Wildlife

Deer Management Solutions: It Takes a Village. Literally.

A white-tailed deer. Photo: Kent Mason

Have you met the new neighbors?

They just moved in across the street. Right away they took to wandering up and down the block, helping themselves to whatever they could find to eat: that arbor vitae in your front yard, for example. Or the snow peas that were just starting to creep up their trellises. The sunflower seeds once contained by your now-empty bird feeder. They also increase the likelihood that you, your family and pets will contract Lyme disease.

Our communities have a problem—one that is trotting on four hooves from woods and fields right into our neighborhoods at an astonishing rate: white-tailed deer.

For thousands of communities across our nation, the deer problem hits close to home. But could we also look to our own communities to develop home-grown solutions?

The Problem is Exploding

Nationwide, white-tailed deer populations have been on the rise for a century, reaching an all-time high of more than 30 million in the last decade—that’s three times more deer than there are hunters in the United States today.

And that overabundance of deer is spurring an explosion in conflicts between people and deer. For example:

  • More than one million deer-vehicle collisions annually including on average 200 fatalities and $4 billion in damages.
  • The number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease has doubled and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever has quadrupled in the last 20 years.
  • Protecting young tree seedlings from deer browsing can triple planting costs.

Communities need relief—particularly in places where the symptoms of elevated deer populations are felt most severely: our cities, suburbs, and exurbs.

One Thousand Points of Light: Community-Based Deer Management

Communities throughout white-tail range are taking matters into their own hands. Make no mistake; the authority to manage the deer herd within each state ultimately rests with state agencies. But across the nation, local governments of all sizes are partnering with state agencies to develop approaches that meet local needs.

Why? Because citizens are demanding it — across the nation from New Jersey to Minnesota, from Iowa to Maryland:

  • Union County, New Jersey is among the longest-standing examples of community-driven deer management. Residents’ concerns over deer-car collisions and damage to property and landscapes came to a head in the 1990s, with demonstrations. Established in 1995, an annual managed hunt by volunteer marksmen from a local sportsmen’s association is the centerpiece of Union County’s deer management program.
  • In Duluth, Minnesota, concerned citizens petitioned the city council to address the impacts of nuisance deer. In contrast to Union County’s firearms program, Duluth instituted a city-wide archery hunt. The all-volunteer program is managed by the Arrowhead Bow Hunters Alliance at no cost to the city. The program has proven popular with residents and hunters alike, includes both public and private lands, and has averaged 500 to 600 deer in the last ten years.
  • For some communities, paid sharpshooters are part of the solution. (Many biologists consider sharpshooters the most effective approach, but it is also the most expensive.) Iowa City, Iowa initiated a deer management program that includes sharpshooters to reduce deer numbers to 25 deer per square mile. Similarly, Howard County, Maryland developed a comprehensive deer management plan that outlines a suite of options ranging from defensive driving and deer-resistant plantings on one end of the spectrum to managed hunts and sharpshooters on the other.
  • Although non-lethal methods such as relocation and sterilization are often cited in community deer management plans, time and again the research points to these practices as prohibitively expensive for most communities and also ineffective. For example, in Ithaca, New York, a recent effort succeeded in sterilizing 95% of does on Cornell University lands over a five-year period. Despite this success, the local deer population remained stable, as did negative impacts. It is worth noting that in some states, Texas for instance, sterilization of deer is illegal.

Although each community has its own flavor, successful projects share common elements—they are grounded in a thoughtful process. Scientists at Cornell University’s Human Dimensions Research Unit have dubbed the sum of these parts “Community Based Deer Management.” Dr. Daniel Decker, PhD student Emily Pomeranz, and their Cornell colleagues have studied how the deer issue evolves within communities, a cycle that begins with identifying a concern (e.g., deer-car collisions). Concerned citizens and local leaders partner with agency and extension experts in a process that educates and engages stakeholders at every step and offering clear, frequent communication along the way to keep the broader community informed.

Community-based Deer Management offers hope in the form of home-grown remedies for day-to-day conflict. Of course, none of these examples is without strife—deer management, regardless of scale, is fraught with controversy. A diverse group comes together, they deliberate, and ultimately a course of action is selected that is guaranteed not to please everyone. It’s not about “Kumbaya.” It’s about coexistence, not just with deer, but with each other.

