Feral deer are running rampant in Victoria and Tasmania, destroying crops and natural habitats, prompting calls to change local laws and allow the animals to be classified as pests.
The Invasive Species Council is pushing for deer to be classified as pests in the states—which are the only Australian jurisdictions where deer are legally protected as game animals for hunting purposes.
There are solutions, so landowners can kill deer on their own properties and authorities can go onto public land and capture them.
Not classifying deer as a pest, however, creates a mixed message about whether they can be culled, the council says. Theoretically, the animals can run on neighboring properties without restriction.
The National Wild Deer Action Plan, developed by a working group and backed by the federal government, estimates there are up to two million wild deer in Australia – up from about 50,000 in 1980.
In Victoria there could be as many as one million, says Peter Jacobs, the Invasive Species Council’s state deer project officer.
“That protected status of deer is very much a relic of the past when there were small numbers of deer in Victoria that were basically released for hunting in the mid-1800s,” he told AAP.
“One landowner sees them as a serious pest, and the next landowner thinks they’re cute and likes the idea of them running around … and they don’t have to do anything about it.”
If left unchecked, wild deer populations in good conditions can increase by up to 50 percent a year, meaning a herd of 30 deer could grow to 500 in a decade, according to the action plan.
Jenny O’Sullivan, a cattle and sheep farmer in Victoria’s South Gippsland region, spoke to 15 other farmers near Cape Liptrap as part of a Landcare weed and pest control programme.
Each farmer was concerned about the “enormous increase” in deer damaging trees, prompting them to form a community action group to control the animals.
“We’re very keen to respect the deer—we don’t like to kill them… they’re very cute. But we cannot tolerate the damage they are doing to the forest,” said O’Sullivan.
“There are always going to be deer for the hunters to hunt, but we cannot continue to do what we are currently doing because it is not sufficient.”
She emphasized that deer control should be done by experienced shooters.
Victoria has its own plan – the Victorian Deer Management Strategy – which sets out a clear plan to manage deer populations.
The animal’s wildlife status does not prevent them from being controlled when they damage the environment or property, a spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action said.
In Tasmania, up to 100,000 deer are estimated to cover about a quarter of the state, encroaching on the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Projections suggest more than 500,000 deer will roam Tasmania by 2050.
Culling permits differ for landowners in Tasmania, Invasive Species Council conservation officer Tiana Pirtle said.
“There is still a lot of bureaucratic red tape for landowners to wade through,” said Pirtle.
“There are a lot of landowners … in the Midlands where deer are the biggest problem and also the hardest to get permits to control, and they’re just really fed up with all these restrictions and unwillingness to admit it’s a problem.”
The Tasmanian government says its wild fallow deer management plan takes a balanced approach to managing the impact of deer on agriculture, along with conservation areas and forestry zones, while maintaining deer as a “traditional hunting resource”.
The federal government continues to work with the states and territories to address the “significant threat” of wild deer, a Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water spokesman said.
The government is pouring $224.5 million (US$156.72 million) into the Saving Native Species program and has given Tasmania $400,000 to use to eradicate deer in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.
According to the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, about $18 million has been allocated directly to wild deer management programs since 2015.
The National Wild Deer Action Plan urges national authorities to create a containment zone and eradicate small deer populations outside the zone.
A draft action plan is open for public comment until March 20, after which it will be considered by the federal agriculture department’s Environment and Invasive and National Biosecurity Committees.