The Cure for White-Tailed Deer

Stamford CT

The NPWG group discussions are a great benefit, at least to me. Accordingly, this month, I thought, we could address another critical but controversial ecological issue: white-tailed deer.

Don’t we all wish that there was a single, simple cure for white-tailed deer overpopulation? Even inner-city gardeners are now experiencing the frustration of deer-destroyed gardens. Overpopulation is also causing extensive damage in the wilds – in fact, driving deer out of the gardens may be further damaging the wilds.

How do we responsibly address the issue, particularly as we are the people who devote a significant part of our lives to saving native plants and the wildlife that depend on them? What do we do when wildlife is the threat?

Picture: In much of the Stamford conservation areas, there are no understory shrubs, few hardwood sapling trees, and most of the wildflowers are gone. Also gone is the wildlife which depended on the lost food and habitat.

To help get a group discussion started, I’m sharing excerpts from a Facebook discussion on the use of “deer-resistant” plants between ‎David Emerson, Stewardship Director of the Westchester Land Trust, and myself. I wish to thank Dave for giving permission to reproduce some of his thoughts here.

I wrote something like: “I am sick of being asked “is it deer-resistant?” to which the only honest answer is, I think: “how hungry is the deer and what does it like?” I am also very concerned about the thousands of acres of yards usually right smack in the middle of CT’s fragmented forest being planted with “deer-resistant” plants instead of natives.”

Dave wrote: “In my own yard, I observe the deer “sampling” the plants they encounter that are to their liking. In other words, they walk by and take a nip (or two or three) from each the many plants they encounter as they pass. If the proportions between unpalatable invasives and deer resistant plants to palatable natives changes, would not the smaller relative numbers of natives be browsed more heavily? The difference would be between many plants contributing a part of their foliage to the meal contrasted with fewer plants being the whole meal. The latter would be much more destructive to the native population than the former. Or so I’m thinking. Any thoughts?”

Picture: This stag in the Stamford woods will damage or destroy numerous hardwood saplings rubbing the fuzz off his antlers

David wrote: “On the other hand — if homeowners who’ve fenced their properties extensively plant local genotypes that might otherwise be devastated by deer, will they be helping protect and diversify the gene pool?”

David wrote: “It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about, and would like to hear from others. In Westchester, in general, deer resistant plantings are often found in yards that are encircled with formidable deer fencing — almost a belt and suspenders approach, I suppose. Both [fencing and planting of deer-resistant species] in combination would likely push the same number of deer into a shrinking feeding area. As less palatable plants increase in coverage, those favored native plants, I suspect, would be subject to even more acute browsing pressures.”

I wrote: “Meanwhile, the deer excluded from the yards are eating the remaining wild lands to the ground- killing hundreds of other animal species. To me the only answer is we need to take responsibility for the deer populations and, in areas like Fairfield County, where we have 6 to 10 times our sustainable deer quota, reduce the population by the only effective available means: hunting. No one likes to shoot Bambi but not shooting Bambi is actually more cruel to Bambi and hundreds of other species.”

Picture: Doe at the Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve living in a tiny scrap of land between a major recreational park and the river edge – eating the native plants, leaving the invasives

Later, that week, at Scalzi Riverwalk Nature Preserve I watched a doe devouring silky dogwood while avoiding the adjoining invasive Japanese knotweed. The riverbank where she’s fond of spending her summers is on our JKW remediation schedule for 2 to 3 years from now and even then we will have to go slowly to make sure that the mink, muskrat, woodchuck, nesting mallard, red-winged blackbird, kingbird, green heron, and other critters who depend on the understory of that bank for habitat always have enough cover. Meanwhile, we are counting on most of the silky dogwood surviving the Japanese Knotweed and being the foundation for repopulating the bank understory with natives. Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) is a key late summer fruit source for birds and small mammals, as well as wonderful habitat for the riverbank animals and water animals that shelter in its overhanging branches. It is also a larvae host for the spring azure butterfly. Further, it’s a great riparian bank stabilizer. However, each bite the doe takes shifts the balance in favor of the Japanese Knotweed. The following day, she is back, with a friend.

