On the Nature of Stewardship

On the Nature of Stewardship

by Anne Drummond

We are living in strange and uncertain times; forest fires, floods, and other manifestations of climate change along with the social, economic, and ecological problems associated with an ever-increasing human population. Then the current COVID-19 pandemic which has touched most humans on the planet, and probably left animals wondering what is going on with us.

As our knowledge of the science of this pandemic grows, so too do the questions. Every country, every community, and every family are asking what now, what will change, and more importantly what needs to change? The more specific questions will reach into every facet of human life and have the potential to bring positive change to our societies and by extension to the planet. Because, although we are focused on our own safety and well-being we should also remember that our fortunes are intertwined with those of all living organisms on earth.

For biologists and naturalists the world over, a bright light shining through the gloom has been the anecdotes and photographic evidence of nature taking to the streets and other spaces vacated by humans—no more living in the shadows, animals are claiming space. In addition, at home and with time to spare, more and more people are noticing the urban wildlife around them. Can we as the UWSS, individuals, households, urban and rural communities take this increasing awareness of wildlife along with the urgency to address climate change and turn it into more effective stewardship of our beautiful planet?

Stewardship is a word we hear frequently but what exactly do we mean? In essence, stewardship refers to the responsible use and protection of natural environments and incorporates conservation and sustainable practices. However, that said, stewardship has many faces and not all of them are pretty.

While there is no discounting that commitment, passion, and work by many people has resulted in the preservation and conservation of land, wildlife, and ecosystems, stewardship has for a greater part had an economic basis and has been human-centred. The environment provides resources which have monetary value and we want to exploit these, so we take care of the resource we wish to exploit but have little care for the remainder of the system or for the consequences of our exploitation. This has led to the rise of industrial-scale farming, destructive mining practices, deforestation, exploitation of the rivers and oceans.

Aldo Leopold, regarded by many as the father of wildlife ecology and the USA wilderness system, wrote the Sand Country Almanac in response to the economic and libertarian-based land ethics, where only aspects of the environment useful to humans were preserved. In this book of essays, he proposed a land ethic (a framework guiding how people regard the land) that called for a more caring and morally responsible relationship between people and nature. His ecologically-based land ethic stems from the principle that the land, air, and water as well as all living organisms have intrinsic value, not just value to people.

In Leopold’s land ethic he maintains that “when we see land (nature) as a community to which we belong – we may begin to use it with love and respect”. His vision thus changes the human role from one of dominance to being but one of the many citizens of the community of nature.

While this may seem like a vague and perhaps even whimsical philosophy to some, delving deeper into how we view nature—the language we use, the actions and behaviours we engage in, the fears and expectations that we have—it is not difficult to see that we often neglect to consider the needs of the wild creatures and the land itself. There is little doubt that a more caring relationship between people and nature would bring great benefits to both parties. While as individuals we may not be able to bring about change on a large scale, we can, through our actions, all foster a more caring relationship with the urban wildlife around us.

Perhaps the most crucial thing we can do for wildlife is to preserve or create habitat wherever we can, thus making it possible for wild creatures to coexist with us.

This can take many forms including:

  • Creating brush piles and encourage wild areas for shelter in your garden,
  • Don’t rake up leaves, leave them in the beds as winter mulch and the insects and invertebrates the leaves attract provide protein-rich food for birds in the spring,
  • Plant bird and insect-friendly plants
  • Don’t remove trees unless they are a safety hazard as every mature tree, particularly evergreens, are home to many birds, invertebrates and small mammals,
  • Let your lawn become wild, or plant wildflower lawns or dig it up and plant trees, shrubs, and flowering plants
  • Only prune hedges, trees, and shrubs well before or well after birds have nested
  • Avoid pesticides, herbicides or poisons
  • Maintain hummingbird feeders and even seed feeders during the winter
  • Provide clean water for birds and animals

And of course, keeping cats indoors and teaching dogs and children not to harass wildlife creates a safer environment for them.

Key to the development of a more respectful and caring relationship with nature is understanding the needs of wild creatures. which in turn has its root in observation. So this is an invitation to set up the deck chair on the lawn or take up a comfy spot on the lakeshore, bring your tea and simply observe, follow ants as they wend their way through the grass, watch the ducks protecting their young while still trying to feed, notice the sentry bird on the edge of bird feeding parties, learn the alarm call of a Towhee, notice all the different pollinators in action on flowering plants. Ask questions, find answers, and seek to understand and then protect.

Pretty in pink: our control group

Pretty in pink: our control group

Now that fawning season has begun, have you seen a doe with fawns in your neighbourhood?

