Dealing with deer–and appreciating them

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2009:


At this writing hunting seasons are open on Virginia
whitetailed deer in every state that has any. Whether the season is
“rifle” or “archery,” “buck” or “antlerless,” open or limited to a
specific locale, there is no state that has Virginia whitetailed
deer in which reducing and limiting the growth of the deer herd is
not a stated management goal, even where the management plan is
still likely to accelerate herd growth.
This happens whenever and wherever so many bucks are killed
that each adult doe has food enough over the winter to produce twin

Virginia whitetailed deer have been killed by hunters in
unprecedented and usually rising numbers throughout most of their
range for the past 30 years, even though the number of hunters has
fallen by more than half over the same time. Despite the hunting
toll, the Virginia whitetailed deer population probably remains
higher than at any time in their existence as a species. Thus
wildlife agencies resort increasingly often to culling deer.
Sometimes sharpshooters are hired to bait and dispatch deer.
Sometimes whole herds are baited, ensnared in nets that are dropped
over them by rockets, and are then killed by captive bolt guns.
Virginia whitetailed deer culls are currently underway,
planned, or have recently been conducted in at least 17 states.
Deer were culled in another several states in 2007 and 2006. Few
states that have Virginia whitetailed deer are not culling them
somewhere, including many of the states with the most active
hunters: Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania,
Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Virginia whitetailed deer are native to the eastern
two-thirds of the U.S. From the Rocky Mountains west, mule deer are
the predominant species. There are parts of the west where mule deer
are in decline, mostly due to climatic change, but in most densely
populated areas, the issues involving mule deer are much the same.
Mule deer are rarely culled, but talk about culling has begun, much
as it began in reference to Virginia whitetailed deer proliferation
in the 1980s, about a decade before culling became common.
East or west, culled deer populations are usually not the
same deer who are hunted. Rather, they are urbanized deer, whose
forebears migrated into suburbs and even large cities years ago, in
part to escape being hunted. Sometimes suburbs expand into deer
habitat so rapidly as to maroon deer in islands of undeveloped
woodland, but more often deer establish themselves in a suburb
anywhere from five to 20 years after subdivisions and shopping
centers are built, when ornamental shrubbery and tree canopies have
matured enough to provide deer with cover and food.
By now most communities within the continental U.S. have
homegrown deer herds. Like most deer, urbanized deer seldom roam
more than a mile from where they were born–but they were born among
human dwellings and busy roads, and often have less fear of humans
and human activity than the typical feral cat. Urbanized deer find
adequate browse to support themselves–and ever more fawns–in
greenbelts, parks, protected watersheds, the divider and buffer
strips of transportation corridors, and often in wooded yards.
Apart from culling, cars are their major predator. Coyotes prey to
some extent on fawns, and kill deer who have been injured by cars,
but tend to scavenge urban deer more than hunt them.
Pumas quietly hunt mule deer in the outer suburbs of most
major cities from Denver west. Having discovered Virginia
whitetailed deer, pumas of Rocky Mountains ancestry appear to be
expanding their range across the upper midwest, according to DNA
studies of specimens recently shot in several Midwestern states.
With deer abundant, and since pumas are remarkably good at
colonizing habitat without being seen, a continental puma recovery
may be inevitable. There seems to be little opposition to the
recovery of pumas in remote habitat, but pumas in urban and suburban
habitat tend to cause alarm. Though pumas rarely harm humans,
people are occasionally on the puma menu, and accordingly, pumas
who are seen in proximity to human dwellings are almost always killed
by public safety officials.
Stereotypically, pressure on wildlife agencies and municipal
governments to cull deer begins with gardeners complaining about deer
nibbling their flowers.
Certainly this happens, and certainly some gardeners take
their fury to extremes, like Dorothy Richardson, 75, of Euclid,
Ohio, who on June 15, 2009 beat a fawn to death with a shovel for
having the misfortune to be born in Richardson’s flower beds.
Pleading “no contest” to a cruelty charge, Richardson on October 2,
2009 was fined $500 and sentenced to do 80 hours of community service.
More often, though, governments believe there are serious
human health and safety issues involved when they invest tens of
thousands and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in a deer cull,
including in maintaining heavy security to keep away potential
witnesses, protesters, and accidental victims of either
sharpshooters or panic-stricken wounded deer.
Traffic safety is often a first consideration. Twenty years
ago deer/car collisions killed about 100 Americans per year. Now,
with even more deer at large and more cars on the road, the annual
toll typically exceeds 200. Each death tends to turn whole grieving
families into activists against perceived deer overpopulation.
There is also concern about the role of deer in spreading
Lyme disease, erlichiosis, and many other tick-borne diseases.
So-called deer ticks are actually carried mostly by mice and other
small rodents, but deer tend to translocate the ticks into new
The average January temperature in the northern U.S. is now
five degrees higher than it was 40 years ago. That predicts much
more tick trouble ahead. As global warming moves the snowbelt north,
and shortens the snow season, the range in which deer ticks survive
the winter is expanding–and warmer springs exponentially increase
the numbers of ticks who hatch successfully. Since tick-borne
diseases are often debilitating and can be fatal, already killing
thousands of people per year in the former Soviet Union and satellite
states, controlling ticks may come to rival controlling
mosquito-borne diseases as an epidemiological priority.
Finally, increasing deer numbers are a genuine songbird
conservation concern. “Managing deer to suit hunters may be the major
cause of vanishing songbirds,” ANIMAL PEOPLE pointed out in a March
1997 cover feature, examining the role of expanding deer herds in
destroying the forest understory that many songbird species require
as nesting habitat. This trend has accelerated in the dozen years
Also during the past 40 years, coinciding with both global
warming and the increase of the Virginia whitetailed deer population,
the estimated numbers of migratory songbirds in the U.S. northeast
are down by as much as half.
Forest cover in Virginia whitetailed deer range has increased
by about 33% over the same time, between the growth of suburban tree
canopies and the reversion of marginal farmland to woodlots, but
that is just the problem: the songbirds who are in trouble don’t
nest in the treetops. They prefer shrubbery just a little bit higher
than deer normally browe. When hungry deer stand on hind legs to
browse higher, the birds lose their homes. There is still plenty of
rural habitat with fewer deer for some bird species, but others
rarely venture far beyond traditional migratory corridors, which
have now been built over. If urbanized deer are heavily using the
patches of potential nesting habitat that remain, the birds are
Contraception helps but isn’t magic
Unfortunately, from a humane perspective, there are as yet
no attractive ways to control a deer population once it becomes
problematic. Deer contraception by chemical means is now feasible,
but will only gradually reduce a population that has grown enough to
produce demands for culling. Further, the cost of administering
contraception to deer is still prohibitive. This could change with
the development of orally administered deer contraceptive
vaccines–but that technology, though apparently not far away, is
not quite here yet. Surgically sterilizing deer is far too difficult
to do in a cost-effective manner.
Yet acknowledging these miserable facts scarcely constitutes
an endorsement or even grudging acceptance of hunting and culling.
Deer are problematic in part because management to please hunters
long encouraged the present abundance. Neither hunting nor culling
offers any lasting solution at all, since the habitat now occupied
by deer will continue to provide food and cover enough for the
survivors of any hunt or cull, no matter how intensive, to quickly
breed back up to the carrying capacity of the habitat. If there are
no survivors, most hunting and culling locations can be reoccupied
by immigrants from less than a mile away.
Critical to realize is that the issue is not “deer
overpopulation,” at least not from a biological perspective. If the
situation was truly “overpopulation,” tens of thousands of deer
would starve every winter, as occasionally occurred decades ago,
when the winters were more severe and browse was less abundant,
especially urban and suburban habitats. Under conditions of true
overpopulation, deer would no longer be twinning. Within less than
a year, with or without human intervention, deer numbers would drop
back to carrying capacity.
Normal deer carrying capacity in favorable habitat tends to
be from 15 to 25 per square mile. Densities of up to 70 deer per
square mile are often counted in suburban parks. This could not
occur if the deer were not finding food enough to sustain population
So what can be done?
Quite a lot, if activism takes a long view of the
situation. Activism in opposition to urban and suburban deer hunting
and culling has historically been almost entirely reactive,
beginning after efforts to lethally reduce deer numbers are already
in advanced planning. Often licenses for “special” deer hunts have
already been sold, or contracts have already been signed to hire
deer culling agencies. At this point, intervention has small chance
of success, not least because the hunting or culling is occurring in
response to political mobilization by people who feel there are too
many deer, and some may have compelling grievances.
The time for activism against urban and suburban deer hunts
and culls is actually before grievances against the deer mount–or
after the deer population has been temporarily reduced by a hunt or
cull, when the aggrieved parties are temporarily satisfied, public
officials are paying the bills for the killing, and there may be
opportunity to introduce contraception, in particular, as a way to
keep the excessive deer abundance from recurring.

