There is an oft-asked question in philosophy that will be familiar to all of you: “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Perhaps in terms of conservation we could ask, “does the tree falling affect the water that we drink, the air that we breathe, or even the wildlife that can live there?”
In much of North America, states and provinces are struggling with burgeoning whitetail deer population and are looking for answers on how to keep their population in check. This is not the case in New Brunswick. Over the past 30 years, the whitetail deer population in New Brunswick is reported to have fallen from well over 200,000 animals, to around 60,000 in current estimates. Hunters have noticed the dramatic difference, and the province has gone from being a well-respected destination for guided deer hunts to being one where the majority of the hunters in our province do not harvest an animal. At the same time the deer that are around seem to be coming into our towns and cities to cause nuisances in some areas. These urban deer can become more than a nuisance as collisions with the deer can even be deadly as their population becomes denser in human inhabited areas.
What are some of the underlying reasons for such a change? Is it because of climate change? Is urban sprawl behind these problems? Or is there something more? Today we’re going to speak with Rod Cumberland, the former deer biologist for the province of New Brunswick with the Department of Natural Resources. He spent 22 years as deer biologist with the province before leaving that position in 2012. Beyond that background, he’s an avid outdoorsman who often speaks of that as having been his “dream job” because of his love for deer and other wildlife.
Q: I’ve given you a bit of an introduction, but is there anything that I’ve missed in terms of your credentials to speak to the current issues facing our deer herds?
Rod: Maybe a couple – Being an avid hunter, I have spent many hours in the woods of NB – on both private and public land over the past 40 years, so I’m not what you’d call an “armchair” biologist. Also, I have been quite involved in bringing the Quality Deer Management Association to Canada since 2006, and have been actively involved in this organization at the local, national and international level. It really helps give a good perspective of what’s going on across Canada and to the south. In addition, one of the best ways to really appreciate what has occurred in NB is to get a bird’s-eye view from the air. During my tenure as a wildlife biologist for the province, I also had the opportunity to fly annual deer surveys in a helicopter to estimate deer and moose numbers across the province. The changes I’ll talk about are VERY noticeable from 2000 feet up. You might hide a lot of it with a buffer strip along the highways of NB, but there’s no hiding this widespread change from a helicopter.
Also, unlike most biologists in New Brunswick, I, along with only a handful of others (Gerald Redmond, Arnold Boer and Gary Moore) became a “Certified Wildlife Biologist” through the Wildlife Society in the United States. It is more than just a professional affiliation. We have a professional obligation to the wildlife resources we manage and the responsibility to speak when we have knowledge concerning their wise use and management. This is typically why we are among the most outspoken on certain issues…this, plus we are no longer in the Public service employ so we are not muzzled as many others are.
Q: Studies have shown the dramatic reduction of the deer numbers in New Brunswick, and those who frequent the woods witness it firsthand. What are some of the changes you’ve been seeing in terms of the deer herd in our province over the past number of years through this population decline?
Rod: Likely a lot of your readers will scoff at the suggestion there are fewer deer in NB …most likely because they see lots along highways and in communities. I think the most striking change in deer over the past 20 years is in WHERE deer live, rather than in absolute numbers, although this has also changed dramatically.
Other changes include deer being viewed as a nuisance. For years deer were a sacred cow here, and everyone loved deer. However, many agricultural producers (apple orchards, crop farmers, Vegetable farmers, berry farmers, dairy farmers, etc.) that at one time only saw deer on occasion, now spend a large portion of their time and income trying to combat the damage deer cause in most months of the year. The changes they have seen over the past 10 years also bears testimony to the change in where deer live.
In my professional opinion, one factor that rises above all others when it comes to changing where deer now live in NB is the increased use of poison to kill hardwoods on Crown land. The intensely managed plantations followed by spraying herbicides to kill the young hardwood growth that competes with these seedlings – removes tons and tons of deer food every year which forces deer to change where they live to survive. For an animal that relies on plants for food – This loss of food forces deer to look for food elsewhere, and has also taken away hundreds of thousands of hectares of habitat on Crown land. Losing this land that once provided habitat for deer absolutely MUST have an impact on total deer numbers in NB. To suggest it doesn’t is really ridiculous.