From Points of Light to Floodlight

But think about it. There are, give or take, 39,000 local governments in the United States, including municipalities, townships, and counties. Do we really expect all these places to come up with a community process and a long-term deer management plan? Or that somehow if they all did so our nation-wide deer problem would be solved?

No.

There’s no getting around the fact that the root causes of deer overabundance operate at much larger scales than an individual community. If statewide deer numbers were in balance with their natural habitats, much of the deer conflict in our communities could be avoided.

Unfortunately, finding the right balance at larger scales is a long way off. Most state wildlife agencies continue to manage for high deer populations, catering largely to recreational hunters. Public safety, human health, forest productivity, and agriculture are at best an afterthought. This is an exorbitant model.

Preparing for the NextGen in Deer Management

As we develop the NextGen model for deer management, we can look to communities taking on today’s challenges of too many deer.

A NextGen deer solution means:

  • Supporting local governments with emerging deer problems by offering information and resources and connecting them with other communities that have made progress resolving the issue;
  • Refining the community-based framework and making it widely available to communities, educators, and agencies; and
  • Collaborating with state wildlife agencies on reimagining the current deer management model to incorporate a greater diversity of perspectives and balance the spectrum of values.

If you have concerns about deer in your own community, the first step is to find out whether a deer management program already exists for your location.

Talk with your neighbors to find out whether they share your concerns. Raise the issue with your elected officials and local leaders. Provide examples of how other communities are addressing the problem, such as the ones mentioned in this post. You never know. Your community could help shine the light on a NextGen for deer management.

Meredith Cornett

Meredith Cornett has directed The Nature Conservancy’s science program in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota since August 2003. She oversees conservation planning, research, and ecological monitoring activities, often in collaboration with universities, land management agencies, and other non-governmental organizations. More from Meredith

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16 comments

  1. As long as we have a few people that feed deer, and no predators to harvest them, we’ll have an ever larger deer problem. So glad to hear that some communities are harvesting deer. I helped to rescue some of the native trees that are in decline because deer eat them as seedlings or very young trees.

  2. Great points Marilyn. I have also been heartened to learn about the great work communities have been doing to find the right balance, one that makes room for both people and deer. And there are some great innovations out there (fencing, budcapping, sprays) that go a long way toward protecting those seedlings and saplings. These are not foolproof by any means, but will likely play a role in most community solutions. But there’s no getting around the numbers, since we can’t fence everything. And there are also the safety and public health impacts to consider.

  3. Bow hunting can leave an animal mortally wounded for days….witness the lion tortured in Zimbabwe.

    1. Yes. Many communities that use managed hunts to restore balance to their deer herds select bowhunting because they consider it to be a safer option (than rifle hunting) in densely populated urban areas. A major goal then becomes minimizing animal suffering. Most community-based deer management programs that utilize bowhunting require a Proficiency Test and/or training. The example I gave for City of Duluth (http://www.bowhuntersalliance.org/proficiency-test) follows this practice. Other examples include Ames,Iowa and Meridian Township, Michigan.

  4. I know some of you are upset over the thought of killing Bambi, but you have to look at all sides of it.
    First, the over population has lead to disease problems affecting both deer and humans.
    Second, look at the statistics as far as traffic accident deaths, injuries and property losses caused by them. Human lives have been sacrificed and destroyed due to overpopulation.
    Third, they are eating everything in sight due to the over population. They are pulling seedlings right out of the ground, never giving them a chance to regrow. They are stripping a lot of the land bare.
    I have a home in the mountains of North Georgia. We planted hundreds of azalea and rhododendrum bushes, and dozens of dogwood and other flowering trees on the property, at great expense, and for years it was the most beautiful property I have ever seen. But then the deer population started to grow. AS THE POPULATION GREW, THE FLOWERING BUSHES AND TREES STARTED TO DISAPPEAR. I realize they were their mountains before we came along, and while it upset me to lose the beauty of the land, I understood that it was a bad season and they were hungry. There were too many for the land, and there just was not enough food for all of them. Our area started finding dead, scrawny baby deer in different areas. The deer that were wandering around looking for food had protruding ribs, and looked worn out and tired when you saw them walking around. They were sad.
    A few years ago, the area brought in sharp shooters to thin out the herds. The rules were stiff as to what types of deer could be thinned. Once the deer were killed, the meat was donated to the local food banks and the local poor. They did not die needlessly.
    Within a fairly short time, we started seeing healthier deer that were obviously not fighting for food and were regaining their health AND their beauty. The fawns were lively and healthy and jumping around like little children playing, instead of dying from hunger because the mothers could not take care of them. It made a world of difference. By culling the herds, we made them healthier and able to survive.
    Herds of different animals are culled around the world. It helps the species to survive and to remain for our children to see and become familiar with. I don’t like to see ANY animal killed just for the killing. But these are sharp shooters that come in and they die instantly. Thus, the survivors get a chance to live. A perfect world would be better if we could catch 90% of the does and sterilize them. But that would take more money than it is possible to raise for the project. So, in the meantime, the only solution to keep the deer healthy, save the forest and save human lives is the culling of the herds. It hurts to think of it because they are so beautiful, but if you ever saw a starving and struggling deer, you would agree that thinning herds is a necessity.

