By Liza Mundy
Sunday, April 26, 2009
The deer in question is a doe with whom Ferebee has a long-term relationship, of sorts. Six years ago, he shot her with a dart containing a chemical that temporarily immobilized her, then put a leather collar with an attached radio transmitter on her. Since then, he has checked in with her periodically, tracking her movements to learn more about the secret lives of deer living so close to humans.
Though deer are becoming almost as ubiquitous in the suburbs as squirrels and rabbits, there is a great deal that biologists and wildlife managers don't know about how they dwell among us. Ferebee's effort is part of a wave of inquiry: How do deer understand human activity, navigate traffic, reproduce in populated areas? Are they becoming, in some fundamental way, a different animal than deer living in the wild?
But Ferebee's friendship with the doe in Rock Creek Park may be over: This morning, the collar began sending him the "mortality beep," indicating that it had been lying motionless for a long period of time. Not, when you're talking about deer, a good sign.
Ferebee gets in his truck and heads along Oregon Avenue in Northwest Washington until he sees a grassy clearing near the police stables where he darted the doe. Over the years, he often would see her in this area, browsing for food in the company of others, most likely her fawns and adult offspring. Sometimes at night, though, he would see her poised on the edge of Oregon Avenue, as if preparing to visit the neighborhood nearby.
And sure enough, today the beeps lead him into the part of Chevy Chase that borders the park, a world of basketball hoops and recycling bins and landscaped yards. He stops the truck near a little park on the grounds of the Episcopal Center for Children. In front of the park are a new sidewalk and retaining wall. Behind the wall is soft, backfilled dirt bearing the unmistakable imprint of hooves. Oddly, the beeping is coming from the dirt. Ferebee prods the backfill with a digging bar and comes up with the collar, broken and crusted, the yellow tape he put on to identify it still attached.
"It's a weird place to find it," Ferebee says.
Ferebee thought he knew this deer pretty well. In the past eight years, he has tracked five radio-collared does in all, and learned, among other things, that some spend more than half their time outside Rock Creek Park's boundaries. Their overall ranges vary: Some dwell within a quarter-mile radius, while others meander a bit farther, covering two miles. One doe pretty much lived in the neighborhoods around 16th Street NW, browsing in yards and bedding in gardens. Over time, two of Ferebee's does were hit by cars, and one--the yard-dweller--had to be euthanized because of an injury. Another slipped out of her collar. This doe is, or was, the only one with whom he remained in contact.
Ferebee had always regarded this one as a homebody. He knew she sometimes ventured into town but did not think she came this far. "We must be five or six blocks out of the park," he says. Which raises a whole bunch of questions: How did the collar get here, and how did it get buried? Is the doe's carcass buried, too? Could she have been hit by a car and removed by some other authority? Or did she slip the collar, which was designed to break away eventually, and return to the park?
And what are his chances of answering any of these questions? It's early February, which means the doe still has the grayish coat that deer display in winter. If he can spot her in the next month, he might recognize her by a bare patch around her neck where the collar rubbed the hair off. But soon she will grow the reddish-brown coat of summer, the neck hair will fill in, and the mystery of her fate will never be solved.
But even if he doesn't find her, one thing is clear: This deer had a more adventurous life than Ferebee had imagined.
When Ferebee first came to work in Rock Creek Park in 1991, it was a big deal to see even one white-tailed deer, the most common kind in North America. "You could go weeks without seeing one, and when you did see one, it was a significant thing," he says.
Joe Sutherland, a longtime resident of Chevy Chase, remembers when the Rock Creek deer started traveling into his neighborhood, eight or nine years ago, materializing in a yard or making their way down the street. He still enjoys their presence, the thrill of "seeing nature in the middle of the city."
Park officials write up observation cards when they spot noteworthy wildlife. Before the 1960s, Ferebee says, there were no recorded observations of deer in Rock Creek Park. There were a handful of observations in the 1960s and just over a dozen in the 1970s. Now, deer sightings are so routine, Ferebee says, that "we don't write deer up any more."
In 2000, park officials conducted their first deer census and counted about 50 per square mile. Recently, the number has fluctuated between 60 and 80 per square mile, or about 250 in the entire park.
The sharp rise in numbers isn't unique to Rock Creek. In all of Maryland, where deer once were hunted to the brink of extinction, the white-tailed deer population has nearly doubled in two decades, from 135,000 in 1988 to about 230,000 in 2007. In Virginia, white-tailed deer number about 1 million. Biologists estimate that an area's carrying capacity--the point at which the deer population is in balance with the habitat that sustains it -- is, at most, 20 deer per square mile. In parts of the metro area, there may be as many as 200 deer per square mile; at one point, Bull Run Regional Park in Centreville had an estimated 400 per square mile.
