A recent late-night walk with my border collie Zoe has transported me back to one of the darkest, dreariest days of my 30-year journalistic career. Following her gaze down a utility easement east of Bryan Park a half mile south of downtown, I saw a young whitetail deer, frozen by our presence, hauntingly backlit by a streetlight half a block to the south. Since then, I have read documents from, and stories about, the Bloomington-Monroe County Deer Task Force, which is poised to recommend that city deer be shot.
"Many an urban deer’s days may be numbered if Bloomington adopts the expected recommendations for 'lethal solutions' from its deer task force," a May 15, 2012, Bloomington Herald-Times story began. The group's report includes several such deadly solutions, among them sharpshooters baiting and plugging deer in city parks and on private property, an image that took me back to the Dec. 5, 1993, story I wrote for the H-T titled "Park hunt kills 370 deer."
Both the weather and the mood were cold and dark in Brown County State Park that Saturday nearly two decades ago. The story described the weather as "a steady rain that vacillated between a cold, dank mist and outright deluges." The roads leading to the park gates were lined with anti- and pro-hunt protesters and counter-protesters when the first shot was fired at 7:32 a.m., two minutes after the hunt began.
"Deer and turkey had been hunted to extinction in Indiana by the late 19th century and were reintroduced in the 1930s."
Roughly 100 Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials and conservation officers kept the public out until the shooting ended eight-and-a-half hours later.
Throughout the day, hunters emerged from the hills and valleys with dead whitetails draped over their shoulders. The animals ended up in mountainous piles at check-in stations located throughout the 16,000-acre park. Hunters got to keep one for themselves and donated any others they killed to a food bank to feed the hungry.
Opponents had challenged the Brown County hunt in court, only to have an Indiana Court of Appeals panel, which included former Monroe Superior Court Judge John G. Baker, unanimously refuse to stop the historic event the day before it occurred. Never before had an animal been intentionally killed in an Indiana state park.
The 463 hunters were permitted to kill as many as 1,389 deer that day. Still, despite missing the target by more than a thousand, Indiana Department of Natural Resources officials declared the day a success.
"It really is a large number," then-State Parks Director Gerry Pagac told me. "… When I look at all those deer, I think, 'That's an amazing amount of vegetation that won't be eaten.'"
My first exposure to urban deer predated by a decade and a half our recent Bryan Park encounters – first east of the park, then inside it and now west of it. In 1995, I read a New York Times Magazine story titled "Rats with hooves" that detailed their migration into major metro areas like Philadelphia. It included tales of deer chowing on urban vegetation, such as gardens and flowers, the same story some Bryan Park neighbors relate today.
"Farm fields and suburban developments produce an abundance of edge that deer thrive in. As their populations expanded and their natural habitat disappeared, the whitetails followed those edges into cities like Philadelphia and Bloomington."
Spurred by the Times piece, I penned an Aug. 10, 1995, H-T article titled "Southern Indiana again a home where the deer and coyotes roam" that explored how human development patterns and wildlife management have caused deer populations, along with wild turkey and coyote, to explode in rural and urban areas.
Deer and turkey had been hunted to extinction in Indiana by the late 19th century and were reintroduced in the 1930s, when New Deal-era programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps began reclaiming lands as federal and state forests, parks and wildlife areas. As late as the 1970s, wildlife experts told me, entire townships in Lawrence County were devoid of deer, largely due to poaching. Coyotes had most likely always had a remnant population in the state.
As the public lands were managed for wildlife and hunting was controlled, humans occupied the deer's territories, creating ideal conditions for them to flourish. Farm fields and suburban developments produce an abundance of edge that deer thrive in. As their populations expanded and their natural habitat disappeared, the whitetails followed those edges into cities like Philadelphia and Bloomington.
In fact, urban ecosystems can be ideal for deer, according to the Bloomington task force. "Oftentimes, suburban environments tend to provide ideal shelter and food," its website says. "Indeed, due to the use of fertilizers, plants in suburban yards are often more nutrient-rich than food found in the forest."
And the city will remain fertile feeding ground for deer into the foreseeable future.
"It is likely that the local urban environment could actually support many more deer than it currently does," the task force website says. "When it comes to urban deer, wildlife biologists often advise that instead of asking how many deer an urban environment could biologically support, the more salient task is assessing how many deer a community finds acceptable – the social carrying capacity.”
In many areas of Bloomington, especially around Griffy Lake, that capacity has been met and exceeded, deer task force Chair and City Councilman Dave Rollo told the H-T in May.
"A large amount of the (human) population are being adversely affected by the deer,” he said.
Like state wildlife officials in the 1990s, the task force explored the use of non-lethal means of control, including birth control, and trapping and relocating them, Rollo said. None were found to be effective or appropriate.
Echoing the case made for the Brown County hunt, he said the deer have devastated the Griffy Lake undergrowth through overgrazing.
"Biodiversity has crashed, basically, in areas where deer are grazing,” Rollo said.
Shooting the Bryan Park deer is clearly off the agenda, according to minutes from the task force's March 21 meeting, the latest available on its website.
"Due to the use of fertilizers, plants in suburban yards are often more nutrient-rich than food found in the forest." - Bloomington-Monroe County Deer Task Force
"Bryan Park is very visible, proximate to houses and open, without much tree cover," the minutes say. But, in addition to the city-owned Griffy Lake Nature Preserve, other public lands are suitable for hunts, including Winslow Woods, Wapehani Mountain Bike Park, Trillium Horticulture Park, Goat Farm and Southeast Park.
And the discussion involves more than just public lands.
Task force member and Indiana University biology professor Keith Clay noted that 95 percent of Bloomington's undeveloped green space is privately owned. The minutes characterize his comments: "It seems that there is just no way that the community could effectively manage the deer population if hunting were just limited to the 5 percent or so of public green space."
The task force has considered allowing hunts on private properties of at least five acres. But Rollo told the H-T that no decision had been made.
The most likely recommendation, he said, is that the city “cull” the deer herds by creating “clover traps” — fenced-in areas where deer will be lured with food and then shot by sharpshooters.
The deer task force will only make recommendations to public officials from city and county governments. Any move to control the animals will be made by them.
"Just as it was in 1993, any attempt to hunt deer in Bloomington will be an emotional and controversial undertaking."
And just as it was in 1993, any attempt to hunt deer in Bloomington will be an emotional and controversial undertaking.
Some will be all for it.
"I'm not fond of deer,” one southeast side resident told the H-T. “When you can look out and see the babies, and see them grow up the next year and have more babies, it’s very upsetting.”
Others, while not thrilled by the hunts, will be relieved to see action taken.
"I'm just glad the decision has been made to do SOMETHING," one commenter on the H-T story said. "I just hope the plan includes addressing deer in residential neighborhoods, and not just at Lake Griffy. The east side deer issue is considerable."
Others will urge living in harmony with the deer and will blame those who have displaced the deer and created the conditions under which they thrive.
"When you build a house in a deer's home, don't be pissed when the deer invade your home!" another H-T commenter wrote.
"What they are talking about is the stupidest thing I have heard," yet another said. "What time are we living in? We are overrun by people too. Does that mean we should have a task force to curb that too?"
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.