This past fall, we undertook the second phase of the Oak Bay Urban Deer study supported by the District of Oak Bay and the Province of BC. Before the rut in 2019, the research team treated approximately 60 female deer with immuno-contraception (IC). This vaccination temporarily sterilizes the animal to prevent pregnancy during the rut. IC is estimated to be between 70 – 95% effective, and so the large majority of the does given IC should not produce fawns this spring.

All IC-treated does were marked with a coloured, numbered ear tag in each ear. For the population analysis, the deer need to be identified to the individual level when captured on the 39 motion-sensitive remote cameras set up around Oak Bay, so 40 out of the 60 does also have a coloured collar

Since 2018 our “control group” originally sported a GPS collar + collar tags, but they had to be replaced this spring. The ~20 does that are in the “control group” (i.e. untreated) group allow for direct comparison to the IC treatment group. These animals are now marked with coloured collars, as well as large, pink collar tags marked with red reflective tape.

Any deer with a collar featuring large pink collar with tags (such as the one shown to the right), is a control group individual that has not been treated with IC. We expect the large majority of these individuals to have fawns with them this season. But those deer with either a collar (without pink tags) and/or numbered ear tags in each ear have been treated with IC, and should not have any newborn fawns with them this spring. 

The UWSS research team will be focusing on measuring IC success this spring and need your help! If you snap a photo of a marked deer with fawns, please email it to info@uwss.ca to help us analyze the effectiveness of the IC. If IC is as effective as anticipated, it could be approved as an effective management technique for greater Victoria, and even across the Province of BC.

Though the number of fawns is expected to be much less than in previous years, you should still remember to be on the lookout for does and their fawns. For tips and for more info, please visit https://uwss.ca/2020/04/28/fawn-season-2020/

Doe with three fawns this May in Oak Bay. This doe is part of the “control group” that were not given immunocontraception in fall of 2019. Photo Alexis Moores, shared with permission.

Fawn season 2020

Fawn season 2020

by Anne Drummond

Along with warmer, brighter days and burgeoning vegetation growth, deer fawning season is beginning, with the first fawns already sighted in Oak Bay and other municipalities.

One of our “control group” deer that did not
receive immunocontraceptive in 2019.

During September and October 2019 an immuno-contraceptive was administered to 60 does, all of whom are marked with numbered or coloured ear tags. In addition, a control group of 20 does who did not receive the immuno-contraceptive are marked with a coloured collar and large pink tags attached to the collar.

We are expecting that only the control group of does and any other does that did not receive the immuno-contraceptive will give birth. So this season we are anticipating a reduction in births by 60-90 fawns.

Does are very protective of their fawns and if threatened will defend their youngsters. A human waving their arms and yelling at a doe, and merely the presence of dogs (whether leashed or unleashed, seems threatening to their fawns safety – even if you can’t see the fawns nearby.  So in the interests of avoiding interactions with protective does we recommend the following behaviours when walking your dog or strolling the neighbourhood streets:

  • Avoid eye contact – this can be seen as challenging behaviour.
  • Remain quiet – waving your arms and yelling is threatening to the doe, causing the mother to feel even more protective of her fawn
  • Cross the street – rather than confronting the deer, cross the road to avoid contact
  • Change your route – if a deer appears to be following you, try changing direction. You may unknowingly be walking toward a hidden fawn.
  • Keep your dog near you – dogs are natural threats to deer, regardless of their size, age, or demeanour. Not only is it important to keep your dog leashed when out walking where deer are in the neighbourhood, but when you see a deer, keep your dog near you as you walk. Never release the leash to let the dog chase the deer away. 
  • If you find a fawn, leave it alone – does shelter fawns from predators, leaving for long periods to forage, then returning for fawns to suckle. Because fawns are born without scent, for the first few weeks does may feed and sleep a considerable distance from the fawn to reduce the chance of attracting predators. BC SPCA’s WildARC receives numerous calls from people who have found an “orphaned” fawn, but typically advise residents to leave it alone – the mother is likely nearby and will return once you leave. However, if the fawn is dirty, smelly and has flies around it, or is bleeding and obviously injured, or is shivering, thin, disoriented, and bleating call WildArc as soon as you can. In addition, if a doe does not return to a seemingly healthy fawn for more than eight hours call WildArc as something may have happened to the doe. If you do find a fawn in distress do not attempt to move it, unless it is on a road or in an otherwise unsafe place. If you inadvertently handled the animal, rub an old towel on the grass, then gently wipe the fawn down with it to remove human scent.
  • When driving – especially at dawn and dusk, reduce your chance of hitting a deer by slowing down and scanning both sides of the road.  Stay alert and focused and remember that deer are rarely alone – when one crosses the road others will usually follow. Headlights blind and confuse deer and cause them to freeze or act unpredictably. Young inexperienced deer may not recognize vehicles as a threat. Deer do not understand what honking your horn means and may be startled into running into the road.