The same population explosion is going on all over the country. According to Clay Nielsen, a wildlife ecologist at the cooperative wildlife research laboratory at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, there may be more white-tailed deer in the United States now than ever, though arriving at accurate counts is notoriously difficult. By the early 20th century, their numbers had dwindled to perhaps less than half a million; now, there may be as many as 29 million.
They're thriving because of the environment we've created, says Kevin Sullivan, a mid-Atlantic director for the U.S Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, chatting in a USDA office in Riverdale. Like many suburban federal buildings, this one is surrounded by a grassy campus bordered by thickets: perfect habitat for deer. "Deer are probably watching this building from every angle," Sullivan says. "They're probably within a stone's throw of your house when you wake up in the morning."
The result of such close contact is sometimes dramatic. In March, a deer crashed through the window of a Greek restaurant in Silver Spring, sending glass flying; the startled animal then galloped, pursued by a dog, into a Giant supermarket. With some regularity, newspaper articles feature deer in churches, deer in shopping malls, deer in boutiques in Georgetown. Three years ago, a pair of deer were found swimming, slightly bewildered, in the Tidal Basin.
And then there are the encounters that don't make the papers. Not long ago, Anne Doll, who lives on a steep street in Arlington, was walking her son to the bus stop when she heard clopping and looked back to see a deer ambling down to the bus stop with them. Another morning, she heard her dog barking and looked out the window to see two people waving. She waved back, went to get her glasses and realized that the passersby were deer, and the things she saw waving were their white upright tails. Like Joe Sutherland, she loves the small moments when her world intersects with that of a wild creature. "It's something about the surprise," she says. "A fox, a deer: It's unexpected."
Others are less enthusiastic. Tina Richter, who lives near Seneca Creek State Park in Gaithersburg, recounts hearing a knock on her door. Her husband opened it to see that the noise was being made by the antlers of a buck who was eating the geraniums out of planters on her doorstep. The buck seemed as alarmed as the husband, who quickly slammed the door.
"I'm so glad he didn't get in," says Richter, who thinks that deer have become so common, and have eaten so much of her landscaping, that close encounters aren't so miraculous.
George Leventhal knows exactly what she means. In 2007, the Montgomery County Council member suffered several broken facial bones when a deer came flying through his car window while he was driving on the Beltway. In 2000 -- the last time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did a count -- there were about 247,000 crashes involving animals, mostly deer, on roadways. Annually, there are about 200 human fatalities involving a vehicle and an animal. Just last month, a deer almost ran into "Today" show host Matt Lauer while he was biking on Long Island, resulting in a spill that separated Lauer's shoulder. And though they don't contract Lyme disease, deer carry ticks that can spread the illness, a public health problem that prompts some parents to keep their children indoors during tick season or swaddled in long sleeves and pants or covered in bug spray. Reported cases of Lyme disease doubled in Maryland and Virginia from 2006 to 2007.
But if the stories of deer running amok raise concerns that the overall population is panicked or in poor condition, that would be misleading. The reason there are so many deer in this region is that deer, like humans, savor the amenities available to them in cities and suburbs. Predators such as wolves and cougars are mostly gone; hunting is often prohibited; there is plenty to eat, if not in the woods, then in yards nearby. Asked whether deer in urban and suburban areas are starving -- an idea found frequently in news reports and on the Internet -- wildlife biologists laugh.
"Not a single one of them," at least not in this region, says Kevin Sullivan.
Every now and then, deer in an overpopulated area will become undernourished--this happened to deer stranded when a mid-Atlantic Department of Energy facility was fenced after 9/11 -- but for the most part, the Washington area is what one expert calls the "ultimate salad bowl for deer."
And yet while we are surrounded by them, most people know little about how deer dwell -- quietly, strategically and surprisingly close at hand -- among us. Deer are highly adaptable animals, equipped with slender but muscular legs, and cloven hooves that allow them to easily leap and balance. They are a browsing species, capable of eating a huge variety of vegetative matter, which they digest in their four-chambered ruminant stomach.
