Australia isn’t exactly known for its deer, but the continent is home to over one million, with over six different species. Historically, their management was entrusted to landowners and hunters, but a South Australian (SA) government decision to eliminate all introduced species has changed the game. Rather than responsible management, they’ve turned to complete eradication. Whilst most Americans will never be affected by this cull, it’s a clear example of what not to do with our game populations, introduced, invasive, or otherwise.
Australia is comprised of seven separate states, each governed by its own management body, much like the US system. Often, each government makes its own decisions regarding the management of the wildlife under its jurisdiction. In past years, introduced ungulates like wild deer on private land were under the management of the landowners, with each taking steps to harvest appropriate numbers of animals to keep populations in check.
All of this changed with the introduction of the Landscape South Australia Act 2019, which gave the South Australian Landscape Board virtually unlimited powers to eradicate introduced species across both public and private land, with red, fallow, sambar, rusa, chital, and hog deer lumped together on this list. This act gives the landscape board power to order landowners to eradicate all deer from their property within 14 days of being given notice by the state, whether they want them there or not. If the landowner doesn’t comply, there liable for up to a $25,000 fine.
And if they don’t comply, the landscape board can send helicopters onto private property at any time to cull the deer themselves. And if the landscape board does cull all the deer off a property, they have the ability to legally charge the landowner the entire bill. These government helicopters use thermal imaging to track deer and shoot them with buckshot, leaving a landscape covered in lead-riddled carcasses.
This radical change in management is part of the SA Government’s goal to eradicate all deer. Currently, the state has around 40,000 deer, but they worry that number could increase to 200,000 in 10 years. And that fear is something to take seriously, as overpopulated deer in Australia can contribute to the degeneration of grassland and forest ecosystems, in combination with livestock numbers, kangaroo populations, and forest management. It can also cost landowners, due to competition with livestock. For them, the simplest option is to simply eradicate all deer, no matter the cost to taxpayers, landowners, and the animals themselves.
But the reasons behind growing deer numbers are more complicated. South Australia doesn’t have game agencies responsible for managing wildlife on a landscape level, so the responsibility of management instead fell upon landowners. In most cases, they’ve managed deer responsibly, using recreational hunters to keep deer numbers at appropriate levels, balanced with livestock and native wildlife. Red and fallow deer populations can increase by up to 34% per year, but allowing year-round hunting of does and fawns mitigates this growth, giving adequate hunter access. Such management has grown a thriving recreational hunting industry, both for subsistence hunters filling their freezers, and for trophy hunters chasing mature stags in the fall.
Problems begin to arise when those landowners aren’t so responsible. Some refuse to let recreational hunters onto their property, only harvest stags and bucks, or purposely release deer into areas where they’ve never been to increase hunter opportunity. All of this undermines the efforts of responsible landowners, especially when the growing herds then spread onto other properties.
To further complicated the situation, the SA government’s historical decision to not allow hunting on public land effectively turned national parks and forests into deer sanctuaries. Even with government culls, those public land herds then act as source populations for neighboring private properties. It’s a chain reaction that’s hard to curtail, but that doesn’t mean the only option should be eradication.
The greatest misjudgment of this whole situation is that deer have no value. For hunters and landowners, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Nick Rositano told MeatEater about an instance where his rut hunt was disrupted by helicopter cullers. “At around 5:30 that morning, we were out looking for deer when we heard a faint motor in the distance, getting closer and closer until we looked up and saw two helicopters circling nearby. On this property neighboring a local national park, we counted approximately 150 to 200 shots in around 20 to 30 minutes, with choppers flying low and massacring any deer that gave them a chance. It’s a grim glimpse into the future of deer hunting over here in SA for the next generation.”
Jake Nicholson, another local hunter, has also witnessed the impacts of culling. “It’s devastating to see deer being eradicated on this scale. After working with landowners for years to manage these herds, they’re all just being exterminated. It’s an irreplaceable way of feeding our families and enjoying the outdoors, and the shortsightedness of the current government is destroying this in the blink of an eye. The stress of seeing our hard work flushed down the drain is a sorry sight to see”.
The value is far from just intangible as well. A single fallow deer can yield around 45 to 90 pounds of meat, and with organic ground beef being AUD 25/kg, each animal is worth at least $500 to 1,000, and far more if it’s a red or sambar deer. A large red stag could yield up to 200 pounds of useable meat—enough to feed a family for months.
Extrapolated out across the state’s 40,000 deer, a 35% annual harvest would produce at least 420 metric tonnes of meat valued at over $10 million. That’s nearly 3 times the $4.3 million the South Australian government plans on spending on deer culling in the next 4 years, and it excludes the value of hides, antlers, and guided hunts for these animals as well, which collectively contributes 2.4 billion to the national economy.
Aside from the material destruction, the method of eradication utilized by the South Australian Government can be cruel. Cullers use buckshot shotguns from close range, flying over the top of the running deer. Ethically harvesting just a single animal in this way is an incredibly difficult task, let alone if you’re required to shoot over 50 animals in an hour to meet eradication quotas.
Research indicates that helicopter-based shooting more often than not requires deer to be shot two to five times per animal even when following strict guidelines, with a significant risk of non-fatal wounding, up to 14% in some instances. This is in stark contrast to harvesting a deer with a rifle or bow, where the hunter focuses on taking one animal at a time and is focused more on an ethical kill than the number of animals they must eradicate.
The residual carcasses and lead pellets also cause problems of their own. The carcasses quickly become a bounty of food for non-native predators like red foxes and feral cats, two invasive species far more destructive than deer, and for livestock-eating wild dogs. And whilst many native scavengers like the giant wedge-tailed Eagle also benefit from the carcasses, the presence of that many led pellets could turn this free meal into a painful death.
The correct course of management for any overpopulated species is far from an easy decision. Each should come after first considering the variable objectives of landowners, the hunters that live off these animals, and their impact on the wider ecosystem. The SA deer eradication program has been anything but that. Instead, it represents a “waste of natural resources, and waste of taxpayer dollars funding the operation” according to Nick Rositano.
Whilst the future looks bleak for SA deer herds, other states across Australia can set a better example. Instead of eradication, coordination with land managers and recreational hunters should be used to better harvest existing deer herds and prevent new ones from popping up. Creating a system similar to the North American model, where hunters fund wildlife conservation, would allow carcasses to be utilized, herds to be consistently managed, and unknowledgeable landowners to be educated on the process of responsible deer management. It’s a lesson that American hunters can also apply to introduced species, as we learn to manage them.