  5. Dear management is important but so is human population management and land management, curtailing those suburbs and exurbs you talked about. We can’t keep taking away the environment in which these animals live and expect them to disappear. They are adaptable to live, and since we also extinguished all of their predators, what do we expect. So sharpshooting if you must, but fewer humans with less habitat destruction also.

    1. Yes, you are right. It is critical to keep sprawl in check for all kinds of reasons. But, counterintuitively, deer appear to be thriving in suburbs and exurbs. The habitat mixes in these areas is just right for “edge species” like deer. One of my favorite books on this topic is Jim Sterba’s *Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds. But these development patterns seem to favor deer, despite the perceived encroachment into their habitat. As Jim Sterba puts it so eloquently, “they are encroaching right back.” And how. White-tailed deer populations were decimated in he early 1900s due to unregulated hunting. Early conservation efforts were incredibly successful, and today their numbers are at an all-time high– not so much in spite of sprawl but perhaps in part because of it.

  6. I grew up in the middle of a big city. Deer were pretty special when I young. I loved deer.

    As I moved away, got educated and started to work in the Natural Resources field, I began to see the effects of deer, especially in areas where they weren’t even native. Many people assume deer were “always here”, but their presettlement range was much more restrictive than it is now.

    Then I also tried growing a garden, which was pretty difficult with deer eating things faster than I could grow them. Then I also had a few near misses in my car with kids in the back.

    Between those factors, I started to hate deer; I started to have the same emotions on seeing deer as I do when I see an invasive plant in a natural area. Deer were bad.

    I decided to be part of the solution. A friend loaned me a gun and mentored me in the art of hunting. The main motivation: Revenge.

    The funny thing is, is the act of hunting deer began to change how I viewed them. Hunting deer has its challenges; those big ears, sensitive nose and big eyes aren’t there for show. The challenge started to grow into something akin to respect.

    Then there was the culinary aspect of it. If properly cared for, venison can be very tasty. Even my picky relatives could be fooled into thinking they were eating lean beef when I served it. I began to look forward, and even depending on having some venison in the freezer.

    My attitudes toward the deer slowly moved to the positive territory. When I saw I deer, I could see beauty, grace and cunning. This is by no means a unique story, but a rather common relationship between the ethical hunter and his/her prey.

    Then came a harsh winter one year, and a harsh spring the year following that killed a bunch of fawns. Those two seasons did what liberal hunting regulations were unable to do: the deer population crashed.

    Was I elated? I should have been, and in some ways I was pretty pleased to see some ecological balance restored. But then came hunting season, and part of me wanted a deer in the freezer more than ecological balance.

    Such is the complicated nature of deer management and human psychology.

    If deer are a problem in your area, I still encourage you to be part of the solution. The hunt can be very good for you, better for the deer population as a whole, better for the surrounding community, and perhaps even help restore a level of respect for a creature that has got a little out of hand…

    But beware that you don’t let that respect get out of hand… 🙂

    1. Jon, thanks so much for sharing your story! This is a wonderful example of our times – and many of us will find echoes of our own experience here. Concerned as I am about the impacts of elevated deer populations, the more I research the issues and think about them, the more respect I have for these amazing animals. One of the saddest outcomes of current management is that in many places deer have become so abundant as to be considered pests or nuisance species. Restoring balance can help to restore the status of white-tailed deer as wildlife species that is a healthy part of habitats we share. Thank you for doing your part!