I could go on with facts, figures and opinions. However, I’m sure that all of you who live in the impacted parts of North America have also been thinking about this. Likewise, those of you who live elsewhere may have had similar experiences that can help us here.

So how did we get to this point? What are the short and long-term measures that we need to take to fix it? What do you and I personally need to do to get there?

P.S.  wonderful article by teammate Carol Duke on what it’s like to have a sustainable number of deer.  I hope they are taking steps to keep the herd in balance.  I hope some day we can look at the deer in my area with equal fondness.

© 2011 – 2013, Sue Sweeney. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. Ann Grewe says

    Venison is a naturally low-fat, chemically unadulterated, mild-tasting meat harvested from white-tailed deer. It can be substituted for beef in any recipe except those calling for large hunks of meat, since deer are much smaller and quicker-moving than big beef factory animals.

    Deer live wild and free lives, browsing on plants they have evolved with in the environment, not confined and force-fed until they reach a “marketable” weight. When a hunter shoots a deer, he or she tries to make the kill quickly with one shot, unlike the domestic animals loaded onto trucks and hauled to meat processing plants – I’ll spare you any more details, but you can look it up, the poor animals die terrified.

    If you eat meat, consider contracting with hunters to harvest deer from your area. They harvest and deliver the carcasses to local butchers who process them and return white paper-wrapped packages in the sizes you specify, labeled “chops” or “steaks” or “stew meat” or “ground venison”.

    When tall fences, deer-resistant plants, or over-browsing are the norm, it is time to change our behaviors for the betterment of the environment.

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Very sensible – one question: what about deer who eat lawns and gardens treated with pesticides, or worse yet golf courses, or drink water from polluted streams?

      • Ann Grewe says

        I have never seen a deer eat lawn grass, much less chemically-treated grass. They browse on forbs and shrubs – much less likely to be sprayed. I think they avoid harsh smells and tastes, whether plants or water.

    • Sue Sweeney says

      BTW: I have witnessed several deer hunts and there’s no question it is much, much easier on the animal, even with a first shot that wounds rather than kills, than what happens to commercially raised animals (which I could not bear to witness)

  2. Jeavonna Chapman says

    We have eliminated their enemies and their habitat. If venison and deer-hide was a popular as hamburger and leather, this would not be a problem.

  3. says

    Philadelphia has one of the largest municipal parks in the country, encompassing 9200 acres. As you can imagine, the deer population has become quite a problem. Every year the city brings in bow hunters to manage this population, and all of the meat is donated to PhilAbundance an organization devoted to providing food for lower income people. Since we’ve eliminated the coyotes and other predators from our ecosystems this is the only way that any balance in the deer population is achieved. But these hunts are always heavily protested, with people attempting to block and stop the hunt.

    Also hunting season in the state of Pennsylvania is most popular during Buck season. Every hunter wants to nab a big buck with a lot of points. But it seems that it would be most effective to focus more on doe season so that less animals would be entering the population.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..Fall Garden Chores, or NOT

  4. Deb Wingert says

    The solution is before us and has been for millions of years. We need to live in our world, rather than to take the historic approach of tailoring it to our desires. If we can embrace our world in total, the deer become as much a part of it as any other aspect — as we, too, are only an aspect of it.

  5. Sue Sweeney says

    while you are leaving comments, please comment on Dave’s thoughts about deer-resistant plants as well as your thoughts about hunting. Anybody with the latest info about birth control (other than hunting) please share what you know.