Q: If I were to ask you, what is the one biggest reason for this decline in the deer population, what would your answer be, and why?
Rod: Deer are herbivore, and research from the northeast for decades has suggested in this neck of the woods deer rely primarily on the young growth of hardwoods. Actually, if you follow our logging history in NB it paints a pretty clear picture of how we have provided this young growth over time and how deer have responded to it. In the 1600’s and 1700’s after the Europeans arrived, most logging here was focused on the sole harvest of large white pines for ship masts. We had a climax forest and very few deer. Then, as settlers came, the harvest of large spruce for dimensional lumber in the late 1700’s and 1800’s created a few more openings in the forest. However, with the advent of the pulp and paper industry in the early 1900’s loggers began making many cuts throughout the forest that allowed the growth of poplars, maples and other hardwoods that provided a huge amount of browse for deer. Deer numbers were quite low in NB throughout the 1600 – 1800’s, but in the early 1900’s they began to increase right along with our logging practices. If you look at the makeup of the NB forest in the 1960’s through to the 1980’s, we likely had the perfect storm for deer numbers – lots of cedar, hemlock and spruce that was used by deer to overwinter, and then lots of smaller cut blocks supplying loads of hardwood browse in winter and succulent growth in the summer.
However, what began to change in the 1980’s was both the size of cuts – brought about by a change from using a chainsaw to harvest wood to using harvesters….. and at the same time Irving began leading the industry by promoting plantations of softwood seedlings. We all thought this was a positive step at the time to shorten the time it took to reforest an area, but these new plantations were struggling to grow due to all the profuse growth of hardwood trees. They also discovered if you poisoned the hardwoods with herbicide and killed this competition, the plantations grew much better – hardwoods were removed, and what was left are these plantations of pure softwood trees we now see all across Crown land. Again, the forestry buffs basically ignored the impacts to the forest and to the wildlife that used it.
However, as I kept watching this slow and gradual change of deer disappearing from Crown land and moving to private land, I also kept an eye on the growing land mass that was being poisoned and how deer’s food was being taken away around deer yards and in areas that were once great deer habitat – right from Charlotte County to Campbellton.
As Companies like JDI continued to spray herbicides under the provincial “Silviculture” program ( a nice word to replace “poisoning and killing hardwoods”), the numbers began to add up. 13,000 hectares a year for over 20 years puts a huge dent in the available food for deer – in real numbers this plant and spray program removes enough browse to feed 32,000 deer every single year – year in, year out. If you add up the impact over the past 25 years it has removed enough food to feed close to a million deer! That is over 400 tonnes of deer food – gone forever. No one can tell me that removing this much deer browse year after year from Crown land doesn’t impact the deer that live there. What on earth do they think deer are going to eat if you poison all their food?
Q: In follow up to that question, what would be the solution to solving that problem, and in seeing a return to the deer numbers of the 1970s and 80s (and is it even possible)?
Rod: Most of us remember the “glory days” of the 1980’s when we harvested 30,000 deer, many of them beautiful mature bucks. I hate to be a pessimist, but in reality, without these regenerating cuts on Crown land that supplied such large amounts of hardwood browse over half of the province, there is no way we will ever see the deer numbers like we had back then – it’s really a crying shame. Further, Companies like JDI also target the BEST areas for plantations. They leave the rocky, wet sites to come back naturally, but plant all the rich, best growing sites on publically owned land so they can return in 60 years and clearcut it. I’m not convinced that allowing just one company access to this land and tying it up for 60 years, only to have it supply a monoculture that only feeds squirrels is a wise use of our public resources.
The obvious way to reverse this catastrophe is to end the spraying of glyphosate. However, the change in the forest as a result of 25 years of poisoning will take decades to reverse.
Q. Those in the forestry industry say that you are painting a picture that doesn’t reflect reality. How do they explain the decline in our province’s deer herd and do their arguments hold water?