"Deer are like--I compare them to goats; they can eat almost anything and it won't hurt them," Doug Tregoning, a University of Maryland extension agent, says at a Montgomery County Sierra Club meeting for homeowners weary of deer laying waste to their yards. The session is held at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, which, Tregoning says, installed a state-of-the art deer fence only to discover that deer figured out how to enter through a spot where a stream ran underneath. Tregoning provides homeowners with lists of plants that deer dislike, but when he mentions chrysanthemums, a woman's hand shoots up. "Excuse me! They ate mine! Just trimmed off the flowers and left the plants!"
Deer like to feast on acorns, berry brambles, yew, sweet ground covers and scores of other plants, but in a pinch they are perfectly willing to eat poison ivy, twigs or tree bark. They can get up on their hind legs to reach branches. They can jump fences as high as eight feet, or can squeeze under them. They can, if necessary, crawl.
And though they look vulnerable with their wide eyes, soft noses and graceful necks, they are anything but fragile. "It takes a lot to kill a deer," says Earl Hodnett, a wildlife biologist who until recently worked for Fairfax County police and now works for USDA. "Deer are very tough animals. The dead deer that we see on the side of the road--in order for that to happen, the deer's back or neck has to be broken. Otherwise, even if they're mortally injured, they'll make it into the woods."
In Fairfax County, at least 5,000 deer-car collisions occur annually, an estimate based on the fact that 1,300 to 1,400 deer carcasses are retrieved in the county by the Virginia Department of Transportation; studies show the number hit is usually exponentially higher. Deer can live with severe injuries.
"I've got a deer in my yard that I see frequently that has three legs," says Hodnett. "He's missing one front leg below the knee. That leg used to just dangle, but eventually wrung itself off, and he's just got a callused nub on the end. I've seen him run. He is not handicapped."
While layers of local, state and federal deer bureaucracies try to "manage" their numbers, the deer are busy figuring out how to take evasive action. We may be driving their evolution, creating a deer that is not only attracted to suburban areas, but adapted to live easily within them. Already, the urban or suburban deer is "a different creature than we find walking about in rural areas," says Steve Ditchkoff, an associate professor of wildlife biology at Auburn University.
Deer are a crepuscular species, for example -- they emerge to feed at dusk and dawn. But deer in developed areas appear more nocturnal, bedding down during the day and coming out at night. As long as they avoid being hit by cars, their life spans can be longer than deer in huntable populations, many of whom do not live beyond four or five years. And they may be more fertile: Does typically give birth to twins, but well-fed suburban deer have been known to produce triplets.
Even as they remain largely mysteries to us, deer have become intimately familiar with our habits. Biologists say they come to anticipate the times when garbage is picked up, when school buses stop, when dogs are walked, when human beings return from work -- and adjust their habits accordingly. The thickets and green spaces of suburbia become refuges from which deer can observe our behavior.
"Remember what deer do for a living," Ditchkoff says. "They stay alive. That's what they're designed to do. They are a prey species. There's always something trying to eat them. If the predator is a dog, or human disturbance, they're going to learn those patterns. You can go walking through some little creek bottom, through a neighborhood, and be 15 feet from a deer bedded down. It may be watching. You won't see it."
The success of white-tailed deer is a classic tale of unintended consequences. Before the advent of European settlers, deer were plentiful in North America. Native Americans hunted them, as did cougars and other large predators. Colonists, when they came, did the same and traded pelts to Europe. Later, market hunting -- killing deer to transport their meat to American cities -- severely reduced their numbers. Until the 20th century there was little in the way of game laws. "People thought, We'll never run out of game," says George Timko, an assistant deer project leader for Maryland's Wildlife and Heritage Service.
By the early 1900s, though, deer were almost extinct in many parts of the country, including Maryland and Virginia. States enacted hunting restrictions, even moratoriums. Biologists relocated deer from areas where they were still plentiful to areas where they had dwindled. Nobody foresaw how resoundingly the effort would succeed. "We didn't know that deer were so adaptive," Timko says. "We thought they'd be confined to the rural areas and the agricultural areas in the state. We never thought that deer would be living in cul-de-sacs."
Timko takes a drive around the South Mountain area in Maryland's Frederick and Washington counties, contemplating the other factor that contributed to the deer renaissance: the rise of the American suburb.
Deer are what's known as an edge species. They can exist in many environments, but they prefer boundary regions between woods and grasslands. The deep center of a mature forest is not ideal for deer. They do better at the edge of a forest, where sunlight and ground vegetation are abundant, and where they can venture to browse in the open but retreat easily into cover. And what is suburbia but edge? Little patches of forest that give way to lovely little patches of fertilized grass, ringed with tasty daylilies?
