Ever since settlers came on the scene in southwestern Ontario, the ecological balance in natural areas has been spiralling downward. Predators such as Eastern Cougar, Black Bear and Timber Wolves, all of which at one point occurred here and fed on White-tailed Deer among other things, have been eliminated. And so the deer flourished. Rapidly. Increased numbers of deer were even more apparent at Rondeau, where more than 3200 hectares of natural area existed. While many park visitors relished the thought of seeing deer easily and up close....sometimes really close.....it played havoc with the overall park ecology. Deer eat vegetation....a lot of vegetation. When the numbers of wintering deer get way out of proportion to what an ecosystem can stand, the results are devastating.
In recent years, we have been used to seeing the forest ecosystem in a reasonably healthy condition. The forest floor is covered with wildflowers and greenery in spring.
|Carpet of Mayapple|
At the time Rondeau became a provincial park in 1894, there were no deer in the park. It was crown land, as it is today, and had been leased out as a private hunting reserve in part. As a result deer were eliminated. In the early years of Rondeau's existence as a provincial park, deer were re-introduced. The numbers rose quickly and in a short time, the numbers were deemed too high, so from then up until the early 1970s, deer were regularly culled to keep the population at a level that the park's ecosystem could handle. Deer were considered a public attraction, however, and so a deer enclosure was maintained just south of the current maintenance compound, where the public were guaranteed to see and even feed deer. There were other wildlife pens in the park, some of which housed non-native species. For example there were Prairie Chickens (native to Ontario, but not to Rondeau) and even Peacocks (not native to North America). The next image from the park files was taken in 1961. I vaguely remember this enclosure from my youth.
However when the park began its Master Planning process in 1974, there was an outcry by a few people who indicated that shooting Bambi was wrong, and that more humane methods should be used to keep the numbers down, if in fact lower numbers were necessary. In fact some of them argued vehemently that the general public seeing deer was almost more important than the health of the park's ecosystem. The deer culls were therefore put on hold while other methods were proposed and investigated, including:
-trap and transport to other areas away from the park;
-re-establishing large predators;
-instituting birth control.
Since it took several years for the methods to be investigated and the political will to determine the best solution, the numbers of deer steadily increased and stayed at an abnormally high level. As mentioned, the winter population approached 600 animals. Even the summer population was excessively high. Some local people took it upon themselves to bring in food such as bags of corn, and this next image was not an uncommon sight. The first photo, taken by a park colleague, shows me taking the second photo.
We set up two deer exclosures in 1978, one just south of Bennett Ave and the other just south of Gardiner Ave, both of which are still in existence and you can visit them today. In just a few years, the differences inside compared to the outside were dramatic. Inside, the forest vegetation was starting to reappear, where as just outside of the fenced area, vegetation continued to be almost non-existent. These next two images were taken in late spring of 1989, less than a decade after the exclosures were put up.
The delay in determining what to do with the excessive deer population resulted in several things:
-during the colder winters, we found that some deer were so starved, they simply sat down and died;
-many does were in such poor condition that most of them were not able to give birth, and those young that were produced did not survive all that well;
-the Rondeau deer were the smallest sized deer in the entire province;
-the forest health continued to decline;
-ground-nesting birds, such as Ovenbird, were almost non-existent;
-spring wildflowers were the exception not the rule, and those that one could find were very small;
-in some extremely over browsed areas, the forest floor was dominated by less palatable grasses, not wildflowers;
-some tree species that were not as preferred by deer as food such as Blue Beech increased. Other species that deer found more palatable such as Tulip-tree declined, thus shifting the forest make-up as entire age classes of some tree species were on the verge of disappearing.
There were many side issues related to this dilemma of what to do with the excessive numbers of deer, not surprisingly. I was in the midst of this whole process to various degrees, while I was the park ecologist until the mid 1980s and the MNR district ecologist after that. But I will not go off on those tangents, hopefully.
It turns out that the simplest and most effective way of keeping the park's ecosystem healthy, including the deer population, was to cull the herd and keep it to a winter-time population of between 100-150 animals. So in the mid-1990s, a deer herd reduction (DHR) program was begun again. The results have been pleasing to say the least. Virtually all of the negative things listed above, were reversed.
More fawns were being seen, and they were looking healthy.
|April deer, 2011|
I remember congratulating the park superintendent of the day, several years after the DHR was re-instituted, by saying that for the longest time one had to photograph wildflowers with a macro lens and zoom in to single flowers. However after the park had a few years to recover, one could photograph the forest floor with a wide angle lens and capture many wildflowers such as shown in this next image.
Keep up the good work MNR&F!