Answers to Common Questions
If you live in the northeastern or midwestern United States, chances are high that your state wildlife agency is promoting community-based management of white-tailed deer — in a word, killing. The indictment of deer was encapsulated in a recent editorial run by the New York Times. Pitting deer against “millions of American gardeners, farmers, bird-watchers, drivers, fence builders, claims adjusters, body-shop operators, roadkill scrapers, 911 dispatchers and chiropractors,” the Times concluded: “White-tailed deer are a plague.”
Here are some common questions and answers to help clear up misconceptions about deer, whether the issue surrounds homes and gardens, the impact of hunting, or the effects of government intervention in the lives of deer.
Q: Does the deer population need to be controlled?
A: Nature ensures that the deer population is limited by available food, territory, and winter weather conditions, which restrict both food and range. Well-fed deer naturally have more fawns than those living where food and leafy shelter is less plentiful.
As the size of the deer community increases, there is less food and leafy shelter available for each deer. Numerous studies over the years have shown that both the reproductive rate and the survival rate of deer will then decrease. Thus, a natural balance.
Q: How and why do government agencies manage deer?
A: As we’ve noted, the deer population will rise along with access to food and leafy, sheltered habitat. Deer thrive in what is called edge habitat, where grasslands meet forests. Deer use edges where leafy cover and food are close together to develop fat reserves for the winter.
Creating a population of deer suitable for hunters is one way officials manage deer. Hunter success depends on the density of the deer population.
To stimulate breeding and support a high rate of survival of fawns, a wildlife agency might create edge habitat by clearing forest of hardwood trees, and planting or allowing for the growth of highly digestible plants that attract deer. Encouraging optimum hunting conditions can involve clearing trails in order to connect deer with food sources, strategically timed logging to increase sunlight and stimulate the growth of food for foraging deer, the seeding of roads and open areas with grasses and clovers, and mowing to create new plant shoots, to promote populations of deer and other hunted animals.
Q: So hunting can result in more deer instead of less?
A: Yes. To many wildlife or forest officials, the relationship is seen and habitat supply and hunter demand. Thus, hunting is often a reason for unnaturally large populations, not nature’s answer to it.
Additionally, there’s a biological reason why hunting can cause the numbers to rise. In large populations, deer conceive later in the season, and that results in late-born fawns with a reduced chance of surviving through the winter. So although hunting reduces the population in the immediate sense, it stimulates early reproduction and augments the chances for survival in the next generation.
And hunting — whether it’s focused on female or male deer — will mean more food remains for the survivors. The natural response in deer, biologists explain, is an increase in the birth rate.
Q: Some people say that birth control is needed where there is no hunting, or the deer will take over. Not so?
A. Not so. From an animal-rights perspective, controlling free-living animals through birth control is inappropriate. And as we’ve seen, populations of deer adjust according to natural circumstances. If there are no hunters about, the deer will not need to increase the birth rate to compensate for the deaths.
Ending deliberate manipulation of the food supply will also relieve natural pressure on the deer to breed. This might sound like doing nothing, but it is acting in a way that respects the deer ecology and the deer themselves.
Q: Do deer adversely impact birds and other animals?
A: This has become an international debate. The issue is complex, and requires looking at the root of the matter. We then find that it’s really official wildlife policy that threaten birds and other animals. While moderate deer activity can be beneficial to woodlands, heavy consumption of trees and brambles by deer is directly tied to the absence of animals such as bears and wolves. These animals would be natural predators of deer, but have been largely removed by federal and state predator management schemes.
Logging also takes a toll on bird habitat. An ornithologist at Southern Oregon University studied two plots thinned by the Bureau of Land Management. Many birds suffered, including red-breasted nuthatches, chestnut-backed chickadees, Pacific-slope flycatchers, and hermit warblers. Cutting and burning forests to raise deer populations can additionally harm other animal life and wildflowers.
Literature from the U.S. Geological Survey identifies the most frequent causes of serious disturbance to waterfowl as boaters, anglers, and hunters, who displace waterfowl from their feeding grounds, interrupt nesting, and deplete the birds’ energies by forcing them to fly.
Q: Do deer cause deforestation?
A: Generally, no, as deer eat only plants within about two yards from the ground. Also, the range for deer is limited in natural forests, because deer need trails and openings to get to plants.
Where people are cutting and restocking forest, there will be many new trees; in such cases, one could logically predict that managed forests are more susceptible to grazing deer. But the effects of deer feeding are transitory in the life of a natural forest.
The major cause of deforestation is the human population, particularly agribusiness. Supporting plans to kill off deer won’t solve the deforestation problem, but adopting a vegetarian diet will help. This is because an acre of land dedicated to vegetables, such as beans, will normally support well over ten times the protein yield as an acre allotted to cattle grazing. Deforestation is a serious issue; we should be taking it seriously by addressing its key causes.
