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Kelowna's deer disaster: Orchards ravaged by urban ungulates

Orchardists facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses are heading south this spring to a mass meeting on urban deer. For everyone from civil servants to scientists, grappling with the destructive force of an animal anthropomorphized as the epitome of harmless is proving an unexpected challenge.

“East Kelowna is going to look like a concentration camp,” says John Casorso as he sits at Niel Dendy’s cherry farm at the end of Pooley Road.

The pair are farm stock with some of the deepest roots in the valley and both are facing a serious new threat from deer.

This spring, farmers in the Central Okanagan will be madly fencing their orchards as whitetail and mule deer populations steadily move in, the does give birth and urban herds are established, wreaking havoc for fruit growers from Glenmore to South Kelowna.

“…Last spring was the worst we’ve ever seen. They went up and down every single apple row and ate about 95 per cent of the buds from about six feet down. It looked like somebody had gone through and mowed,” said Casorso.

To the average person, these herds of deer are a road hazard, a disaster for the flower garden or, unfortunately, a friendly backyard pet.Casorso sees the threat.

In addition to the four separate car accidents he saw last year near his central Kelowna farm, he’s counted up to 33 animals in a field at one time. When they’re done chewing, a brand new tree can be left a mere stick.

“This could finish you,” said Dendy, standing in one of his East Kelowna orchards the deer have ravished. “If you were a new orchardist, and this was your only plot, this would be the end.”

As anyone who follows local or provincial politics knows, margins are tight in the tree fruit industry. Orchardists spray to deal with pests. They replant a good tenth of their orchards annually to keep pace with market demand for new varietals. They cope with international trade agreements, which make competitive pricing a tightrope act.

And, like every farmer, their main battle is with the weather. Last year, it was expected $15 million to $18 million in damages would be paid in insurance claims to Okanagan tree fruit growers affected by the hailstorms and spring frost.

Several hundred thousand dollars in losses to just one farm is, thus, serious business, and this is what Dendy believed he was facing after deer hit his property.

deer“I’ve been talking to our consultant, Duane Holder, and he’s thinking that a lot of the trees will survive. It’s good news there, but even for the trees that do live, they’ll still be set back a year or two in their growth. We’re still looking at $100,000 or more,” he said.

In Washington State, where deer and elk have been stripping bark from orchards for years, it led to a pilot program to sterilize elk.

It’s a stress reaction in the deer population, according to UBC professor Peter Arcese, the Forest Renewal B.C. Chair in Conservation Biology.

Stripping bark is a well-documented phenomenon in orchards and wild tree populations, including conifers, he said.

It doesn’t mean the deer have to skin the tree, either. As the deer chews the new growth on a young tree, it’s killing the vascular tissue, damaging the tree’s ability to feed.

To look at Dendy’s orchard, one can see the tree can often survive one or two rounds, but eventually it’s just a dead stick. If it’s not killed, but hampered, it leaves the farmer with an uneven growth pattern that’s difficult for workers to harvest.

Dealing with the deer is also a WorkSafeBC issue.

“I can’t ask my workers to go out there and chase off deer,” said Dendy. “I can do it, but (the deer) don’t back down.”

Dendy and Casorso believe a quick, efficient cull would solve a lot of problems as fencing vast tracts of land is expensive and ugly.

“We do lease most of our property and, even if we could get the posts right now to put in deer fencing, a lot of people that we lease from, they don’t want deer fencing around their properties,” said Dendy. “It’s a complicated issue. We need that land to have a reasonable scale of economy to justify equipment in our packing shed and tractors.”

Between city-mandated setbacks and WorkSafeBC-regulated tractor turning margins, adding fences costs a lot of growing space as well, and pushes this new urban deer population onto the road.

There are a number of reasons the deer are in the valley. From the mild winters climate change has created to logging practices to the forest fires ravaging the region, the foliage deer feed on has flourished to such an extent deer herds are, for lack of a better term, growing by leaps and bounds in the surrounding forest. This has naturally led to an increase in predator populations and the deer have consequently moved down into the valley where there’s easy food and water—and fewer predators.

Last year, the province launched WildSafeBC to deal with the issues. Growing out of the decades-old BearAware education program, there are 26 coordinators tracking human-wildlife interface issues provincewide, writing guides for dealing with animals and even posting sightings of animals online so anyone registered with their system can receive an alert if an animal, like a cougar, wanders into range.

Deer and human conflict is a huge problem in the Southern Interior, according to the Penticton-based coordinator, Zoe Kirk, and it’s infinitely more complicated to deal with and explain.

“Whenever you’re dealing with a thing with a heartbeat it’s going to be a long-term issue,” Kirk said. “It’s a whole constellation of issues.”

Kirk has set up a meeting on March 27 to get people like the orchardists at the same table as local government officials, conservation officers, scientists and academics. Ultimately, she would like to pull in everyone from ICBC to WorkSafeBC to assemble a strategy for dealing with the animal from a multifaceted perspective.

The general public needs to be taught not to feed or try to raise the deer, and garbage needs to be kept off limits, just as it is for bears, she said. Industry and science have to look at what’s causing the problem in the hills and towns and cities have to learn how to handle the influx of problems deer bring.

Unfortunately, the orchardists need more efficient answers.

At the recent B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association meeting, the growers were looking to lobby the Environmental Farm Plan Program for funding to co-ordinate a deer fencing initiative.

Lobbyist Reg Ens, executive director of the B.C. Agriculture Council, shot it down.

“Where the government is focusing the funding on is reducing agriculture’s impact on the environment, as opposed to the environment’s impact on agriculture. So deer is environment making it more difficult to farm. That isn’t what they’re targeting,” he explained.

Without a cull, the fences are going in with or without funding as the orchardists cannot afford more losses.

“We’re losing an aesthetic quality,” said Dendy. “We’ve got lots of cyclists who like to come out to East Kelowna and lots of joggers too. People drive up and take their pets for walks. But our areas are going to be surrounded in barbed wire soon…It’s almost too late to avoid that.”

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