By Jamie Steer 13/04/2017 8


Dr Jamie Steer ponders whether the ‘deer are like moa’ debate has passed its use-by date. This is the second and concluding part of the series – read part one here.

Critics stuck in the past

I reckon that critics of the ‘deer are like moa’ position often misinterpret it. Deer advocates have never claimed that deer are the same as moa in terms of what, where and how they eat, but simply suggest that deer are functionally equivalent to moa, as large forest-dwelling herbivores. This means that they perform similar overarching roles or occupy similar niches within the forest – not that their effects are identical.

And, while these critics acknowledge the importance of moa browsing in pre-human ecosystems, they also still often make the ‘straw man’ argument that enclosure plot experiments prove that browsing damages forests. Observing this, hunters refer to the plots as ‘exclosures,’ pointing out that they only show what forests are like without large herbivores, not what they were like in pre-human times.

deer
Hybrid red-sika deer

Ironically, by fixating on the many differences between deer and moa, mainstream conservationists risk undermining their own forest restoration efforts, for these too cannot replicate the ecosystems shaped by moa and other extinct native species. There is simply no way to bring back the functional roles of extinct species such as the adzebill, Haast’s eagle and New Zealand raven.

They also seem to undermine the fond comparisons that are frequently made between the functional roles of many other native birds (or other native animals) and the functional roles of mammals elsewhere in the world. For example, weta are claimed to have functional similarities to small mammals such as mice in other parts of the world, particularly as seed dispersers. Are these comparisons any more valid than those between moa and deer? Hardly.

But so are hunters

Hunters, on the other hand, undermine their position with the ‘deer are like moa’ argument because it buys into the same flawed assumption that their opponents make: that the most desirable kind of ‘natural’ ecosystem to strive for today is a pre-human one.

The problem with this thinking is that ignores the fact that ecosystems are dynamic and their component plants and animals constantly have to adapt as restless nature moves on. Most hunters actually know this, which is why they rail against their opponents for pursuing what former New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association president the late John Henderson once called “Garden of Eden cuckoo-land policies.”

But arguing that deer should be accepted simply because they replicate the ecological effects of extinct moa pretty much endorses the same ‘cuckoo’ perspective.

Enough with the moa-in-drag routine

In many ways, the concept of functional equivalence (‘deer are like moa’) itself is comically anachronistic. It sets up the image of a tidy, orderly little world in which every species plays its part in ensuring the clockwork-like stability and replicability of ecosystems. Every species has its role or place where it belongs.

‘Doa’ © Laurie Steer

But what the science of the past 40 or so years has consistently shown is that nature is more about flux and indeterminacy. Little is predictable or inevitable about the trajectory of ecosystems or the roles of their component species.

The functions we have bestowed on different species and the importance we have placed on those functions are mostly just made up to fit the stories about nature we currently want to believe.

For me, trying to dress deer up as moa-in-drag is unnecessary and even unhelpful, as it reinforces the idea that we ought to force nature back to some idealised but unattainable former state.

Deer do show some functional similarities to moa, but there are important differences too. They probably do change forest composition in some novel ways.

But in the year 2017 – centuries after the extinction of the moa – the species mix has been utterly and irrevocably transformed from the pre-human state (with many more changes still to come). So aren’t the moa comparisons all a bit irrelevant now?

Move on people

Deer are widely valued elements of New Zealand’s contemporary biodiversity (remember, ‘biodiversity’ means more than just indigenous biodiversity). A Landcare Research survey of public views towards introduced wildlife in 2001 showed that the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders enjoy seeing deer in the wild.

Rather than attempt convoluted and potentially counterproductive ecological justifications, why can’t hunters just say that they like and support the presence of deer in New Zealand, and that there’s actually nothing wrong with that?

We’ve been debating whether deer are sort of like moa for close to a century, with no conclusive result. That’s because it was always a distraction from what was really at issue. The fact is that deer are here, we like them, and they have a place in post-moa New Zealand just as we do.

They’re not substitutes for anything and they don’t need to be.

This post is adapted from an article originally published in New Zealand Hunting & Wildlife, the quarterly magazine of the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association Inc.

Featured image: Early depiction of Maori hunting moa (erroneously pictured with bow and arrow). See Creative Commons.


8 Responses to “Are deer sort of like moa? – Part 2”

  • Thank you Jamie, your arguments are very refreshing. It is time that conservation in New Zealand had a reboot and you have much to offer.

  • That has to be the worst image of moa ever made – it is wrong in every way. The erect stance is impossible for moa, the bare-legged look is like an ostrich and they were nothing like this, even the large eyes are wrong. Guess this all goes with the (acknowledged) fabrication of giving Maori bow and arrows.

    I am glad the author says moa acted nothing like deer. Moa likely never exceeded 2 birds per km and selectively browsed shrubs/. trees. They lacked the specialised ruminant system that allows deer to eat low value browse and so exist in high densities leading to the complete demolition of the understorey that we observe where they reign unchecked..