  6. Va. Derbyshire says

    Nothing is going to cure the white-tailed deer problem as long as there is unbridled population growth (which is primarily through potentially controllable immigration at this point) with its concomitant development (shopping centers ad nauseum, major highways, “estate” homes, etc.). We are impinging on the deer’s territory, extirpating their natural enemies, reducing and polluting their habitat. “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

  7. Ursula Vernon says

    I’m all for massive hunting. The local estimates are that we have between 65-80 deer per square mile, in a landscape with a carrying capacity in the dozen-deer-to-square-mile range. Since a lot of these occur in cities, though—I’m in a rural area, but most people are at least suburban!—it’s impossible to get deer permits, since they’re far too near residential areas. So other solutions definitely need to be found as well…otherwise sooner or later there will be one helluva plague, as happened with the chronic wasting disease among elk, and the suffering will be far greater than that produced by any amount of hunting.

    As far as deer-resistant plants go, I’ve had mixed luck. Most of my unfenced front yard is deer-resistant (I gotta move the phlox…) but only as long as it wasn’t a bad spring. If winter runs later, they’ll strip anything above ground, even plants like celandine poppy that are poisonous in quantity. It runs about 60% native, so it can be done, but forget about spring ephemerals, oakleaf hydrangea, arrowwood viburnum, and a lot of other fantastic plants.

    My backyard is fenced and that’s where I keep the more delicate natives, but that’s not a solution for parks and wild spaces.

  8. says

    If you look at national maps of tick populations, you will see that the States with the highest rates of Lyme also have huge populations of deer. In Wisonsin, the deer hunting is so important for tourism that I’ve been told that the DNR manages the timber lands to promote the deer population. They actively keep early successional forests with a high proportion of Poplar species for deer browsing. Now Wisconsin residents report one of the highest occurences of tick borne diseases. There is always going to be contradicting goals with deer populations and ecosystem restoration and management. But it’s clear that we’re way out of balance and we need some natural predators, different land managemnt and hunting. Sue do you know of any studies of the deer population around the time of European Settlement? I’ll bet the numbers were quite low.
    Heather recently posted..Native Plant of the Week: Zigzag Goldenrod ~ Solidago flexicaulis

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Heather – here are a few links:
      New York
      South Carolina

      Over all, the pre-Colombian deer population was encouraged for hunting but was within sustainable limits for the amount of land allotted to them to range and browse (most of it); by the early 1900’s the deer were close to extinct as were the Canada geese. However, today, in some parts of the country we have 6 to 15 times the sustainable deer population for the amount of land allotted (not nearly so much). It’s not just that development has squeezed them off much of the land, it’s also the lack of human and non-human predators (bear, puma, wolfs) and the increase in fodder. In pre-Colonial days, the Native Americans burned part of the understory to make meadow for deer fodder but then hunted the deer. We now fragment the forest into McMansions with giant lawns but don’t hunt nearly much much as we used to – State hunting license revenues are falling every year.

      Where I live, given the amount of wilderness, type of vegetation etc the DEP thinks we should have about 10 to 12 deer a square mile, but we have 6 to 10 times that number and it’s growing. The population is spiraling out of control. For example, Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Stamford has 11 acres, where less than one deer would be sustainable, but it has a herd of at least 12 to 15 deer — increased from 1 to 3 in only 5 years.

      Many towns here are hunting on public land and some private homes owners with large enough plots also allow hunting (strictly bow hunting because it’s urban/suburban land) but the deer are very smart and quickly flee to adjacent areas without hunters. That giant buck pictured above hangs out with his harem just below a hunting area where he knows he’s safe; then sneaks his family into the hunted area (a conservation zone) when he can to eat everything in sight.

      Hunting efforts here are are also hampered by a large number of anti-hunters who see only that the hunters are killing Bambi. They don’t see that larger picture of all the animals that Bambi is killing. They say “let nature take care of nature” but they don’t see that there is nothing natural about all these deer – the population size is a human-created artifact. They say we can safely just exclude the deer but to where – the middle of the road? They say use birth control but all the deer birth control programs I’m aware of are in their infancy and are far from being proven effective to control the popular and proven safe for the deer. Hopefully, if we can hunt the population back to a safe level, the birth control will then be ready to kick in to keep it at that level.

