Overabundant populations of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are becoming common in the eastern United States. Faced with burgeoning deer populations in eastern parks, the National Park Service (NPS) formulated policy based on its long experience with ungulate management in western parks. That the NPS failed to find a management solution acceptable to its many constituencies was inevitable. Like blind men touching different parts of an elephant and disagreeing about its form, those engaged in the debate about deer management in parks are viewing different parts of the ecological system. None has seen the entire system, and consequently, there is neither common agreement on the nature of the problem nor on the solutions. We explore the quandary of deer management in eastern parks by addressing three questions: (1) Can the National Park Service reconcile its management goals with those of its neighbors? (2) Can thresholds be identified for determining when to intervene in natural processes? (3) Is there a scientific foundation for proceeding with effective management of deer? We argue that reconciling the NPS management with that of state conservation agencies is not possible because management policy guides these agencies in opposite directions: the NPS is charged with limiting human impact on ecological processes, and state agencies are charged with exerting human control over population abundance. Questions about thresholds and a scientific basis for management arise from concern that irrupting deer populations are a manifestation of disrupted natural processes. Several population growth paradigms are at the heart of this ecological question. The science provides no consensus about which of these paradigms are appropriate to deer in eastern ecosystems. Thus, it is premature to expect science to identify if or when natural processes have been disrupted. While the NPS cannot effectively achieve its goals without better science, neither can it wait for science to fully understand the dynamics of plant-herbivore interactions. The best hope for resolving both the biological and political dilemmas surrounding deer management is through an adaptive management approach.
Additional publication details
Of elephants and blind men: Deer management in the U.S. National Parks