You’re watching a deer out your window as it munches on your shrubs. You reach for the camera, but when you look back, the deer takes a few steps and falls over, dead.
Far-fetched? No. That scene has been repeated too many times near my Idaho home this winter.
The culprit? Japanese yew, a popular ornamental shrub. In January, the shrub caused the death of a herd of 50 pronghorn near Payette, Idaho, garnering significant media attention. That was followed by the reported deaths of dozens of elk, and an unknown number of mule deer.
Why are so many large mammals being killed by this shrub?
Many areas of Idaho have received a lot of snowfall this year. Elk, mule deer and pronghorns are migratory, and they move from high elevations to valleys. Often, those valleys are developed, putting them in proximity to people.
With heavy snowfalls, they move even closer to town, often using recently developed areas that had once served as winter range.
Homeowners see mule deer grazing on grass, and think they’re adaptable. But the suburban diet is not nearly as nutritious as the sagebrush, bitterbrush and other plants found in their native habitat. The deer thus eat what they find – and that includes the Japanese yew. It’s not native, but somewhat resembles native shrubs.
The yew kills quickly. The Idaho Statesman reported an instance where an Idaho Department of Fish and Game officer was educating a homeowner about the dangers of the shrub. A deer moved in and ate some during the meeting. It walked over a nearby hill and died.
Idaho’s Blaine County banned the shrub following elk deaths last winter. This seems a necessary measure, but the yew is a lucrative plant for many landscaping shops. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has wrapped shrubs in plastic, keeping them safe from deer until the animals move back up into the high country.
If you live in deer or elk range, please don’t plant this shrub. Large mammals have a difficult enough time in the winter without this added threat.
Other plants and shrubs can kill wildlife. The Nandina tree produces berries that kill cedar waxwings, for instance. Plants marketed at popular garden departments as “bee friendly” often are treated with neonicitinoids – pesticides that kill bees.
Many invasive plants may not kill wildlife as dramatically as the Japanese yew, but they actually are even more harmful. Some landscaping plants spread beyond yards and choke out wildlife habitat. (While not a landscaping plant, the non-native cheatgrass has annihilated a lot of mule deer habitat, another reason they’re forced into neighborhoods).
Planting native species and wildlife-friendly plants is easier than you think – the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat program and the Xerces Society’s tips for pollinator habitat can get you started.
For deer, elk and pronghorn, there is another important factor here: the protection of winter habitat. Healthy low-elevation lands, covered in a diverse mix of native plants, keep these animals healthy and out of the neighborhood. I enjoy seeing deer as much as anyone, but also know how stressful winter can be for them.
Let’s lend these animals a “helping hoof”: please don’t buy Japanese yew.