For more tips on living with Urban Deer visit UWSS.ca

BCSPCA WildArc. 855 622 7722.  1020 Malloch rd. Victoria

Collar Checks and Control Group Identification Completed!

Collar Checks and Control Group Identification Completed!

If you saw the now familiar orange safety vests and a man carrying what looks like a rifle (he’s a wildlife veterinarian and it’s a dart projector!) you’ll know that our field team was once again out in the field this March. 

The purpose of the fieldwork was two-fold.  One was to check the fit of the collars placed on 40 does in the Fall of 2019.  The second purpose of being in the field this winter/spring was to re-mark a control group. 

Collar Fit

Because we were out in the field again to capture a control group, we used the opportunity to double-check on collar fit.  There were some concerns voiced from the community that the collars used to identify does that have received immuno-contraception are too tight, and we have been following those concerns up diligently.  We checked on many of the does that were specifically reported to us since September with concerns of a too tight collar, and Dr. Hering, our wildlife veterinarian, was able to report that in fact the collars are fitting well. Nine does were re-captured, their necks re-measured to look for growth and that the collars are not causing any problems. None of the collars that were checked are fitting too tightly or appear to be causing the animals any problems and so it was not necessary to replace or remove any collars because of inappropriate fit. The fit is very similar to that of a dog collar on a dog, which is what he was aiming for.  However the collars can appear to fit tighter than they actually are, due to winter fur growth.

Although from a distance it can look as though a collar is too tight, when you’re up close it is much easier to tell how much room there actually is under the collar.  Dr. Hering has been really pleased with how the deer’s necks look with the identification collars, there is far less chafing than with the much looser GPS collars used on the original control group!

Control Group

Our original control group of 20 (down to 17 due to mortalities) were wearing GPS collars (those loose ones with the big bling!) that were timed to automatically drop off this February and March.  Due to an unexpected provincial requirement that delayed immuno-contraception by a year, we need a control group for at least another year.  So, as the original collars “blow” off, we re-captured some of the same animals (and in some cases new animals), for 18 does in total, and fit them with new colourful marker collars.  These collars are even more light weight than the originals, have only 2 smaller tags, and were provided to us by Margo Supplies (https://www.margosupplies.com/ca-en/), a family-owned and operated company with over 35 years of safe, effective, non-lethal wildlife management solutions.  We have loved the privilege of working with Margo Supplies.

If you see an animal with pink tags on her collar you will know that she is a control animal and was not given contraception this year! 

Impact of COVID-19

Although we had hoped to re-mark 20 does and do a few more collar checks (we’ve also been taking a blood sample to help determine pregnancy rates, results not in), due to COVID-19 and the health guidelines for physical distancing, we have wrapped up field work until September 2020 when we will head out again to booster the does that received IC in the Fall of 2019, and give a primary vaccine to up to 60 new does.

In the meantime, we hope you and your families and friends keep healthy and safe. 

Deer Management Grant Funding

Deer Management Grant Funding

Dr. Jason Fisher, lead scientist of the Oak Bay Urban Deer Research Project.

The current Oak Bay Urban Deer Research Project has been funded by the Province of BC and the District of Oak Bay, in partnership with the volunteer, non-profit Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society.

We’re so pleased that the Province has once again provided a grant through the Provincial Urban Deer Cost-Share Program , this year in the amount of $42,366.00, to support the continuation of this important deer management initiative.

The grant will, as stated by the District of Oak Bay, “enable (the district) to continue its partnership with the Urban Wildlife Stewardship Society (UWSS) to deliver research-informed urban deer immuno-contraception. Work in 2020 will include re-marking the control group, re-boostering does vaccinated in 2019, administering further primary vaccinations and boosters and collecting and further analyzing data”.  This will include post-IC data.

The UWSS appreciates the support of the Province and the District of Oak Bay. For more information, please go to https://www.oakbay.ca/municipal-hall/news/deer-management-grant-funding.

Living with Wildlife: the Oak Bay Deer study

Living with Wildlife: the Oak Bay Deer study

When you think of deer, do you think of a doe feeding in a wilderness meadow, the Disney movie Bambi, or of the light-up decorations that were on display over Christmastime in front yards across Canada? For many people, deer are just that—something far away, a cartoon, or merely an inanimate decoration. However, in some cities in British Columbia, deer are a common, yet divisive, part of the urban landscape.