  9. says

    We have created this problem and it’s our responsibility to try to fix it. Hunting is one answer but would never be acceptable in heavily developed areas where houses are close together. It seems to me that a widespread contraception program is the only answer to reducing herds, but hoping that these programs become more effective! “Embracing” the problem that we have created is not a solution that benefits anybody, including the deer. Unnaturally high deer populations cause starvation and spread of disease which IMHO is more cruel than any of the alternatives.

    I am vegetarian but I do use some leather products and would be thrilled to find leather shoes that are guaranteed NOT to come from factory farms…

  10. says

    Years ago, I participated briefly in a study on the impact of deer overpopulation on forests in Shenandoah National Park. Deer impact takes multiple forms: the forest fails to regenerate, because only deer resistant plants can grow, creating something close to a monoculture. The forest’s understory is gone because of browsing. This brings cascade effects: some birds, especially the ones that nest and or feed in the understory, are greatly reduced. Many other forest creatures, from chipmunks to hawks, are also affected.
    Those determined to save Bambi don’t realize that having too many Bambies doom many other creatures to death.
    BTW, Rutgers University has a list of “Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance”, A deer resistant landscape is an impoverished biota. Is that the solution we want?
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Utilities right of way. Native plants

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Janet – excellent work! I can see you have gone through the same kind of agony that many of the rest of us animal lovers have over the need for deer hunting.

  11. says

    Maybe we should get a movement going asking the DNR to keep deer population down to sustainable levels. Either by encouraging more deer hunting, or developing other humane methods. The urban and suburban deer will move back to natural areas once there is room for them. I would love to be able to buy venison and can’t understand why that is illegal when we have such problems with too many deer!

  12. says

    I agree with a few other commenters here: Hunting is a great solution for the problem, even if you’re not a fan of hunting allowing a certain number of hunters into the area where the deer are staying will reduce the population to a sustainable level and keep it there long term.
    If they dont need the meat, it can always be donated to a local shelter.
    Wesley Levy recently posted..The 3 Most Important Things to Consider When Buying a Rangefinder

  13. Sue Sweeney says

    We got a “track back” on birth control, the commentator saying “well it’s a start”. Actually I was surprised the question wasn’t raised here since it’s frequently asked by those who wish that wildlife and conservation authorities weren’t hunting the deer.

    The answer: The sponsors of the birth control programs admit that, at this time, their product can’t reduce the population — only stabilize it at current out-of-control numbers. Long term, it may help after we’ve reduced the deer population to sustainable size (one sixth of what we have where I live).

    However, we need to consider the danger of birth control to the deer and other animals. Humans use birth control chemicals only under a doctor’s supervision. Deer do not get check-ups. Further, there are no guarantees that birth control substances, once released, won’t also find their way into the systems of other animals who share habitat with the deer or even eat them. I personally am loathe to introduce these substances into the environment only to find out years from now, we’ve killed off, say, all the turkey vultures or red fox, and the deer are dying of birth defects and cancer. We already have major issues with birth-control hormones getting into our water supply after being excreted by humans; the stuff is not breaking down fast enough.

    If you have questions about hunting, keep in mind that, in nature, animals kill each other all the time – mostly for food, some times for territory or other reasons. What most animals do not do is put their prey in an animal jail for its whole life where it has to stand in its own excrement, feed it “by-products”, and then ship it to a slaughter house where is has to wait in line to get killed.


  1. […] The problem with deer comes down to one simple fact…there are just too many of them in  most urban and suburban neighborhoods. Sue Sweeney, a fellow team member at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens blog (and a fellow resident of southwestern CT) wrote an intriguing post about whether or not hunting could be  The Cure for White-Tailed Deer. […]

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