Wild deer run rampant in Victoria and Tasmania, destroying crops and natural habitats and sparking calls to change local laws to allow the animals to be classified as pests.
The Invasive Species Council is pushing for deer to be classified as vermin in the states – the only Australian jurisdictions where deer are legally protected as game animals for hunting purposes.
There are workarounds so landowners can kill deer on their own properties and authorities can go to public land to cull them.
However, not classifying deer as pests creates a conflicting message about whether they can be culled, the council says. Theoretically, the animals can run free on neighboring properties without restriction.
The National Feral Deer Action Plan, which is being developed by a working group and supported by the federal government, estimates that there are up to two million feral deer in Australia – up from about 50,000 in 1980.
There could be as many as a million in Victoria, says Peter Jacobs, the Invasive Species Council project officer for the Invasive Species Council.
“That protected status of deer is very much a holdover from the past when there were small numbers of deer in Victoria that were actually released into the region to hunt as early as the mid-1800s,” he told AAP.
“One landowner sees them as a serious nuisance, 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 under good conditions, wild deer populations can increase by as much as 50 percent a year, meaning a herd of 30 deer could grow to 500 in 10 years, according to the action plan.
Jenny O’Sullivan, a beef and sheep farmer in Victoria’s South Gippsland region, spoke with 15 other farmers near Cape Liptrap as part of a Landcare weed and pest control program.
Each farmer was concerned about the “huge increase” of deer damaging trees, prompting them to form a community action group to control the animals.
“We really want to respect the deer – we don’t like to kill them… they are very cute. But we can’t stand the damage they’re doing to the bush,” said Ms O’Sullivan.
“There will always be deer for the hunters to hunt, but we can’t keep doing what we’re doing now because it’s not enough.”
She stressed that deer control should be done by experienced shooters.
Victoria has its own plan – the Victorian Deer Control Strategy – outlining a clear plan for managing deer populations.
The animal’s wild status does not prevent their scrutiny if they damage the environment or property, said a spokeswoman for the Victorian Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action.
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 there will be more than 500,000 deer roaming Tasmania by 2050.
Clearance permits differ for landowners in Tasmania, said Tiana Pirtle, conservation officer for the Invasive Species Council.
“There’s still a lot of bureaucratic red tape that landowners have to wade through,” said Dr 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 acknowledge that this is 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 forest areas, while maintaining deer as a “traditional hunting resource”.
The federal government continues to work with the states and territories to address the “significant threat” posed by wild deer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water said.
Design action plan
The government is investing $224.5 million in the Saving Native Species Program and has given Tasmania $400,000 to eradicate the deer in the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.
Since 2015, some $18 million has been funneled directly to wild deer management programs, according to the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
The National Wild Deer Action Plan is urging state 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 Invasives and National Biosecurity committees.