Science, Politics and Deer

April 21st, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a nice article (free registration required) on the science and politics of deer management. The article observes,

“Science does underpin efforts to manage the deer population through hunting in every state. In practice, however, the science of deer management is no more immune to public pressure than is the science of stem-cell research. At one extreme are those who object to killing animals on moral grounds. At the other are what might be called libertarian hunters. They remember forests abundant with deer over much of the last half-century and blame overzealous government biologists for producing today’s comparative scarcity. For their part, a broad consensus of scientists believes that for everyone’s benefit, including the deer, hunters must adapt to a new role – as wildlife managers rather than just sportsmen – and game agencies must be willing to put up with the inevitable heat from constituents angry about their added civic responsibility.”

This is also a good example of the limits of “honest broker science.” In this case deer management depends critically on the work of wildlife ecologists, but such work cannot say what the single most appropriate course of action is – science alone cannot reduce the scope of choice. Consequently, any attempt of wildlife ecologists to “stick to the science” of deer population dynamics is bound to map onto one or another political agenda, and risk adversely politicizing science. One way out of this trap would be for wildlife ecologists to clearly link science with a wide range of alternative courses of action, ensuring that their views of the science are incorporated in any policy that is ultimately adopted.

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