PARK WATCH June 2018 |

Victoria’s deer management strategy can and should include real answers to the deer problem, says Phil Ingamells.

Deer are creating havoc in our natural areas. The problem will have to be faced on a series of fronts, but strategies can be developed for all of them if the will is there. And despite some bizarre legal confusion, the law is largely on our side.

Let’s start with the problem

In the 19th century a few deer were introduced to south-eastern Australia for sport. But the descendants of that original population have multiplied spectacularly in the last decade or so. Something like one million deer are currently chewing their way through Victoria.

They eat and trample a wide range of vegetation; snap off shrubs and young saplings; ring-bark trees by ‘antler rubbing’; and make large wallows in wet areas. In many places where volunteers have worked for decades revegetating stream-sides and linking landscape corridors, that work is now trashed.

Our main invaders are sambar deer, which dominate in the east of the state but also now turn up along the Murray, the Otways and in the Prom. Largely a tropical animal in their native habitat in India and parts of Asia, sambar will inevitably spread throughout northern Australia if they are not controlled here. Easily increasing their population by around 40 per cent a year, sambar are as damaging as cane toads or red fire ants, and warrant at least the same level of attention.

Other deer in Victoria include red (mainly in the Grampians), hog (the Prom and east coast), fallow (farm escapes in many places), chital and rusa.

Around 60 native plants are now significantly threatened by deer, and more than a dozen state or federally listed vegetation communities are being brought close to the brink.

Growing deer populations are also causing havoc on our roads.

What solutions are currently on offer?

The deer hunters’ solution is to increase the area hunters can operate in. It’s an apparently compelling argument, given that the latest estimate from the Game Management Authority has 35,000 hunters taking about 100,000 deer a year from the 8.5 million hectares of public land they currently have at their disposal.

But the deer population keeps growing, partly because we’ve reached a point where population increases far exceed any huntable amount, and partly because amateur hunting is unstrategic, randomly reducing deer numbers in easily accessible areas, and pushing them into new areas.

Parks Victoria currently runs a number of trials with ‘accredited amateurs’, who volunteer to work strategically under the guidance of park managers. These programs are good, but limited in extent. They result in very small deer reduction numbers.

One research program they are running in the Alpine National Park compares the effectiveness of an accredited amateur operation with another run by professionals. The results of that are trial are a little way off, but there are many things we know already.

Professional pest controllers are highly skilled and experienced, and can work in relatively inaccessible areas. They also have access to a range of specialist weapons and have permits (such as night shooting and use of silencers) that aren’t available to amateurs, enabling more strategic, effective and humane control.

Parks Victoria is about to trial aerial shooting of deer around the Alpine National Park’s Mt Howitt area, using experienced New South Wales operators. And there are plans to erect expensive deer-proof fences around a few highly vulnerable research plots on the Bogong High Plains.

But what we really need is a solidly funded commitment to remove of all deer from the alpine region.

Canada is currently spending $5.7 million bringing highly skilled aerial sharp-shooters all the way from New Zealand to eradicate introduced deer on their west coast Haida Gwaii islands.

It will take serious investment to deal with Victoria’s problem, but given the potential for all of our deer species to invade most of the nation, a significant contribution from the federal government would seem an obvious option.

Research is a must

While industry leaders talk about the ‘innovation nation’, current pest animal controls to protect our conservation estate are largely small advances on 19th century techniques. Investment in a range of research options is essential, and should include:

  • Development of a humane and effective deer-specific bait, preferably one that first puts deer to sleep. This should include development of a delivery system targeted to deer, perhaps also using species recognition software.
  • Research into biological controls.
  • Options for genetic controls.
  • Development of pheromones, or scents, to keep deer away from small and hard to protect, highly sensitive, areas.

Developing Management Zones

As with most land management strategies, there will be different priorities in different places. The easy option, discussed in some circles, would be to leave deer where they are and just try to stop them gaining new ground, but that would be an unconscionable surrender.

We need to prioritise serious management in:

  • National and state parks and other areas clearly designated for nature conservation.
  • High priority ecosystems (Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act and Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act listed Ecological Vegetation Classes at a minimum).
  • Peri-urban areas, where public safety and biodiversity are both big issues.
  • Many roadsides, where safety is an increasing problem.

Importantly, we must allow deer populations to be managed by professionals, including within the 8.5 million hectares now allocated to amateur hunters.

What about protecting the hunting experience?

So far, most deer strategies and investigations in Victoria have talked about maintaining ‘sustainable hunting’, as if deer hunting is the thing facing extinction. It’s not, of course.

And while those on the nature conservation side of the issue are asked for evidence-based assessments of plants, animals and vegetation communities at risk, there is little such obligation on the recreation side. There is no definition, for example, of exactly what the hunting experience is that we are being asked to protect, and how many deer are actually necessary to maintain the experience.

Many older hunters miss the time when they would have to track a deer through the bush for days, matching their skills against the tricks of a wary stag. Opportunities for that experience would presumably increase with a reduction in deer population densities.

There are also significant public amenity and safety issues with any expansion of deer hunting, and the apparently growing number of rogue shooters acting illegally.

Aren’t deer protected by law?

Not really. They are given protection as a game species in Victoria’s Wildlife Act (i.e. protected for amateur hunters to shoot them), but that’s not all the Act says. Farmers can now shoot deer invading their property, and deer damaging public land can be destroyed under an ‘Authority to Control Wildlife Permit’. Parks Victoria can, and does, shoot deer under such permits.

There is ample legal incentive to put deer control permits into action across the state. In 2007, sambar deer were listed as a ‘potentially threatening process’ under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act. That listing cites 12 state or federally listed ecological communities being damaged by sambar, from lowland rainforest communities to alpine peatbeds and fens, as well as 13 rare or threatened native plants.

Since that 2007 listing our knowledge of plants threatened by sambar has grown considerably: around 65 at last count.

Then there is the National Parks Act, which unambiguously requires the government to “exterminate or control exotic fauna”, and to “have regard to all classes of management actions that may be implemented for the purposes of maintaining and improving the ecological function” of national and state parks.

Last but not least, the International Convention on Biological Diversity, signed in 1992 and ratified in 1993, obliges the federal government to “prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species”.

That should be a compelling trigger for federal funding for immediate action on deer, and urgent research into future management options.

It’s high time the Wildlife Act was changed to remove any semblance of protection for deer in Victoria (such as bag limits), to end confusion over their status and reduce red tape.

But we don’t need to wait for any change in the law to act decisively on the deer problem.

A draft Deer Management Strategy for Victoria is due to be released for public comment in June or July this year.


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