The Nature Conservancy and Cornell University have launched Community Deer Advisor, a free online resource for communities seeking information about managing overabundant deer populations.
Dr. Daniel Decker, professor and director of the Human Dimensions Research Unit at Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources, and Dr. Meredith Cornett, director of conservation science at The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, shed some light on the issue communities are facing and how the new tool can help them find solutions.
Q: Why are more deer showing up in cities, suburbs and exurbs these days?
Deer are adaptable animals that will seek food and refuge wherever environmental conditions provide them. Urban, suburban and exurban areas are attractive to deer for many reasons. They provide green spaces with plants deer can eat, include plantings around homes and other grounds, and provide protection from harassment by people, dogs (leash laws) and natural predators. State wildlife agencies often manage for abundant deer, a popular game species in many places. Deer first moved from farm and forest into adjacent suburban areas. They have since continued to journey into even more urbanized areas where their needs can be met. Their ability to become habituated to the presence of humans has proved remarkable.
Q: Is this a widespread issue across the U.S. or just localized to certain parts of the country?
Deer taking up residence in urban and suburban areas is occurring across their range in the U.S. and Canada. Wherever conditions indicated above can be found, deer will oblige by staking a claim to the favorable habitat, sometimes reaching densities unheard of in “natural” areas—often many times more deer per unit area than historically found in rural farm and forest landscapes or “natural” environments.
Q: What challenges are deer creating for people and communities?
Deer are causing challenges for human residents of exurban, suburban and urban communities because their presence in such areas leads to unwanted ornamental plant damage, motor vehicle collisions and occasional physical threats (personal safety). Deer also bring ticks and other insects and parasites that host diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever into human-dominated landscapes, where people become exposed to them. This creates a desire among many members of communities to at least control, if not completely eradicate deer from their community. At the same time, deer are valued by many people who enjoy observing them—even some wanting to attract them by artificially feeding them. This range of human responses to the presence of deer can and often does create a tense situation for community leaders and members.
Q: Are deer also posing challenges to natural landscapes?
In many areas of the country, abundant deer have transformed the species composition and structure of woodlands. This has happened because deer preferentially feed on some favored plants and leave others untouched, thereby creating opportunities for some species to thrive at the expense of others. This change, occurring across large areas, has also had impacts on other wildlife. For example, in some places, deer have obliterated low woody plants used by nesting birds. Deer also keep some trees (such as ash, maple and oak) trimmed to the ground, depriving birds and mammals of their acorns and other nuts, which are important food sources. Deer themselves feel the effects of this change in the forest, where they have essentially limited regeneration of their own favored foods, leaving them less food-producing plants in the long run.
Q: What are some of the ways communities are dealing with issues caused by deer?
The responses of human communities to the presence of deer in their midst vary. Some proceed very tentatively because of the potential for controversy, knowing that deer issues have become divisive for some communities. Some are finding less resistance to management possibilities and are relying on community members to remove deer through regulated culling. Others have hired the services of people who specialize in deer removal from urban areas.
Q: What does the Community Deer Advisor tool provide that could help them?
The Community Deer Advisor does a few things that we hope communities will find helpful. First, it lays out a process called “community-based deer management,” which unfolds in most communities that find they have a deer issue. Spelling out these stages in the life cycle of an issue helps community leaders and others understand that, in fact, their community can expect to go through a process—it’s typical. The needs of a community at each stage are identified, which helps leaders anticipate what’s next. The tool also directs users to resources about community-based deer management—recommendations and details about various techniques, a library of community examples, and more. Additionally, it connects users to other communities that have experienced or are currently working through deer management. It is intended to facilitate networking.