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.
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.
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.