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Who's passing the buck with Pennsylvania's deer problem?

By Bob Frye
Penn State University Press, 328 pages, $29.95 (paperback)

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In a culture where people consider rain a nuisance, it's no surprise we are drowning in deer. Divorced from the land, we see in thunderstorms not a life-sustaining force but soaked cuffs and spoiled picnics. Likewise, we regard Pennsylvania's white-tail deer less as part of an ecosystem than as a symbol of our desires about what "nature" owes us: scenery, amusement, a trophy. For a few human predators, deer mean meat, or hide. But even hunters who consider themselves part of the food chain can miss the bigger picture about what it means to have too many deer on not enough land.

In Deer Wars: Science, Tradition, and the Battle Over Managing Whitetails in Pennsylvania, author Bob Frye doesn't get all philosophical on you. But in tirelessly tracking the issue's multiple aspects, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review outdoors editor both ably informs the perennial debate over our dubious co-existence with white-tails and leaves us pondering larger questions.

Deer Wars will most interest outdoorspeople and environmentalists; for many, the book's detail on such topics as the history of deer management might prove daunting. But anyone who cares about nature in Pennsylvania should read at least the first few chapters. There, Frye explains why deer are considered not just dangerous to the suburban gardens they treat like salad bars, but the top threat to forest regeneration in the state.

When Europeans arrived here, in the 1600s, the area's deer population was modest, held in check by wolves, cougar and Native Americans, and by an old-growth-forest environment harboring little of the browse white-tails love. Over a couple centuries, the woods were leveled and the deer -- remarkable as it might seem now -- hunted to near-extinction in Pennsylvania.

Then two things happened: Deer were imported to renew the population, and new-growth forest -- full of deer-friendly undergrowth and empty of nonhuman predators -- proliferated. By the 1920s, the white-tail population was doubling every couple years. The first warnings that deer were too numerous followed shortly.

If today we can't find a "balance" between healthy woods and urban sprawl, between sustainable deer populations and hunters' expectations, it's not just because humans have, perhaps irrevocably, altered the landscape. It's also because we've never seen an environment that looks like it ought.

Asked to name their state's top environmental problems, many Pennsylvanians would list -- accurately -- acid mine drainage, the loss of wild places and cropland to subdivisions, commerce and roads, and polluted runoff from farmland itself. Few would name white-tails. They are, after all, the state's official animal.

But as Frye shows, a deer population past 1.5 million and growing means, for one, more sick, starving and dead deer. It means more crops eaten, and more animals in road accidents that can prove deadly to hooved mammals and humans alike. (Roadkill-deer mortality is huge; Frye convincingly estimates 100,000 annually.) And it means that forests can grow only foliage deer spurn -- ferns, especially, and black cherry -- and never the sort of hardwoods or dense underbrush necessary for other creatures to survive, not to mention for diverse, healthy woodlands.

Stewardship of deer belongs to the state's Game Commission, which has regarded hunting as the best population control. (Frye might rile advocates of artificial birth-control for deer: He finds little evidence that it's effective or practical.) But it's in the relationship between hunters and the authority that licenses them that Frye identifies the real problem. Traditional Game Commission policy led to overpopulation; in turn, hunters -- whose fees provide the Commission's only revenue -- have resisted changes in that misguided policy.

A signal issue is the shooting of does. Once, the practice was prohibited, to permit the deer population to recover. Hunters here came to regard shooting does as prelude to a new extinction, and to consider big-racked bucks the only game worth bagging. But while shooting does is now permitted -- as a way to curb overbreeding -- many hunters shun the practice. Indeed, if the anti-hunters Frye interviews come off as ignorant or in denial about the damage deer cause, some hunting activists betray a certain supermarket mentality: Game Commission attempts to thin the herd raise the hackles of hunters trained by experience and decades of lore to expect deer thick as flies. Anything resembling a sustainable deer population would strike many hunters as unacceptably slim pickings.

Frye's approach to this contentious, complicated material is as humble as it is affable. His workmanlike prose is informed by his experience as a lifelong hunter and outdoorsman (he's not yet 40) -- but mostly by his willingness to listen to anyone with an opinion or a scintilla of authority on the subject. Occasionally Frye tests reader patience with an extended anecdote about his adventures researching the book, or an overly detailed bio of an interview subject. But he more than compensates with material including accounts of the low-key, nearly secret programs to remove deer from urban areas: by Fox Chapel Borough police sharpshooters, for instance, and by a hired gun -- a deer assassin -- in Philadelphia's sprawling Fairmount Park.

The politics of Pennsylvania's deer problem, Frye reports, resolve to a gap between what hunters want -- plentiful game, sociable good times -- and what the Game Commission wants them for: white-tail population control. Fixes include reforming hunting rules, and changing both hunter attitudes and the public's attitude toward hunters and deer alike.

But Deer Wars also alerts us to larger problems of public awareness. Our sense of nature's prerogatives is warped by technology: We live in Pennsylvania, yet expect fresh strawberries on Groundhog Day. Some deer hunters, I've read, leave their prey's gut piles not to decompose in the woods, but in plastic bags, as though awaiting scheduled runs by forest sanitation crews. The buck in the crosshairs on the cover of Frye's useful book notwithstanding, the real war is not with deer, but with ourselves.

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