Illinois deer study reveals human preferences

Chicago — A study on white-tailed deer and humans’ perceptions of the animal has wrapped up with findings that say as much about us as it does about them.

For starters, people in northern Illinois who were asked about their preferred manner of controlling the deer population tended to pick archery hunting as the most acceptable and least controversial – no matter if they lived in an urban area or a rural area, and no matter if they felt they were sharing space with too many deer or with too few deer.

Also, the same people who said they were most open to archery being used to manage deer desired public participation in the deer management process.

“Whether they hunt them, just like them or don’t like them at all, most people feel some sort of connection with deer,” said Rachael Urbanek, who led the study, “Ecological and societal impacts of suburban white-tailed deer: a case study in the Chicago Metropolitan Area,” as a doctoral candidate at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. She studied and worked under the guidance of Dr. Clay Nielsen, associate professor of Forest

Wildlife in the SIUC Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory and Department of Forestry.

The four-year study, which wrapped up at the end of 2011, was based in suburban Chicago – mostly in McHenry and Lake counties – and utilized a multi-faceted approach to investigate common obstacles in suburban deer management.

“The main goal was to provide information that can be useful for wildlife management, for deer management,” Nielsen explained. “We really wanted to provide deer managers information that will help them better manage deer.”

More than 600 residents of McHenry County were surveyed about their thoughts on deer. The respondents were overwhelmingly cooperative.

“When you are working with deer in Illinois, it’s obviously an issue that brings out emotion,” Nielsen said. “In this study, we were dealing more with people and how they perceived deer. We weren’t capturing or handling deer, which creates even more emotion.”

Urbanek, who earned her Ph.D. and will continue her career this fall as assistant professor of wildlife science at Arkansas Tech University, pointed to results of the Illinois study that urges deer managers to be forward-looking.

“In my findings, I discuss the need for managers to examine suburban deer populations and management issues at a broader scale – countywide versus single community – and the promotion of proactive deer management in lieu of the conventional tendency of beginning management only when deer populations have become overabundant.”

The timing of the study was extraordinary – battles over the management of deer in northern Illinois ratcheted up over the past two years as urban areas and forest preserves became overrun with deer while hunters in more rural areas complained about seeing fewer deer.

Sharpshooting and other culling programs run by DNR to manage the herd and monitor chronic wasting disease have been under attack by residents who fear human deer management has over-stepped its bounds.

The varying perceptions the public has about deer populations was another interesting aspect of the study. Urbanek said managers require lots of information as to why methods are acceptable or unacceptable by the public.

“Simply put, people preferring a decrease in deer density experienced heavy damage to personal property and enjoyed deer, but were concerned about the amount of deer,” she said. “Respondents who enjoyed deer, and were not concerned about the amount of deer, were less likely to prefer a decrease.”

There aren’t a lot of tangibles when it comes to the public’s perception of deer.

“Why would on person say there is too many deer and the guy next door say there are too few?” asked Urbanek. “That’s the kind of question that’s hard to answer. But it’s a topic deer managers should consider when they are making management decisions. Basically, there is no way to predict. You really do have to survey. In other words, ask.”

The SIUC study recommends that deer managers conduct surveys that incorporate conflict and perceived outcomes of deer management methods “to gain information that may guide public education and resolve management disputes.”

Another aspect of the study, which was funded by the Lake County Forest Preserve District and the McHenry County Conservation District, was to develop recommendations to improve vegetation and deer monitoring programs.

From a deer management perspective, the study also analyzed the practicality and costs of deer density estimations – deer counts. The study looked at aerial and pellet-based distance sampling surveys.

“Wildlife biologists require density estimates for deer to properly manage them,” Urbanek said. “Aerial surveys are often used to obtain density estimates, but are subject to problems.”

Problems with bias and precision exist with both methods, Nielsen noted.

“Given accurate pellet decay and deposition rates and a large sample size of pellet groups, pellet-based may be advantageous due to less bias in density estimates, less-expensive survey costs, and no need for elaborate equipment,” he said.

Urbanek’s research included a look at the relationship between landscape characteristics and deer density.

“This information can be utilized to determine suburban lands that may be prone to high deer densities and inform land management practices,” she said.

The deer study began years ago with a lot of background research.

SIUC’s team surveyed deer biologists at state conservation agencies to compare opinions regarding urban and suburban deer management with those found in public surveys.

“We emailed a survey to deer biologists in 41 states to investigate what agencies are doing to control urban deer, which management techniques have been used in the past and are currently being used, and which techniques are believed to be most effective,” Urbanek explained.

The replies?

Urban and suburban deer populations were increasing in three-fourths of the states and most biologists believed that urban and suburban deer were a problem in their state.

Sixty-five percent of biologists indicated they had not surveyed local communities for their opinions on deer and deer management. Nielsen said the study is 177 pages. Urbanek has already published a half-dozen papers from the research.

“There’s a lot of work in those pages and a lot of information that we hope will be put to good use,” he said. “Deer management isn’t easy, and it’s especially difficult in urban and suburban areas. One of the key factors is society – people.”

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