    • Ha ha, it’s a great image isn’t it? I have since spoken to the artist about this and he informs me that these two particular birds were road cycling enthusiasts – which explains the shaven legs. As for the boggling eyes, you would too if you had someone pointing a bow and arrow at you…

      Seriously though Trevor, what do you make of my contention that the morphological/ecological differences between deer and moa has been something of a distraction? Can we only accept introduced wildlife if they are either totally benign, or accurately replicate the effects of extinct natives?

      • Regards the latter comment – yes and know. As you say, folk should not, and cannot legitimately say that deer and the mammalian browsers are replacing moa – that is patently incorrect and long refuted. So it is more about what the aim is today. We have to accept that the flora developed/evolved in the absence of ruminant browsers, and without browsers with teeth etc – and this is why unchecked populations of goats or deer have such huge effects on the flora, leading to complete exclusion of multiple species – ie changed species composition and likely extinction of some taxa in the longer term. The question should be do we want to preserve the NZ flora with a composition and diversity that typify NZ – or do we want to loose that and accept only certain elements will survive. That would be the case if we allowed ungulates to be unchecked in density and we know they will reach large numbers given they have no biological controls in NZ such as wolves etc. Moreover – hunters, hunting only for fun have no demonstrated ability to keep the populations of ungulates in sufficiently low density that long term denigration of the environment wont occur. The immediate impact (ie in 1-10 yrs) can be complete removal of the understorey, but more serious is the impact that will occur over hundreds of years because of the delay effects of seed banks and life cycles of plants. So in human terms it will take a while, but in geological terms it is rapid and presumably irrevocable change in the species composition in NZ. And why – so a few folk can shoot a deer. It might be nice to shoot deer – but they live naturally in say the USA so one can go there to shoot one – they have in places quota systems so you have to wait one’s turn to get a go as it were. Should we let cougars go in NZ so folk can hunt them, after all they would do well eating teh deer and goats. That would be quite satisfying to some – but it would be another selfish gratification not in the best interest of most NZers. There are innumerable translocations of deer and other introduced animals to and in NZ – we certainly do not need more and many that did occur should be seen for what they are – major mistakes.

        • Thanks a lot for this very considered response Trevor. I owe you one in return.

          First, you write ‘Do we want to preserve the NZ flora with a composition and diversity that typify NZ – or do we want to loose that and accept only certain elements will survive?’

          My response is that it is not just the native species that typify the NZ flora. We have over 26,000 introduced plant species. Many of these species are widespread and highly valued. Our ecosystems are nearly all comprised of a mix of native and introduced.

          I believe that we need to do better at appreciating the diversity of our flora, including their varied origins.

          Further, it is not a stark choice between purity or obliteration. We can maintain most of our more vulnerable native species and ecosystems in much smaller ranges than they once inhabited. But, yes, not all of them.

          There has to be a little bit of give here though. Proclaiming that we are going to endeavor to save everything, everywhere just doesn’t ring true anymore. It’s good politics but bad management.

          Ecological change will happen by default either way, but I’d rather we were open and strategic about it.

          Second, you write, ‘…hunters, hunting only for fun have no demonstrated ability to keep the populations of ungulates in sufficiently low density that long term denigration of the environment wont occur. And why – so a few folk can shoot a deer.’

          My response is that retaining deer is not just to the benefit of hunters. As I noted in the article, most NZers enjoy seeing deer in the wild too. It is also not just about us and what we want. Deer in NZ value their own lives as well.

          I think you are a little unfair to hunters. Cosmically, it is a fairly trivial thing to hunt a deer, but then so too is bird watching or botanizing (I suppose I could add bone-collecting to that list as well?).

          Third, you write ‘It might be nice to shoot deer – but they live naturally in say the USA so one can go there to shoot one – they have in places quota systems so you have to wait one’s turn to get a go as it were.’

          My response is that there are innumerable other experiences or forms of recreation that could be limited to their place of origin using this argument.

          Personally, I don’t think we need to be that harsh. On a practical level, not everyone in NZ can afford to jet set around the world to their favourite game parks either.

          I’m also like most other people in NZ – I quite like seeing deer in the wild. I don’t run a filter over everything I see and judge it on where it came from (or rather where it was brought from in this case).

          We need to be questioning the assumption that things have a natural place in the world where they belong now.

          Finally you write, ‘Should we let cougars go in NZ so folk can hunt them, after all they would do well eating teh deer and goats. That would be quite satisfying to some – but it would be another selfish gratification not in the best interest of most NZers…we certainly do not need more and many that did occur should be seen for what they are – major mistakes.’

          My response is that I agree that we should think carefully before pursing any further deliberate introductions. I’m not advocating for that.

          But we also can’t use our past mistakes as justification for treating the species we have introduced as valueless or unworthy of consideration and compassion. And, yes, that extends beyond merely deciding on the most humane ways of killing them. Our responsibilities are not just to native species.

          Most of our conservation practice in NZ is directed toward protecting a small and charismatic sub-set of our native biota, principally birds. These are also the species that tend to lend the most to our economy (particularly tourism) and existing sense of national identity.

          There will come a point where we will have to own up to the fact that there is more than a little ‘selfish gratification’ in those decisions.

