Nature Has Antlers

Field Notices
    antler at work
Luther College Chips
October 18, 2007

      Near the end of September, a lilac sapling in my yard got all but a quarter-inch-wide strip of its bark torn off by a White-tail deer.

    The deer was doing what White-tail bucks do in September. He was rubbing the antler-producing velvet off his rack: the deer equivalent of cleaning the rust off a bayonet before battle.

    Deer, by the way, are herbivores, but even herbivores compete. Bucks fight with each other. But mainly deer take their toll on, well, herbs.

    Aldo Leopold once said that what a mountain most fears are the teeth of an overpopulation of deer, stripping away the tender layers of vegetation that hold its thin soil in place. The sapling in my yard has now developed a case of deer phobia too.

    The lilac’s fate is part of a sad pattern. The tree was a gift from my neighbor at the death of my father, a man who loved trees but had a rough time of it when it came to deer.

    My father had a big open field in which he kept trying to establish a grove of trees. For the last ten years of his life, the bucks in his pasture were so efficient at scraping the bark off saplings that their antlers pretty much stopped my father’s grove in its infant tracks.

    So in the battle between the Bucks and Dad the 100 to 1 score is now 101 to 0.

    There’s this to say for bucks, however. Their rack-cleaning is a natural disruption: one of nature’s ways of pruning, trimming, and clearing. If the baby lilac survives, its growth could be stimulated by the challenge.

    Or, more likely, the lilac might die because the challenge is more than its young system can take. In that case, disruption opens up space for something new to grow. In my lawn: grass.

    But in the cold months ahead, deer switch from needing grass to needing trees to survive. If it thins away too many trees in this green season a deer faces lean times in the snowy, dormant months ahead when it might eat close to ten pounds of buds and twigs a day to stay warm and healthy.

    Thinking about this delicate balance of consumption and re-growth, Leopold said “too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.” He recognized that predation is an absolute necessity in natural systems. The wolf call that sends a shiver through deer and people may, Leopold guessed, sound reassuring to the mountain.

    From what I’ve seen in local newspapers, which back in the day did not distinguish between gray wolves and coyotes, the last bounty for a gray wolf killed in Winneshiek County was February 1909, when a man near Frankville killed a female wolf described in the Decorah paper as “a monster.” By that time, deer had been completely hunted out in Iowa.

    Since that time, deer have returned. By this time of year there may be 300,000 browsing their way through Iowa woodlands, fields, and lawns. Wolves have not fared as well.

    This year’s first Iowa bow season for deer opened October 1. By the time the last season closes, near the end of January 2008, the deer population in the state will be around 200,000. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, without hunting, the population would double every three years.

    Since we’ve eliminated wolves, the deer’s main natural predator, controlled hunting is the only way to keep deer from nibbling and antlering their own necessary habitat into oblivion.

    Unregulated hunting, the kind that once left this area devoid of both deer and wolves, was a terrible mistake. But responsible hunting in well-regulated seasons is one way people stay in tune with nature.

   And if that sounds hard, think like a sapling or think like a mountain, and remember that nature has teeth--and antlers.