Anyone who lives in a suburban or rural area (and increasingly in urban areas) knows that they need to be very very careful driving at night because of the risk of hitting a deer. It is dangerous to hit a deer because it can do severe damage to your car, if the deer goes through your windshield, you the driver could be severely inured or killed. According to my state’s transportation department, PennDOT, 2009 saw over 3,000 deer related car accidents, with several hundred of those resulting in severe injury and causalities (PR Newswire, 2010).
Also, the unusually high population of deer is having effects on our parks and forests (Figure 1). Stand of mature trees in a woodlot are often growing on a dusty and dry forest floor, with little plant growth around them. In addition, soil erosion had increased in many areas because of a lack of native vegetation to support the soil.
Figure 1: My mother standing in a deer-browsed forest in Northern Wisconsin. Notice that there is scant plant growth underneath all of the large trees.
In fact, since the mid-20th century until now, deer numbers of soared! The graph in Figure 2 shows deer population data for the state of Wisconsin based upon hunted deer populations.
Figure 2: This deer data graph from the website of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 2010.
Most historians agree that the current abundance of deer far outweighs the pre-Colombian population.
But what has caused such a sharp rise in the increase in deer? Probably most people would put blame on the fact that we have eliminated the number one predator of deer in the United States, the Timber Wolf (Canus lupus). If only we could just bring back the wolf, then the deer problem will be solved and nature can take its course again…right????
It is a myth that the only cause of the deer problem in the United States is a lack of predators.
In fact, I would argue that it is not the most significant factor at all. Let me give you an example based on a personal experience of mine.
I used to live in an outer-ring suburb of metropolitan Cleveland in Northeast Ohio. The zoning board of a neighboring town had agreed to let developers build a large housing development on a large woodlot. Many local citizens were concerned that the deer would have no where else to go with those woods were torn down (these woods had a high deer population before the housing development was put in place). In fact, in our own backyard, we would often have large herds of deer hanging out on our lawn, despite the fact that we were not near any woods or naturalized areas. Now it would seem more deer would be forced into the city as a result of the destruction of that last remaining woodlot.
The truth is though, folks, is that was hardly the cause of the increased deer population in these suburbs. The real culprit is habitat fragementation, or the breaking up of interior forest into brushy edges and and grassy, weedy lawns.
If you think about it, the suburbs are a prime example of habitat fragmentation. We have small stands of woodlots that are often “interrupted” by old farm fields, roads, houses, schools, backyards, and ornamental gardens – an all-you-can eat deer buffet. Also, you should know that deer are not forest animals! Yep, you heard me correctly. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is a prairie and scrub-land animal, and urban and suburban development, as well as deforestation, mimic the deer’s original habitat.
Okay Mr. Environmental Pessimist…what can we do about such an “urgent” situation?
…Well, we can do a lot. For one thing, we should put aside our feelings for “Bambie” and support deer culling and population control programs. Second, we can protect our remaining tracts of interior forests in the United States, and try to restore damaged forests of our urban parks and nature reserves. We can also plant less plants in your yards that deer like to eat (sometimes referred to as “deer candy”). Third, we can become active on local community zoning boards to ensure that new developments do not harm or come too close to forested areas. Finally, we can fence in areas near field edges and development to ensure that the vegetation has a chance to seed and grow. Here’s a good source for how average people can help.
I’ll leave you with not a closing remark, but of a photo of a forest that has beautiful understory vegetation with a diverse array of lush green leaves (Photo A).
Photo A: Woodland area in Racoon Creek State Park. Western PA. Photo by Andrii Cherniak, 2010.
PR Newswire. (2010). Penndot reminds motorists of fall driving hazards. PR Newswire, Retrieved from http://uspolitics.einnews.com/pr-news/171509-penndot-reminds-motorists-of-fall-driving-hazards
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (2010). Wi prehunt and posthunt deer population estimates and goal (1960-2009). Retrieved from http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/images/hunt/deer/deer_pop.htm