Some in the industry, such as Irving’s biologist John Gilbert – are quick to suggest that winter weather and coyotes are what’s caused the big decline in NB’s deer herd. While on the surface you might be tempted to agree with them – because after all, we know coyotes kill deer, and we also know following a tough winter the deer harvest does decline – these factors must be considered in the context of “scale”. While I was the deer biologist, I would regularly explain how these factors interact and affect deer numbers. Coyotes and winters DO definitely affect deer numbers – in the short term. These cause the minor, short term fluctuations we see from year to year. However, what you and I are talking about is a HUGE change, over the entire land mass of NB, and for a long period of time that have dropped the deer harvests from 30,000 to a mere pittance at 8,000.
Let me give your readers a good example. From 2000 through to 2007 I dropped the antlerless permits in New Brunswick to around 2000 in an attempt to grow the NB deer herd province-wide. During this time period the NB deer harvest went from 4,300 deer up to a harvest of just over 10,000. That was pretty good deer growth, and hunters were pretty happy with the harvest in 2007 – however, remember this is only 30% of the harvest we had in 1985! 10,000 is a LONG cry from 30,000! Meanwhile, right beside us in the state of Maine, with a land base nearly identical to NB’s, and also with the SAME winters and similar COYOTE densities….they shot almost 20,000 deer in 2007! If winters and coyotes were the cause of our low numbers, then why didn’t they have the same effect in Maine?
Let me explain it another way – Coyotes and winter weather may influence short term changes in deer numbers, but the ceiling – how high deer numbers can grow under good conditions – THAT is controlled by habitat availability. During years of deer herd growth, populations are limited in the maximum number of deer they will reach– especially a herbivoire – by how much food is available. This is a fundamental wildlife law. In 2007 under perfect conditions, the maximum deer harvest was 10,000 and the population size topped out at around 100,000 deer – less than half of the maximum value in 1983. The deer herd grew DESPITE tough winters and coyote predation….but it could only grow so much.
I will say that coyotes have changed deer ecology. Our deer that once laid around all winter under cover and could live off fat reserves are now chased by coyotes throughout the winter. In a winter like 2015 where there are no crusts, coyote die off at a far faster pace than the longer-legged deer – however, even though coyotes under these conditions don’t kill many deer, they still chase them and exhaust their fat reserves. They have definitely affected deer herd dynamics, and take a share of the harvest that hunters once were able to shoot – but to say these are the cause and ignore the huge loss in deer browse that is poisoned annually is simply ignorant.
Q: We know that the Kennebecasis Valley is teeming with deer, but what are the actual numbers? If we have 60,000 deer in our province, how many of them would be in this one small area?
Rod: No one actually knows how many deer are in the Kennebecasis Valley – we have never flown it and counted them, and no one else has done any type of a survey. We have estimated there are 10 deer per km2 there, so depending on the area, you might get a decent guess by doing some simple math. I’d say a few thousand.
Q: With the increase in “urban” deer population, do you feel that makes it more difficult to convince the general population of the declining provincial deer herd? After all, many live in areas where their gardens and flowers are routinely mangled by these urban deer.
Rod: No question.
Q: Several of our neighbouring provinces have a different stance on herbicide spraying. Can you speak to what they are now doing and what the health of their deer herd looks like as a result?
Rod: We know that Quebec has banned the use of glyphosate herbicide. They asked their public what they thought, and they were clear – they didn’t want that sprayed on their forests. In Nova Scotia, they don’t allow the spray on their Crown forest lands. Both have better deer populations than NB at present – however, to tease out how much of that is due to spray would be a challenge. I think the biggest thing we should be talking about as far as glyphosate goes is all the resent research that has been done on this chemical the last 5 years that shows it is cancer-causing, and has been linked to many of the emerging disease problems in North America including Gluten intolerance, ADHD, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and autism just to name a few. Tested in formulation (meaning what’s actually sprayed and not just the active ingredient) it is 1000X more toxic than earlier studies.
