All six deer species have coevolved with large carnivores that prey on them, and their ecological roles are strongly influenced by the presence (or absence) of apex predators. Human hunting can have suppressive effects on some deer species in some situations, but these effects do not mimic those generated by apex predators. Apex predators do more than kill deer, they communicate with them. Deer respond to predators through stress responses that affect their reproduction, increased vigilance that affects their nutrition, and by moving into areas that provide safe havens. The effects of dingoes on deer are likely to be similarly substantive, but these have yet to be studied.
Unlike most introduced species, deer are provided with some legal protection thanks to hunting organizations that advocate for their management as a resource (‘game animals’) rather than as a pest. While this provides many benefits (including improved deer welfare), we argue that deer should also be regarded for their intrinsic and ecological values. Importantly, hunting organizations overseas are often powerful lobby groups, alongside farmers, advocating for predator control. Australian hunters have the opportunity to develop an evolved ethic for the treatment of deer and their predators.
As ecologists, we call for a greater consideration of the ecological roles deer now play in Australia’s modern ecosystems, and the trophic effects of dingoes on their populations. For example, one study found that hog deer provide a major ecological service as seed dispersers for both native and exotic plants in Australia.
As conservationists, we call for caution at trying to eradicate species from their introduced ranges when their native ranges are jeopardized. In particular since deer eradication programs have not provided the anticipated benefits to native species.
Finally, as people who also value the welfare of individuals, we call for compassion for deer that call Australia home.
By Arian Wallach