The name White Buffalo derives from the belief of Native Americans that the birth of a white buffalo reaffirms their ties with nature.  DeNicola co-founded the company in 1996 because he loved wild places and wild things and was horrified at the havoc overpopulated, hoofed mammals –especially white-tailed deer –were wreaking on native plants and animals.  “I wanted people to better understand their essential connection to the land, and all that it supports, even if they live in developed environments,” DeNicola told me. “When they’re in conflict with wildlife, they are forced to deal with that connection, both positive and negative.”

Communities hire White Buffalo when deer proliferation clearly poses a danger to humans and the local economy.  (Danger to wildlife is a consideration, but generally a lesser one.) White Buffalo then does an assessment and submits a management plan.

The main deer-reduction tools used by White Buffalo are crossbows and .223 rifles.  If a community objects to lethal control, the company immobilizes does with tranquilizer darts and surgically sterilizes them.  But this is exorbitantly expensive. Contraceptive drugs, also delivered by dart, are ineffective except where deer are essentially confined and tame.

To help with culls, White Buffalo sometimes enlists deer hunters who meet its high selection standards.  DeNicola likens these hunters to volunteer firemen. “They recognize the dangers of deer overabundance: they have a particular skill, and they want to help,” he says. “We’re not looking for great shots.  We’re looking for fundamentals. We do interviews, background checks, and proficiency tests. A lot of it is just thinking. We have seven deer targets: four we want you to shoot at, three we don’t. if you shoot at 40 yards, you’re disqualified.  If you take a quartering shot (risky in suburbia) or shoot at a fawn accompanied by a doe that is not presenting a shot [thereby teaching the doe to be elusive], you’re disqualified. If you come because you like archery and want to shoot your vertical bow [far less accurate than a crossbow], we don’t want you.”

“Seventy to 80 percent of the hunters who come to our proficiency tests with firearms and crossbows can’t meet the standards,” continues DeNicola.  “People don’t take killing an animal seriously enough. That’s why deer hunting in general has such a high crippling rate. We’ve had five volunteer programs on school grounds and  private property, and we’ve killed over 100 deer with zero [crippling] loss.”

GOOD TRY IN PENNSYLVANIA

Some hunters don’t want deer culled (or even scientifically managed) because they imagine that the number of deer is directly proportional to the quality of the hunt and because they don’t grasp what too many deer do to people, wildlife, forests, and the deer themselves.  In a bizarre twist, these hunters have allied themselves with animal-rights activists who don’t want any animal killed by humans for any reason.

I asked DeNicola if all the media attention about Lyme disease and the economic and ecological damage caused by deer over-abundance had changed public thinking about culls.  “There’s literally no change,” he replied. “I can go into a new community, and it’s like hitting replay for the last 20

years. Exact same dynamic. Hunters aren’t happy with what we do.  Animal-rights people aren’t happy with what we do. It astounds me. It’s the same exercise, the same protracted process every time. Either a community has leadership that drives the decision [to cull] or the community flounders.  When we finish a project, attitudes are the same as well –people are always astonished by the benefit [of fewer deer].”

These benefits started to become visible across Pennsylvania after Dr. Gary Alt, a renowned black bear biologist, took over the state Game Commission’s deer program in 1999.  By drastically extending antlerless seasons with increased doe tag allocations so that more does were harvested, he was able to significantly reduce deer numbers and create a more natural buck-doe ratio.  Killing just bucks doesn’t help much in reducing overabundant deer because you can deplete the buck population by 95 percent, and the 5 percent that survive will impregnate most of the does.

Under Alt’s leadership, Pennsylvania made the first real progress in balancing deer to habitat on a state level.  Through an intensive education campaign, Alt helped hunters recognize the benefits of scientific deer management. The Izaak Walton League present Alt with an Honor Roll Award for his exemplary conservation efforts.  The Quality Deer Management Association named him “Professional Deer Manage of the Year.” Safari Club International gave him its Conservation Award. Outdoor Life magazine gave him its Public Service Conservation Award.  The Pennsylvania Wildlife Federation gave him its Outstanding Conservation Professional Award and (along with Audubon Pennsylvania) named him Conservation Educator of the Year.  Still, after six years, Alt resigned from the Pennsylvania Game Commission – a decision he attributes to political interference that intimidated his superiors to the point that his team couldn’t do its job.  “The history of deer management,” he told me, “is full of a very small proportion of tenacious, highly motivates hunters driving the system. They oppose antlerless harvest and extended seasons. And they know exactly who to contact.”  The politicians then hold the agencies hostage, threatening to nix important legislation or license fee increases unless manages cater to the most-is-better crowd.

Williams and DeNicola well know what Alt is talking about.  In Redding, Connecticut, they initiated an experiment (funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to see if balancing deer with habitat could break the Lyme-disease cycle.  In two one-square-mile study areas, they planned to reduce overpopulated, tick-riddled deer to a healthy and natural 8 to 10 animals per square mile, at which point the literature indicated that ticks might peter out for lack of hosts.

But a handful of local hunters calling themselves the Redding Sportsmen’s Alliance whipped the community and politicians into a froth of panic and paranoia over a supposed reduction in hunting opportunities.  In widely circulated letters, the Alliance falsely charged that White Buffalo and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, both of which had sought and acquired all necessary permits, “have broken a number of state and federal laws in the Town of Redding, and now the public and the state of Connecticut  need to hold them accountable.” Equally fictitious accusations appeared almost daily on Web sites or in newspaper ads.

After Williams and his team counted 45 deer per square mile from a helicopter flying 20 miles per hour at 200 feet, the Redding Sportsmen’s Alliance proclaimed the figure was “mathematically impossible? Because some of its members had observed only 2 deer per square mile – from a Cessna, flying 120 miles per hour at 500 feet.  “One Alliance member,” Williams says, “revealed that he put on night-vision goggles and body armor and sat next to the shooting site to ‘keep an eye on White Buffalo.’ Another was following us around, videotaping. Someone was going to get hurt, so I pulled the plug.” Although White Buffalo had removed 87 deer over 3 years, that didn’t reduce the population to anywhere near the target of 8 to 10 animals per square mile.  All the effort and grant money was wasted.