausible deniability to say we did something.”
Back in British Columbia, six kilometres north of D’Arcy Island, I wade after Tara Martin through understory thick and green. We’re traversing another small island in the Salish Sea, beneath a similar canopy of oak and fir, but here a profusion of herbs and plump oceanspray—along with seedlings, saplings, and adolescent trees—rises all around us. Unlike the stand of the living dead on D’Arcy Island, this small, fully functioning forest has a brighter future in store.
There’s a certain swagger in Martin’s step as she shows off the place. Uninhabited SISȻENEM [cease-kwa-nem] Island is one of the few islands in her study area that doesn’t have deer, due to swift local currents. Thanks in part to her work behind the scenes, the Land Conservancy of British Columbia, a nonprofit, charitable trust, purchased the island from a private seller in 2021 and is in the process of transferring it back to the local W̱SÁNEĆ [wh-say-nech] First Nations. A loose translation of SISȻENEM means “sitting out for pleasure of the weather.” The island is, Martin says, one of the last examples of what this coast once looked like and could resemble again.
And now she picks up the pace. It’s clear she’s saved the best for last. She leads me from the cool, green shadows into a floral fireworks display that runs the gamut from snow white to butter yellow, hot pink to pale lilac, and violet to cobalt blue. Below the flicker of butterflies and the hum of countless bees is a wonderland thicket of flowering plants with some individuals over 100 years old and over a meter high.