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Our complicated relationship with deer

Our complicated relationship with deer

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This summer I was delighted to have a number of fawns and their mothers visit my yard. Getting to watch them amble about and see the young grow was a lovely experience that I’m sure some of you readers have also felt observing backyard wildlife. As much as I enjoy watching deer whenever they stop by my yard, any of you who drive in forested areas at night or try to maintain a garden know just how challenging coexisting with them can be.

White tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are probably one of the most ubiquitous mammals found in the United States, with them also extending down into Central and South America. With their large population of today estimated at over 30 million across the country, it can be hard to believe that at the dawn of the 20th century, rampant overhunting and development left them on the verge of extinction. Fortunately, conservation measures such as carefully managed hunting, as well as decrease in development when subsistence farming became less commonplace, has allowed for a population rebound to around 125,000 in New Jersey alone. Though another misfortune also enabled their rapid comeback: Natural predators such as wolves and mountain lions have been completely eradicated from New Jersey, preventing standard ecological functions from occurring.

While deer in pre-human ecosystems performed a number of ecological roles such as clearing space, dispersing seeds and feeding predators and many scavengers post-mortem, their population has now rocketed beyond a sustainable threshold. A natural habitat suitable for deer could accommodate give-or-take about eight deer per square mile. We are now witnessing densities multiple times that level, and the effects have not gone unnoticed: While browsing naturally clears space and makes room for less competitive plants, severely populated areas are stripped of an understory, which hampers new plantlife from growing and severely restricts biodiversity. These effects can carry over to substantial damages to farms, especially smaller-scale ones. Gardens can also be ravaged, and deer serve as excellent hosts for ticks. Add all this to the fact that there stands a 1 in 191 chance of a vehicular strike with a deer every year in New Jersey, and things get tricky.

There are solutions available, but none are universally agreed upon. I’ll start off by saying that I’ve got a weird feeling not everyone in New Jersey would want to have wolves and mountain lions roaming their neighborhoods, so reintroducing natural predators probably isn’t an option. Contraceptives and relocations are expensive and do not have guaranteed success. Some deterrents, such as high fences, can be set up and have been found as being long-lasting and inexpensive for smaller areas. Some trees growing in vulnerable areas can have protective tubes encased around them until they are large enough to grow without being greatly hindered by browsing. Well-managed hunting is among the most prominent and inexpensive of options, though New Jersey’s high population density and comparatively low hunter count can make this method difficult to see in full. There have been talks to open hunting to some urban areas, with measures like bow hunting from a heightened position recommended. Some even consider allowing for managed commercial hunting, though this all remains heavily debated.

We must understand that we share where we live with other creatures. They are not good or bad, they just are. They were here first, and we must make sure we take the best measures to coexist with them. While quite a few of these factors remain controversial, a lessened deer population would allow for regrowth of forest understories and make way for native plants and animals to return to areas that had previously become challenging for them to live in. It was wrong for us to hunt wildlife to the point of near extinction decades ago, but an overpopulation can be just as risky as an underpopulation. A careful balance, whatever it may end up being, needs to be found to make way for a healthier ecosystem that is ultimately healthier for us.

Go Green Galloway is a volunteer organization dedicated to reducing the carbon footprint of Galloway through the promotion of energy efficiency and conservation, environmental education and the implementation of sustainable practices. We always welcome new volunteer members. Contact us at or call Mary at 609-742-7076. Also be sure to like our Facebook page.

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