Bambi Has a Dark Side

Deer are lovely but too many can hurt the environment.

February 3, 2022 | | Notes from the Wild

As peaceful animals graced with beauty, deer pull at our heartstrings.

One of my cherished childhood memories is of hand-feeding a deer (I think we gave it digestive cookies) along the Highway 60 corridor in Algonquin Park in the late sixties. My brothers and I were thrilled.

But Bambi has a dark side. And, with apologies to deer lovers, it’s worth exploring. Consider, for example, that parasitic worms live in deer brains. Having evolved with deer, these brain worms seldom hurt them, but they kill moose.

Deer are lovely but too many can hurt the environment. Photo by Don Scallen.

Deer are lovely but too many can hurt the environment. Photo by Don Scallen.

Doe with fawn. Photo by Yves Scholten.

Doe with fawn. Photo by Yves Scholten.

When deer were common in Algonquin Park – the 1960s for example – these brain worms, brought to the park by deer, decimated the moose population.

Deer are considered an invasive species in Algonquin, arriving there in the 20th century as a result of land clearing and because we shot, trapped and poisoned their wolf predators.

Fortunately, wolves have rebounded in Algonquin and they are again fulfilling their ecological roles, including deer control. And moose, more difficult for wolves to subdue because of their size, are once again common in the park.

Another example of the dark side of deer takes us to Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. When deer were introduced to this big island over a century ago, they found it happily absent of wolves.

As a result, their numbers ballooned and led to a surprising consequence: the decline, then extinction, of the resident bear population. The deer ate the berry bushes that supplied the fruit the bears depended on to bulk up for winter.

People feed deer, sometimes leaving bales of hay for them to eat in winter – an act well-intentioned but misguided.

White-tailed deer browsing in the winter landscape. Photo by Don Scallen.

White-tailed deer browsing in the winter landscape. Photo by Don Scallen.

What this does is help support an already overabundant deer population, especially here in southern Ontario where wolves, as on Anticosti Island, don’t exist. This exacts a toll on our wildflowers and baby trees.

Bambi is precious and beguiling, but too many Bambis can spoil the ecological broth.

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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