In the vast landscape of Yellowstone National Park, a wide variety of animals and plants make up the ecosystem. In an environment such as this, for years the course of nature ebbs and flows as the parks rivers do, changing and evolving with time. The predators eat the pray, the trees grow and the rivers furrow their course across the valleys. Each species balanced by the wise hand of nature. In Yellowstone National Park the previously native wolves had been hunted and killed.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, as westward expansion brought hoards of people to the plains of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, ranches were established and domestic livestock raised.
In the presence of wolves, whos natural prey had been diminished, the livestock became food for these hungry creatures. Angry with the loss of their domestic stock, people began to eliminate the predators to ensure the protection of their stock as well as better access to the more desirable wildlife, the deer and elk (Wolf Restoration).
Since the predator had been diminished from the ecosystem of this area, there was nothing besides the humans to keep the system in ballance. In 1874 the last pack of wolves had been killed and the grey wolf was listed as an endangered species (wolf restoration). The valleys of Yellowstone were grazed to the ground, the vegetation nearly gone.
Without the vegetation smaller animals began to disappear as their homes vanished. The riverbeads began to erode with little roots systems to hold them together (Agnos).
In 1995 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in an attempt to rebalance the devastated ecosystem. Packs of grey wolves began again to inhabit the National Park and not only did the ecosystem alter but the landscape changed. The wolves killed some of the deer and elk but more importantly they changes the way these animals behaved, the deer stopped congregating in the valleys and gorges, they avoided the open areas the the wolves could more easily reach them.
In doing this, the vegetation was allowed to grow back, the trees began to grow at rates unheard of for years. In the absence of the herds of deer and elk, the other elements of the ecosystem began to come back, flowers grew, providing food for the smaller animals, which provided food for the foxes, badgers, coyotes and so many more (Agnos). Humans had tried to interfere with the natural environment both to benefit themselves and in an attempt to balance an ecosystem that they believed was unbalanced. In altering the landscape, the other parts of this environment were destroyed. The wolves and other predators that had before ended the lives of a few deer were in fact allowing the life of thousands of others.
Nature has a way of balancing itself out and often when we humans try to interfere, it ends up worse than it was before. There are many ways in which human civilization interferes with wild animals and their habitats. From pure destruction of habitat to subtle interference with natural ecosystems. In the case of Yellowstone National Park, the elimination of natural predators allowed the growth in population of one species which prevented the growth and survival of many others. While it can seem that predators kill animals they are actually doing much more in creating niches for others to thrive. Natural predators can also maintain the health of the very species that they hunt.
One example of this is the Kaibab Plateau in Northern Arizona, near the Grand Canyon nature preserve. In the plains of the Kaibab Plateau, it was forbidden to hunt the local mule deer and all of the predators of this species were systematically removed in a human attempt to preserve the mule deer species. The population of mule deer in 1906 was estimated to be around 3,000 to 4,000, but the population had nearly reached 100,000 by 1924 (Swank). By removing the natural predators and providing what seemed to be the perfect conditions for these animals, they were indeed preserved, in fact they flourished for quite some time. By the time the population of mule deer had reached the high numbers of 100,000 by 1924, there began to be a problem.
The fauns of each generation were rapidly dying and it looked as though soon the species numbers would plummet. In this seemingly perfect environment had one fault, in eliminating any possible predators to the deer their population had indeed exploded, but in doing so they has maxed out their food supply. By 1924 the entire platteau was decimated, its vegetation demolished and all because of an attempt to increase the population of the mule deer.
Again humans had to intervene to save the species in Kaibab that they had endangered. Now it is just as possible to endanger a species and/or its surrounding species without directly removing its predators. In unintentionally creating an environment where a species is protected from its natural predators, the course of nature is just as disturbed. When a development is created that allows the primary consumer in and blocks the tertiary or secondary consumer, the same effect is created as in Kaibab or Yellowstone; the natural predator no longer consumes the primary consumer. These situations usually arise in retirement communities, towns or cities with few people, abundant flora and slow traffic speeds. Rick Mraz from the Department of Ecology says that retirement communities often attract species such as deer and elk.
The community feels a “sense of peace and tranquility with the deer” as Rick says, they enjoy seeing these animals in their backyard, especially if you grew up in a more urban area. These “charismatic megafauna” are often loved by their community, as at first it’s like being in a zoo. These less developed areas attract the deer and the relaxed nature of their lives is evident. Rick says that the health of the deer is shown through the amount of babies they have —twins or even triplets means very healthy does—and the size of their antlers. As a general rule, when deer per square mile is more than 15-20, the surrounding ecosystem is in danger of degradation. Today the deer per square mile is in the hundreds is some places (Revkin).