  7. The problem will not go away and it is unsolvable. Look at “Cecil”.

    We are a generation or three grown up separate from our food, we don’t understand, we believe animals are people. We feel guilt for wishing them dead.

    State divisions of wildlife are fully capable of managing deer populations on huntable accessible public lands. They cannot manage wildlife on municipal, county, or private land. So you have exploding deer populations (irruptions actually) in areas where the only realistic method of control, hunting, is vehemently opposed and usually illegal by law. Until every Prius owner proudly stores deer meat in their freezers we won’t even begin to turn the corner on management.

    A note about usage. Whenever I hear the word “balance” in discussions of hunting alarm bells go off. I’m immediately wary the discussion is about to wander over into the realm of magic and non science belief systems. There is no balance of nature, no natural balance, nature is in a constant state of flux only reaching temporary states of equilibrium.

    1. Yes, you put your finger right on it. The deer problem does feel unsolvable at time. But the community based programs, and hundreds more like them, struck an optimistic chord for me. Also see Jon Eerkes’ reply above– stories like his, human omnivores getting back in touch with our hunting roots, are inspiring.

      And I also agree that state wildlife managers are more than capable of meeting their target numbers. Deer biology is one of the best studied areas in natural science, as are the tools available to manage populations are well known. The question is one of who ultimately sets those numbers and through what process. This is the statewide piece that must be better addressed in the long term.

      In the short term, it is encouraging to note the states that are already making it much easier for local governments to address the deer problem in ways compatible with community values. States like Iowa, New Jersey, and Mississippi, for example are doing a great job with this. Others not so much, but therein lies the opportunity.

      As for balance – you are right again. It has woven its way into the ecological vernacular, but it is not necessarily the right term, is it? It may be best to limit our discussion of “balance” to apply to juggling multiple values, rather than making decisions based on a single group of stakeholders.

      A note about usage. Whenever I hear the word “balance” in discussions of hunting alarm bells go off. I’m immediately wary the discussion is about to wander over into the realm of magic and non science belief systems. There is no balance of nature, no natural balance, nature is in a constant state of flux only reaching temporary states of equilibrium.

  8. Meredith, you may want to relook at the data from the Village of Cayuga Heights, NY. There was a 40% decline in population after the first two years. A combination of sterilization and archery has worked to continue to reduce the population. Sterilization is effective at getting to populations that archers cannot reach. The population has declined from ~125 deer/sq mile in 2013 to ~52 deer sq/mile in 2015.

    1. Hi, Jody,

      Yes, the Village of Cayuga Heights is a “gold standard” example of Community-based Deer Management. In fact, we will be featuring it next month on a new website developed by Cornell University and The Nature Conservancy (we will launch in November 2016). The thoughtful attention and hard work that the Village of Cayuga Heights invested in defining the problem, identifying objectives, taking action and evaluating results will be an inspiration to many communities struggling with deer management issues.

      I just looked it up in our database, and found that a total of 152 does (100% of female deer in the Village) were sterilized between 2012 and 2013— which brought the deer population down from 125/square mile to 76/square mile (January 2015 estimate). Cayuga Heights’ first cull-over-bait was implemented in spring 2015 further reducing densities to 56/square mile. Following an April 2016 cull, populations were further reduced to 38/square mile – and an additional five does were sterilized. In total, 72 deer have been removed by culling.

      Clearly, the Village of Cayuga Heights is having some success by deploying these two management tools—culling and surgical sterilization—together. But for many communities, the price point for both approaches is simply out of reach (e.g., $1,200 per deer for sterilization; $200 to $400 per deer for sharpshooting). In addition, sterilization has some real challenges in open populations, such as the Ithaca* example I mentioned. It just goes to show there is no one-size-fits-all solution—but by following the Community-based deer management process, any community can create a plan that works best for their situation.

      *See https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/trying-to-limit-the-number-of-deer-with-surprising-results/2014/09/29/3c16f9dc-28a5-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html

  9. can you include the existing solutions that a university has created for deer related collisions?