When Bambi is not cute

The Disney image of Bambi, the spotted fawn with its large round eyes and fluttering eyelashes, has charmed audiences around the world since the film was first released in 1942 (1). I am no exception and, to this day, cannot suppress an, “Aww, cute!” when I see a spotted fawn that reminds me of Bambi.

black-tailed deer fawn grazing at Channel Ridge on Salt Spring Island
Black-tailed deer fawn, Channel Ridge (Salt Spring Island), June 2019

But seeing a spotted fawn on Salt Spring is not cause for celebration. As the Salt Spring Island Conservancy writes:

Reduced predation and hunting pressure have allowed deer populations to increase on Salt Spring Island far above natural levels. A recent study in the Gulf Islands showed that deer have over-browsed native vegetation and reduced the diversity and abundance of birds. (2)

The Conservancy cites a 2011 article by Tara Martin, Peter Arcese,and Nanda Scheerder, which compared vegetation structure and bird populations across 18 islands in the Gulf Islands (Canada) and San Juan Islands (US), which are in the same border-straddling archipelago. They found that islands with a high deer density had less diversity in their bird fauna, probably caused by the loss of forest understory (shrubs) (3).

In an interview for a later article in a local newspaper, Tara Martin explained that the deer population on Salt Spring Island has increased dramatically: “When settlers arrived 150 years ago, there were no more than 1,000 black-tailed deer on the island. Today, that number has increased to over 6,000.” She suggested that hunters should be allowed to shoot more than two deer per person, and not be limited to bucks (male deer). (As an aside, she also refers to Bambi as a partial explanation for people’s sentimental attachment to deer [4].)

Black-tailed deer are native to the Gulf Islands (5) and, while their current population may have increased to the point that they have become a “nuisance” animal, they are treated differently from species that were introduced to the Gulf Islands later and have since become invasive, such as the rabbit. About the latter, Martin said, “They are not native to the island and should therefore be trapped or hunted at every opportunity” (4).

Having had my own gardening efforts frustrated repeatedly—and in spite of extensive fencing— by both deer and rabbits, I get over my initial “Aww, cute!” rather quickly. When it comes to invasive plants such as gorse and Scotch broom, I don’t think twice about pulling them out. But one of the questions that came to my mind when considering whether an invasive animal like the rabbit should be eradicated from Salt Spring Island is whether Homo sapiens can, similarly, be considered an invasive species (and, if so, where does that leave us?).

Unsurprisingly, I am not the first to ask this question. Sarah Zielinski discusses whether human beings meet the criteria for invasiveness and concludes that we do not because “humans had colonized every continent but Antarctica by about 15,000 years ago” and because our species was not introduced to new regions by an external force but rather migrated there by itself. She concludes:

We’re not an invasive species, though we’re certainly doing harm to the world around us. If you think about it, all of the harm done by invasive species is by definition our collective faults; some kind of human action led to that species being in a new place where it then causes some harm. And so I’m not at all astonished to find people arguing that we’re the worst invasive species of them all. (6)

Zielinski’s conclusion is echoed in a later New York Times article by Livia Albeck-Ripka who, similarly, explains that humans don’t meet the formal criteria to be considered an invasive species, although there is no doubt about the damage humans have done to the ecosystems they inhabit. Piero Genovesi, chairman of the invasive species group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, has suggested that “a more useful way to think of ourselves … is as the drivers of every problem conservation tries to remedy” (7).

If black-tailed deer are a “nuisance” rather than “invasive” animal because they are native to the region, and human beings are similarly considered native and thus technically non-invasive, but we have caused so much damage as to make the “nuisance” category woefully inadequate, how should we describe our species? “Cute,” anyone?

male black-tailed deer grazing
“Black Tailed deer – Digitized Velvia Slide film”by Alan Vernon. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

(1) American Film Institute, Bambi, https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/27130

(2) Salt Spring Island Conservancy, Black-Tailed Deer, https://saltspringconservancy.ca/black-tailed-deer-2/

(3) Tara G. Martin, Peter Arcese,and Nanda Scheerder, “Browsing Down Our Natural Heritage: Deer Impacts on Vegetation Structure and Songbird Populations Across an Island Archipelago,” Biological Conservation 144, no. 1 (2011): 459-469.

(4) Frants Attorp, “Forest Ecologist Calls for Deer Cull,” Gulf Islands Driftwood, October 12, 2017, https://www.gulfislandsdriftwood.com/news/forest-ecologist-calls-for-deer-cull/

(5) Donald A. Blood, Mule and Black-Tailed Deer in British Columbia, British Columbia Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks (2000), http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/muledeer.pdf

(6) Sarah Zielinski, “Are Humans an Invasive Species?” Smithsonian.com, January 31, 2011, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/are-humans-an-invasive-species-42999965/

(7) Livia Albeck-Ripka, “Are We an Invasive Species?” The New York Times, December 6, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/06/climate/climate-fwd-humans-invasive-species.html