Q: How can we prevent the tragedy of deer being hit along roadways?
A: There are nearly a half-million reported instances of drivers hitting deer in the United States every year. Deer rarely survive. More than a hundred car occupants die, and another 10,000 persons suffer injuries. Our research shows that insurance companies pay out about $1 billion in claims each year to cover these accidents.
Your community may be willing to obtain reflector lighting to alert deer to traffic, or to plan appropriate fencing. Keep speed limits down. Where construction goes forward, push for the interests of free-living animals, so that overpasses and underpasses are used.
Above all, use and support public transportation. Avoiding construction in the first place is the most sensible way to respect the habitat of deer and other animals. Note that more than a million mammals, birds, and reptiles are killed or maimed daily on roadways across the United States.
So think holistically. Work with your community to change the way people think about deer. The notion that deer require human management results in practices that cause accidents. Be prepared to explain why hunting and government efforts to raise the reproduction rates of deer are as dangerous as they are disrespectful.
Q: Can drivers play a role in reducing these accidents?
A: Community driver-education campaigns can teach basic precautions. These include respect for the speed limit, extra vigilance when driving at dawn and dusk during autumn and winter months; and the use of high-beams when there is no oncoming traffic. Sighting a deer in or near the road means there are probably other deer on the move. Blinking your lights at oncoming traffic warns other drivers; your horn can help to warn the deer themselves. Slow down and stay calm: Deer are typically hit by drivers who are swerving across the road to avoid an accident.
Q: What should a driver do in case of an accident?
A: Do not touch an injured deer or other animal. Any attempt to move the animal will likely cause further fear, injury, or suffering. Move safely off the road if possible, and consider the importance of alerting other drivers. Call the local police. Along with your driving documents or identification, keep numbers for licensed wildlife rehabilitators. This will help you work with the emergency responder to get assistance for the animal. If the animal is suffering from a fatal injury, take all steps to ensure timely and careful euthanasia.
Q: Will shooting deer result in fewer car collisions?
A: To the extent that shooting stimulates movement in the short term, and encourages deer reproduction over the long term, the logical answer is no.
In 2002, Friends of Animals surveyed state wildlife departments regarding incidents in which drivers hit deer. Our findings indicate that shooting deer exacerbates the movement of deer during the mating season.
The executive director of the Missouri Insurance Information Service has urged drivers to be especially cautious during the hunting season, when people are “chasing deer out of the woods.” The Erie Insurance Group recorded “an average of 34 deer claims a day” in a particular year, but added: “That number rose nearly five times on the first day of buck season and doe season for 157 and 160 deer losses, respectively.” And State Farm Insurance company observes that “fall is the peak season for deer-car accidents. That’s mainly because autumn is both mating season and hunting season, so deer are more active and more likely to roam beyond their normal territory.”
Notably, our study also found a significant increase in the number of deer hit by cars during hunting season: October, November and December.
Q: Do deer transmit Lyme disease?
A: No. Lyme disease is transmitted by the deer tick. Deer do not carry or transmit Lyme disease bacteria. Deer, are simply a food source for the adult ticks.
Although this might sound like a nuanced distinction, it’s actually highly significant, because the transmission of disease depends on the tick, not the deer. The disease can be transmitted only if a tick is carrying it, and if the tick is attached to a person’s body for more than a day. Thus, when you or your children come in from the great outdoors, make time for a shower or bath, and check for ticks. This is particularly important in the summer and early fall, and particularly if you live along the northeastern coast of the United States from Massachusetts to Maryland, where the disease is most likely to occur.
Deer ticks are smaller than dog ticks, so check carefully. Don’t allow children to play in dark, damp places; if they enjoy outdoor walks or events near wooded areas, be sure that they are aware to check for ticks when they finish.
All stages of Lyme disease respond to antibiotics, and early treatment is the most effective. If you develop a rash or are otherwise in doubt about your well-being, see your health practitioner.
Q: I have a garden. How can I protect my flowers and ornamental bushes from deer?
A: A wire fencing material is available specifically to deter deer, and can be run along the periphery of your property. You might also consider planting high bushes to decrease visibility into your garden.
Note that the ingredient lists for Deer Away and Deer-Off repellents, which deter deer and small animals, both contain “putrescent egg” — as does Havahart Deer and Rabbit Repellent. Bobbex, another popular brand with gardeners warding off deer, squirrels, and rabbits, includes eggs, dried blood, and fish by-products on its list. You might just want to have a motion-activated water sprayer on your lawn during popular deer visiting times.
If you do have a garden, however, and you do happen to see deer on your grounds, you might wish to forgo repellents altogether, and consider yourself one of the world’s most fortunate people.