Q: What is your position on the current large-scale clearcuts that we see in the New Brunswick forests today? It seems in some areas of Crown forest there is one after another after another. What kind of impact do these have on wildlife?
Rod: These huge cuts we know instinctively can’t be good for wildlife. We have taught for years in our hunter education courses that wildlife need edge, and that small openings in the forest are great for wildlife. Research has shown for years that most wildlife species don’t use these vast areas without cover. Let’s let the facts speak for themselves – when we made many small cuts that regenerated naturally, we had lots of wildlife/deer. Today with these huge cuts we have far fewer deer, are losing deer yards hand over fist and these are the areas that they target to poison with glyphosate.
I would also say that these huge cuts make forest harvesting unsustainable, and the recent wood grab by companies that claim they need wood is testimony to the fact they have overharvested……otherwise, why the panicked need for wood?
Q: Can you speak to why the deer and moose population seem to be in such a different situation, both being large cervids. Most everyone in the woods seem to agree that deer are declining but there seem to be more moose than ever before. How can a 200 pound deer be starving to death when a 1000 pound moose is on the increase? Are we being mislead by biologists who tell us the population is growing?
Rod: Actually, let’s look a bit closer at the data here. Are moose populations growing everywhere? I think the provincial moose biologist could confirm that moose populations are growing most in northwestern NB. This is actually an excellent example of exactly what I have been purporting……. That spraying herbicides ruins ungulate habitat while not spraying produces an abundance of food that leads to population explosions. In this area of high moose numbers, much of the habitat here is managed by Twin Rivers lumber company. For the past 5-10 years they have been harvesting, but they have NOT been planting or herbiciding these cut blocks. The result – HUGE increase in browse, and the offshoot of this is an explosion in moose numbers. Check for yourself how moose tags have increased in northwestern NB in the past 5 years. Also – check how deer harvests have changed here the past 5 years. Last year, the highest increase in deer harvest for bucks was in these same zones.
Lots of food, lots of deer and moose – why should we be surprised? I’d also say watch the moose numbers in zones 18 and 20 – two zones where JDI is intensively managing the forest, planting and spraying many blocks. Sadly, we will watch as the moose and deer numbers here continue to decline and people will scratch their heads and wonder why.
Q: You and a fellow biologist (J.M. DeVink) were reported to be publishing a paper on the issue of herbicide spraying. Is that now complete and available? (or when will it be available)
Rod: Not Yet. Dr. DeVink had a few major life changes the past few years and has not been able to contribute. I have sent the draft to Dr. Pekins at the University of New Hampshire. He is very interested and would like to help publish this paper, we just need the time to get at it. There is a paper at DNR – a deer technical report I wrote that summarizes a load of deer research and my findings on herbicide effects and how widespread this is in NB – ask for deer technical report number 16. NOTE: Wilderness Obsession has reached out to DNR and will publish this report for you as soon as we receive it.
Q: What would you say the average concerned citizen can do to effect change? Is there anything we can do?
Rod: You should NEVER think that there is nothing you can do to effect change – on any issue. The biggest thing we can do is spread this information around. Get out there yourself and see what is going on. Once you see the impact – you’ll be as devastated as I am and it will definitely mobilize you to write, call – do something to get the message to decision makers that we MUST stop the spraying of poison in the NB forest. Mark my words – this issue of spraying toxic glyphosate will be the “agent Orange” health issue in our generation.
As always, we can’t thank our guest today enough for their time. This interview has been extremely enlightening, and while candid, well-expressed. Rod expressed the current situation with poise and we was still able to come away encouraged that we can make a difference.
The question I began with about a tree felled with nobody around, in terms of our current New Brunswick forestry practices, it appears that question has bigger implications on deer habitat. Who really cares about the clearcutting and the spraying of herbicides in our forests today? With the majority of our province’s inhabitants living in cities now, will anyone care if the whole of the rest of the province is completely cleared in large scale and replanted in softwoods, with spraying to kill the remaining hardwoods? If the only ones who seem to care or speak up about the felling of our NB trees, along with the spraying that takes place, is that of commercial interests… our wildlife may be in trouble.