A pilot study examining the ecological and human dimensions of wild deer management, Nariel Valley Victoria

Authors

Francesca Bowman

Abstract

Management of wild deer populations in Australia is a contentious, vexatious issue, owing to their pluralistic status as valued game resource and introduced pest. There are estimated to be over 200,000 wild deer in Australia, with numbers expected to increase significantly as they expand their range to occupy suitable habitats. The existing wild populations directly or indirectly cause deleterious impacts on natural and agricultural systems.

This study explored the ecological and sociological aspects of wild deer management in the Nariel Valley, establishing preliminary data on wild deer abundance and ecological damage. In addition the study examined landholder attitudes toward wild deer to determine some of the factors that might influence people’s attitudes, and the implications for management. The study represented an opportunity to gauge the need for a management response, and to identify management strategies that are acceptable to the residents of the Nariel Valley. Three species of deer have established wild populations in the Nariel Valley, Victoria: fallow deer (Dama dama), red deer (Cervus elaphus), and sambar deer (Cervus unicolor).

Preliminary data on the abundance and habitat utilisation of deer in the Nariel Valley was obtained using faecal pellet counts during May through August 2014, from 80 transects across four major Ecological Vegetation Classes (EVCs). Faecal pellet indices indicate that deer abundance is high, with deer showing some differential preferences between vegetation communities. Considerable ecological damage was observed in all four EVCs, including browsing, thrashing and trampling, antler rubbing, formation of trails and wallowing. The current visible damage raises questions about potential damage that the species will cause as the population increases.

Quantitative and qualitative data obtained from questionnaires (n=34) and interviews (n=29) showed widely varying attitudes toward deer and potential management. Of the residents in the valley, there is a higher proportion of lifestyle property owners (56%) than primary producers (44 %). Most respondents (94%) had wild deer on their property, and many (59%) reported damage caused by deer, but particularly if they were primary producers (70%). Nearly all respondents (90%) who reported damage wanted a reduced deer population, showing that there is a strong relationship between attitudes and deer damage. Preferred control methods varied considerably, however game meat harvesting (37 %) and recreational hunting (31%) were the favoured options for control.

This pilot study was based on a combination of ecological and sociological data which allowed a more complete picture of the complex wild deer management situation to be obtained. This type of integrative research is fairly innovative but necessary to address the complexities of ‘wicked’ environmental problems such as are encountered with deer management. While the ecological information is essential to provide an evidence-basis for management strategy development, it is the human perspective that determines management priorities and appropriate methodologies. Considerable engagement will be needed with all relevant stakeholders to develop an acceptable, effective management strategy. An adaptive management approach also will be required to allow for adjustment to new circumstances including increases in knowledge, environmental change and changes in community attitudes.

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