Only deer can prevent forest fires

Better educating communities about the ecological roles and
behavior of deer can avert considerable deer/human conflict, and buy
time for contraception to work.
For example, more than half of all deer/car collisions can
be avoided–some researchers say 70%–if drivers are taught to always
slow down if they see a deer leave the roadway, and look for a
second deer about to enter. This is because younger deer tend to
follow their mothers for a year or more, even after reaching adult
size, while mature bucks often live in small bachelor herds until
mating season. If the elder lead deer crosses a road safely, the
deer following behind will take that, not the absence of traffic,
as the cue to step out.
Probably the least appreciated aspect of urban and suburban
deer populations is their role in fire prevention. With due respect
to Smokey Bear, Bambi is the animal champion of fire defense. It is
no mere coincidence that the wildfires burning out of control in
southern California in August and September occurred where drought
had depleted mule deer, while the warming and drying trend in the
Northeast and Midwest has yet to produce many big fires.
The difference is that where deer are abundant, forest
understory is consumed by deer, instead of drying out to be consumed
by flames. The browse lines created by deer, alarming as they are
to birders, are natural firebreaks. Without understory to serve as
kindling, helping flames to leap into tree canopies, grassfires
reach the moisture-holding humus layer beneath the trees and die.
Even when the humus layer is dried by prolonged drought, there is
rarely enough fuel in it to ignite bark and wood.
There is conservationist concern that deer in some habitats
are stripping out understory so much as to prevent forest
regeneration, as well as songbird nesting–but forest fires do much
the same damage. If the deer population is within the normal range,
browsing activity merely ensures a forest of diversified age.

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