A Columbia black-tailed deer buck.

The native Columbia black-tailed deer (CBTD; a more docile sub-species of the mule deer found on the mainland), has coexisted on the landscape with humans for millennia. The First Nations of southern Vancouver Island used fire for land management that promoted the growth of important food plants like camas and would attract game species like CBTD. However, in the years since European colonization, southern Vancouver Island has grown into 13 municipal districts with a population of over 400,000 people. With the ensuing urban development, suburban sprawl, fire suppression, and predator exclusion has combined to change ecosystem dynamics and species distributions.

Coexistence with humans has resulted in habitat fragmentation, with a whopping 1,807 species at risk of extinction in BC, and over 110 of those species in southern Vancouver Island alone. However, some species do well coexisting with humans, like raccoons and deer—which can interact with humans and their property often enough to be considered nuisances. But are these now urban wildlife too numerous and running amok amidst the city backdrop, or is this actually bad press?

Just where are the deer?

The District of Oak Bay has been in the news often about a deer overpopulation problem. They’ve attempted a cull to manage deer populations, but as found in other municipalities, the cull had no lasting impact on the deer population but it did garner a public outcry. Management of the urban deer population has been highly polarizing—some people want them to stay, some people want them completely gone—but the management of urban wildlife is predicated on the knowledge of population size.

Even deer need to do 2:30 am feedings.

Residents can give wildly different estimates of the number of deer present in Oak Bay. Any single human observer may see six deer in their yard one day and then none the next—humans have a cognitive bias, the availability bias, whereby we note large groups without noting all the absences in between—which inflates estimates. And, when trying to count mobile species, you need to be sure that you’re not counting the same individuals more than once. And if you don’t see a deer, can you be sure that it’s actually not there as opposed to just hiding? Thankfully camera traps to the rescue!

Camera traps

Remote camera trap set up.

We divided the 10.5 km2 of Oak Bay into 400m grid cells, and we systematically placed one camera trap into each of those 39 grid cells. Each camera trap was a Bushnell infra-red remote digital camera, secured to a tree between 0.5-1.5 m above the ground. Human observers can miss deer that are well hidden or might miss them in time (e.g. once the observer goes home for the day). The motion-activated camera traps are able to take photos throughout the day, eliminating those kinds of errors. The systematic design we used also allows us to differentiate between areas with high numbers of deer and those without deer—and ensured we could collect multiple observations of the same individuals across space—allowing us to get a good idea of space use. In addition to the cameras, we put GPS collars on 20 does to get an idea of home range size in Oak Bay, but the GPS collars had double-duty, to “mark” our known deer population. By measuring how frequently we detected marked (collared) animals at a camera station, compared to the number of unmarked animals, we could get an accurate estimate of population size.

Attaching the GPS collar, which “marks” our deer on our camera trap photos. Each doe has a unique colour combination of tags that identifies each individual.

Combining this systematic camera trap design with GPS collars has allowed us to generate the first, precise and robust estimate of CBTD population size in Oak Bay’s history. So then, just how many deer are running rampant around Oak Bay? Our analyses tell us that there are just under 100 deer (97 is the median, 95% confidence intervals between 72-128) and that they aren’t distributed equally across the municipality. Most deer spent their time within a 0.14 km2 area, and the largest average area a deer would use is 0.64 km2—significantly smaller than the home ranges they would use in wild environments (~140 to 1,770 ha.). That tells us that Oak Bay residents are seeing the same deer over and over, rather than seeing hoards of deer just once as they migrate through a large area.

Coexistence?

Two does with the twin fawns in 2018. If future camera trap photos with fawns are limited to our control group that didn’t get IC, then we should be able to show that it is an effective method of urban deer population control.

With a definitive understanding of how many deer actually reside within Oak Bay, and where they are concentrating within the municipality, management can now be tailored to be cost-effective and successful. This fall, we administered immunocontraceptive (IC) to 60 does, and in the spring of 2020, our camera traps will be able to tell us if this birth control method was successful. If only our control group of does have fawns at the heel on camera trap photos, then we should be able to conclude that IC can be effectively administered as a non-lethal urban wildlife management technique—for Oak Bay, the Capital Region District of Vancouver Island, and other municipalities across BC that are struggling with their own urban deer management. We’ll be looking forward to seeing what the spring 2020 camera trap photos will reveal!

This piece was reposted with permission from WildCAM.