          • “Proclaiming that we are going to endeavor to save everything, everywhere…”. This is exactly the absurd kind argument that Bill Benfield uses in his blogs and books. Please provide evidence that this view has been proclaimed anywhere.

            Secondly, the fact that “most” NZers like to see deer does not mean that most NZers want them eating everything, yes, literally everything within reach, in our native forests. What you describe in this context is nothing more than an emotional response to seeing a large animal in the wild.

            Thirdly, your focus on deer as a representative of increased biodiversity is, as Trevor Worthy makes abundantly clear, a fallacious argument as this group of browsers alone reduce biodiversity and have the capability of making it permanent. The same is true for pretty much all invasive species (note that I do not use the word “pests”) which, in the NZ context, cannot be discussed one species at a time. They exist in communities that compete for precious resources that our native taonga are absolutely reliant on. Why don’t you go and tell “most New Zealanders” that and ask what they think?

          • Thanks for your thoughts Duncan. Here are my responses.

            “Proclaiming that we are going to endeavor to save everything, everywhere…”. This is exactly the absurd kind argument that Bill Benfield uses in his blogs and books. Please provide evidence that this view has been proclaimed anywhere.

            Response: One place to look would be the NZ Biodiversity Strategy. Goal three of the Strategy in part is to ‘Maintain and restore viable populations of all indigenous species and subspecies across their natural range and maintain their genetic diversity’. While reasonable enough in theory, the practicality of it is dubious.

            Most of our biodiversity is invertebrates (95% of species), the majority of which are yet to even be classified (much less managed for conservation). Many of these species have extremely localized populations. Maintaining all these native species, sub-species, and their genes, and across their natural range, in reality leaves very little, if any, room for humans or the species they have introduced. It’s neither realistic nor desirable.

            Another place to look would be the Government’s recent endorsement of the Predator Free NZ vision. This vision is not about setting some places aside where certain mammals may be controlled or eradicated, it’s fundamentally about eradicating them everywhere. It’s an extreme vision with no scope for compromise. And, like all absolutes, it’s very intoxicating for a segment of society.

            Secondly, the fact that “most” NZers like to see deer does not mean that most NZers want them eating everything, yes, literally everything within reach, in our native forests. What you describe in this context is nothing more than an emotional response to seeing a large animal in the wild.

            Response: Deer do not eat everything in the forest within reach. Their effects are variable and depend on the current species composition in the understorey. Deer are not present in all our forests either.

            Yes, species that are more palatable to deer will likely become less numerous in the canopy over time. They will be replaced by other species that are less palatable.

            Deer are one of thousands of introduced species that are gradually changing our ecosystems over time. In my mind it is not to a better or worse state in general, but merely to a different state.

            Thirdly, your focus on deer as a representative of increased biodiversity is, as Trevor Worthy makes abundantly clear, a fallacious argument as this group of browsers alone reduce biodiversity and have the capability of making it permanent. The same is true for pretty much all invasive species (note that I do not use the word “pests”) which, in the NZ context, cannot be discussed one species at a time. They exist in communities that compete for precious resources that our native taonga are absolutely reliant on. Why don’t you go and tell “most New Zealanders” that and ask what they think?

            Response: No, deer are by no means the only browsers that have the capacity to change the structure and composition of our ecosystems. Other familiar examples include possums and goats.

            The attitude that our ecosystems should be identified and valued simply by their native components (i.e., excluding introduced species) is in my mind deeply flawed and retrospective.

            As you note, it is not always helpful to discuss ecosystems one species at a time and introduced species, in general, have increased the species richness in this country – quite dramatically in fact.

            New Zealanders current attitudes to biodiversity are a reflection of the sharply dichotomized environmental education (e.g., native or introduced, modified or pristine, nature or culture) they have been imparted for the last 40-50 years.

            For perspective, we will recall that colonial New Zealanders in the mid-19th century were often similarly black-and-white with their understandings of nature. They generally preferred the introduced component and considered the native component to be an encumbrance.

            We can see now that that was a mistake but are probably not quite yet in a place to fully reflect on the ways that our present understandings are similarly misguided, not to mention unfair.

  • Jamie,
    What is most splendid about this weblog series is how you have stripped the arguments back to their fundamental elements – so very revealing. I have been struggling with the contradictions in these arguments from both sides of the debate myself but you provide a simple clarity about them – thanks. And, as is so often the case when the arguments are stripped back to their fundamentals, you’ve demonstrated along the way that rather than a consensus up the middle there is a better conceptual pathway that detours around all the unnecessary, distracting complexities – nicely done.

    This doesn’t, however, relieve us from the other and more substantial complexity of the problem which is the human dimensions of the topic – politics and power. Whose values does biodiversity management most represent? Is it possible that the different and diverse values about native and exotic wildlife can coexist to inform pluralistic biodiversity strategies and policy? Currently, in New Zealand we seem a long way in this debate from mutual respect of different values and arguments. Nativism, in particular, and its perspectives about alien or invasive species appears to be particularly intolerant of other perspectives and values, perhaps because of its puritanical foundations.

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