After the population of these animals grows due to the protection from predators, the gardens of the community are destroyed and the danger of herds of wildlife roaming the town becomes a factor of life. Port Townsend, Washington is a prime example of the perfect conditions for the overpopulation of deer. With an approximately 9.5 sq mile area there were 236 deer counted, give or take, as of 2016, meaning that for every square mile there are 25 deer, far over the number safe for the surrounding ecosystem. Doria Gordon from the Environmental Defence fund located in Washington D.C talks about the large ramifications that even small changes in the ecosystem can have. Not only do invasive species, when overpopulated, devastate the native vegetation but they also endanger rarer species. In forested areas the deer eat are “suppressing forest regeneration because they eat the woody seedlings trying to establish, which can facilitate invasion by aggressive non-native species and other species deer don’t like to eat.”
Deer also tend to eat rarer species such as orchids and lilies, thus further endangering these plants. While deer overpopulation is a problem for the local plants it is also a danger to the people of the community. Deer are hosts for deer ticks which harbor Lyme disease. Deer also cause significant damage as they move in herds through neighborhoods and often across roads. The deer are “struck by cars, trucks and motorcycles more than a million times a year, with the accidents killing more than 100 people annually and causing more than $1 billion in damage. The human toll makes deer deadlier than sharks, alligators, bears and rattlesnakes combined” (Revkin). In a small town such as Port Townsend, this is a growing issue.
The deer not only irritate Port Townsend’s residents, but they are a serious danger to the health and safety of the people. As populations grow, something must be done to prevent the demolition of the ecosystem of Port Townsend, and the further expansion of this invasive species. Especially in Port Townsend, sustainable agriculture is a high priority. Walking through uptown, nearly every home has some sort of garden, it looks as though the temperate weather and hippy farmers create an ease and simplicity in gardening. Look closer and you will see that every garden is also surrounded with a 10 foot tall fence, and many of the gardens are not filled with edibles but instead carefully selected plants immune to the desire of the local deer. These are usually non-native plants that deer do not particularly enjoy. It is a regular topic of conversation here in Port Townsend, everyone, no matter the height of their fence, has frequently faced the frustrations of a ruined garden.
While this may seem a trivial issue, a simple inconvenience, it is more than that. It is vastly important to have a way to support yourself, the deer of Port Townsend prevent or greatly hinder the accessibility of many to have a garden to grow their own food. While it is an ecological problem, there are still many who adore these deer, many who feed and protect the town’s deer population. In an effort to appease this portion of the town’s inhabitants there are other solutions to the problem that do not involve killing the excess deer. While it is neither legal nor widely accepted, hunting the deer in Port Townsend seems to be the most logical solution to this problem. In a world largely populated with starving people, it seems that this overabundance of available food should be donated to local food banks and put toward feeding the hungry.
But, not to worry you deer lovers out there, there is still another option to save the ecosystem and curb the deer-caused destruction. There is a vaccine similar to the effective Zonastat-H vaccine, used to humanely control wild horse populations in the past. This vaccine has been adapted for deer population management; porcine zona pellucida (PZP). PZP ”blocks fertilization by triggering the production of antibodies that bind to the protein envelope surrounding the egg” (Block). This vaccine has been proven to be effective, and is deemed safe for use by the EPA. PZP has been administered to hundreds of deer and is repeatedly proven to be safe for the animals as well as those eating them, as PZP does not pass through the food chain (Block). In previous experiments the vaccine reduces the rate of birth in deer by 85-90%. PZP is initially found in the ovaries of pigs.
Zona pellucida (ZP) proteins gather around the unfertilized eggs of all female mammals. In order to fertilize the egg, the sperm from the male must attach to the ZP protein.. When the ZP proteins from a pig (PZP) are injected into a female animal, antibodies are produced. These pig antibodies attach to the animals ovaries (ZP proteins) and prevent the sperm from fertilizing the egg (Block). This contraceptive must be administered in booster shots every two years after the initial vaccination. This problem could be solved temporarily until a more permanent solution can be administered. Since the most recent deer count was in 2016, the current number of deer in Port Townsend could very well have changed by now, but here is an approximation.
Each dose costs approximately $10 to $25. Going with the 236 deer provided, it could cost be between $2,500 and $5,900 per year to vaccinate the females (~½ of the population). This calculation assumes that the community would be willing to assist with administering the contraceptive. With the $50,000 provided, it would be possible to diminish the population by a significant amount, hopefully enough to convince the community to fundraise enough to continue booster shots. With the highest calculation of $5,900 per year, $50,000 would allow over eight years of vaccinations. This would be enough time to significantly reduce the deer population.
Not only would the population of does that needed booster shots shrink as time went on, allowing even more years worth of money for the vaccine, but by the time eight years have passed, the overpopulation issue will have significantly changed, possibly solving the problem. After the deer begin to thin, the fences come down, the gardens grow and the balance is restored. After eight years who knows, maybe our rivers will change as well. Maybe the gloriously beautiful seaport town that is Port Townsend will evolve into an even more beautiful, healthy and lush landscape. Maybe new species will arrive in the newly created niches, new vegetation will grow in the freedom of less deer. Maybe new gardens and more food will erupt as the fences protecting every garden are no longer the only solution to the struggle for self sustainability.