The answer is: The white-tailed deer.
The question was: What is the most dangerous and destructive wild animal in
America? White-tailed deer kill, maim and sicken thousands of people each year.
In Pennsylvania, one of the few states keeping tabs, deer annually destroy $70
million worth of crops and $75 million worth of trees, and about 40,000 of them
collide with motor vehicles, doing $80 million worth of damage. They wipe out
wildflowers, mid-level plant communities, shrub-nesting birds.
Deer do all this because they are grossly mismanaged. In fact, they've always
been grossly mismanaged. First we killed too many. Now we kill too few. In 1900
there were about 500,000 whitetails in the U.S. Today there are 33 million. Mild
winters and a lack of natural predators make the irruption particularly severe
in the Southeast, where the population has increased by something like 25
percent since 1990. In South Carolina there are now so many deer that in much of
the coastal plain you can legally kill as many as you like every day all year.
In 28 coastal counties you can even hunt them with dogs. Still, the state's
hunters, who annually kill about 300,000 deer, can't keep the herd in balance
with the land. Although Georgia hunters kill close to half a million deer a
year, there's a bill in the legislature to increase the seasonal limit from 8 to
12. Even that won't be enough.
In South Carolina's piedmont and coastal plain there are 30 to 40 deer per
square mile; in Georgia's between 30 and 45. A 10-year study by the U.S. Forest
Service reveals that at more than 20 deer per square mile you lose shrub nesters
including least flycatchers, eastern wood pewees, indigo buntings, yellow-billed
cuckoos and cerulean warblers. At 38 deer per square mile you lose eastern
phoebes and even robins. Ground nesters such as quail, grouse, ovenbirds,
woodcock and wild turkeys can nest in ferns, which deer dislike; but because
these birds need cover, they too are vastly reduced.
For the past decade Dr. Douglas Rayner of Wofford College in Spartanburg,
S.C., has compared plant growth outside and inside a small deer-proof area in
7,054-acre Croft State Park. Outside this "exclosure" he reports
"absolute devastation of virtually all spring wildflowers." Inside the
exclosure Catesby's trillium stems were 68 times more dense than in suitable
habitats outside. Elsewhere in the Southeast deer are wiping out endangered
plants such as the relict trillium.
From Massachusetts to Georgia and west through the Great Plains there are
often as many as 100 whitetails per square mile. After they denude the
understory they fill their bellies with indigestible material like pine needles;
their skin stretches over ribs like canvas on Conestoga wagons; they are eaten
from the inside out by parasites and the outside in by dogs.
It's a hard death, but animal rights groups such as Friends of Animals
actually advocate starvation as a management tool, observing that Gandhi, while
fasting, claimed to have been comfortable enough. They call for chemical
contraception despite the fact that it doesn't work. They call for
trap-and-transfer, despite the facts that deer don't live through it and that no
other community wants more deer. They call for release of wolves and cougars in
suburban settings. They procure hunting bans, then—when deer spread Lyme
disease and crash through picture windows—they prevent the community from
inviting in hunters or hiring sharpshooters. When the community is eventually
forced to reduce the population, they flounce around with placards, hold
candlelight vigils, contaminate bait sites, throw themselves between deer and
guns, and otherwise disrupt the cull. They find loss of entire ecosystems
perfectly acceptable, provided the components die "painlessly."
But not all animal rights advocates are inflexible. "What's sadder than
an innocent animal taking a bullet for the conservation cause?" asks David
Seideman, editor of Audubon magazine, in his March-April issue. His
answer: "Extinction that causes forests in spring to turn silent and barren
for want of songbirds and wildflowers." That stance didn't come easily for
a member of the radical animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of
Animals or an officer of an organization whose traditional stance on hunting has
been militant neutrality.
Animals do have rights; it's just that those rights have been given a bad
name by ecological illiterates. Deer, for example, have the right to healthy
habitat, genetic integrity, and humane treatment, which includes—indeed,
depends on—ethical, regulated hunting.
Hunting and fishing inspired Ted Williams to become an environmental