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What’s Killing New Brunswick’s Deer?

FREDERICTON—New Brunswick’s deer population is at historic lows. Why?

That’s a question that hunters and environmentalists alike in New Brunswick are wrestling with after this year’s white-tailed deer hunt reported a 38 per cent decline. The hunt saw 4,313 deer harvested, down from 6,935 reported in 2014.

Some people are pointing the finger at the impact of glyphosate used in the province’s forestry sector. The herbicide has been sprayed in New Brunswick’s forests since the 1970s.

Glyphosate is approved for this type of use by Health Canada, yet a recent study by a branch of the World Health Organization raised new concerns about its health impacts.

One New Brunswick biologist says the use of glyphosate as part of the province’s forestry practices are one big reason New Brunswick has seen such a sharp drop in deer population. It’s not about the potential health effects, rather it’s a result of how the herbicide changes the natural growth patterns where it’s sprayed in the province’s forests. It’s an issue that’s been building for years he says.

“The biggest problem we are having is changing the amount of deer food that is available across the landscape,” says Rod Cumberland, a certified wildlife biologist who worked for the New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources for 22 years before leaving in 2012. Since then he’s been an outspoken critic of the government’s policies.

Glyphosate is used to prevent hardwood trees from growing in areas of Crown forests that have been recently harvested by forestry companies. Hardwoods tend to emerge first after an area is cut, reducing the growth of the softwood trees which are harvested for use in the province’s pulp and paper mills. By using the herbicide to prevent hardwoods from growing, softwood trees grow faster and can be harvested more quickly.

According to the province’s Department of the Environment, 77,000 kilograms of glyphosate was sold for use in New Brunswick in 2014.

“All these poplars, birches, willows, raspberry bushes, all the things that deer love to eat, that’s what the herbicide kills,” says Cumberland. “32,000 acres get sprayed every year. That’s a huge chunk of real estate that you are permanently removing from the deer equation.”

““What is sprayed is probably the best and most fertile ground there is on Crown land,” adds Cumberland. Over time, changing the Crown land ecosystem by removing hardwoods has a direct impact on where deer thrive, he says. “There’s all kinds of evidence to show that deer have changed where they live.”

The Province of New Brunswick, in charge of regulating the use of herbicides, says that other factors are behind the drop in deer population.

“Our biologists are of the opinion that glyphosate can temporarily reduce deer food abundance in local areas. However it is not believed to significantly lower deer food supplies across the province to an extent that deer populations are impacted.  Winter survival, predation, poaching and accidents are more impacting to New Brunswick’s deer herd,” says Marc Belliveau, a spokesperson for the provincial Department of Natural Resources.

The web site ForestInfo, a joint project of the federal and provincial natural resources departments, along with Forest NB, JD Irving and Forest Protection, argues that there has never been a “scientifically documented case of direct mortality of moose, deer or other animals attributed to glyphosate-based herbicide exposure.”

However they do acknowledge that “Several studies indicate that moose in particular, are less likely to be found on treated sites in the years following a treatment due to the reduced food supply on these sites. However, this pattern is temporary, and the moose and deer quickly return once the undergrowth has regenerated.”

Cumberland, for one, disagrees that the change is temporary and that it does not affect deer herds. “It’s very obvious that deer populations are declining on Crown land.”

“Most people think that the deer population is great because they live in Quispamsis, Moncton or Fredericton and they see lots of deer every day, but they don’t realize that when you get 10 kilometres outside an urban area deer numbers dry up.”