In fact, it may be exurbia -- sprawl -- that caused the deer population to explode, particularly in places with large houses on one-, two- or 10-acre lots. The typical exurban subdivision is a ready-made deer park. A single property may contain woods, water and lawn, everything a deer needs for cover and comfort. And it may be the skyrocketing number of deer in exurban areas that is propelling them into the city. Ken Ferebee says officials in Rock Creek Park suspect it was the development of Montgomery County that prompted deer to migrate down the Rock Creek valley. "The numbers of deer have become so high in these newer-style suburban areas, they're almost forced to come into" older neighborhoods, says Auburn's Steve Ditchkoff.
In these environments, deer create conflict just by living their normal lives. Much of a deer's existence is driven by the seasons and the reproductive cycle. Throughout the summer, bucks grow antlers, which are fed by capillaries and covered with furred skin called velvet. The point of antlers is to intimidate other bucks and impress does during mating season.
By August, antlers have reached their mature size, and the bucks rub off the velvet by scraping their antlers against trees, making gashes in the bark. Beginning in October, the rut -- bucks chasing does, sometimes for miles -- creates a surge in car collisions. In the late spring and summer, when fawns begin to follow their mothers, there will be another spike in accidents. And some homeowners in areas with high deer concentrations, such as Cub Run Stream Valley in Fairfax County, attribute a surge in Lyme disease cases to the number of deer.
And then there is their impact on the landscape. Here around South Mountain, Timko points out exurban properties where homeowners are trying to tame the forest -- planting trees, shrubs and vegetable gardens in what used to be a heavily wooded area, and resorting to every possible means to keep deer away. He drives by a clutch of Leyland cypresses protected by a rope fence; a walnut orchard with tubes around the trunks. Then he comes upon an example so stark he uses it in PowerPoint presentations to garden clubs and homeowners associations: a house whose owners attempted to line the driveway with a row of American yews that have been chewed so thoroughly that they look like lollipops.
And it's not just individual landowners who are seeing their flora endangered. In the South Mountain area, where deer number as many as 45 per square mile, they inflict catastrophic damage to local forests, denuding them of future growth. Timko stops at a patch of woods to show the impact: a "browse line," below which there is little vegetation. A mountain laurel has been eaten to the point where there are leaves only at the top. On the forest floor, an oak seedling has been stripped of early shoots. Deer will nibble the shoots until the plant loses the energy to grow. The result is a "dead forest that will not replace itself," Timko says, and can't provide shelter for songbirds and other wildlife that depend on cover. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club are increasingly alarmed by the devastation deer are wreaking on the landscape.
Homeowners' growing ambivalence is easy to see in the South Mountain area. As Timko drives, he points out houses whose occupants keep feeders stocked with corn to attract deer to their yards. They either don't realize, or don't care, that they may be encouraging deer to cross residential streets to get to the feeders, endangering the deer as well as motorists. Elsewhere are the houses with ravaged shrubbery, sometimes directly across from a house with a feeder, a juxtaposition guaranteed to fuel discord. Timko and other government biologists spend a lot of time acting as peacekeepers, meeting with people exasperated by the deer or people exasperated with their neighbors for feeding the deer. While the experts can suggest ways for homeowners to discourage deer, at least temporarily, they say the real solution lies in reducing their numbers. Which is to say, hunting them.
"Stir this area up," says Charles Smith, a natural resource specialist with Fairfax County, who is standing on a hillock just off of Pleasant Valley Road, pointing on an aerial map at a thicket he knows is full of deer.
On a February morning at the height of rush hour, Smith and Earl Hodnett are leading a managed hunt -- a controlled culling effort organized by government officials -- in the Sully Woodlands Park area in western Fairfax. The hunt started just before sunrise, targeting a part of Fairfax County that was once home to not only deer but also to elk and bison. Now it's classic suburbs: chopped-up habitat that includes a sod farm, a private plant nursery, a hardwood forest, an old air field purchased by the county to preserve it as natural habitat, along with subdivisions, bike paths, a golf course, and, of course, car-choked roads.
A variety of hunters have been stationed in tree stands on county parkland, at strategic areas where deer are known to pass. On the larger parcels are experienced private hunters who have passed a test to prove their marksmanship, while closer to human habitation are police officers. With the exception of some sharpshooters, all are required to use shotguns; they are too close to people's houses to use rifles and risk bullets piercing walls or windows. Over at the golf course, employees--strongly motivated by the damage deer do to greens--are the day's hunters.
Before the hunt, notices went out to citizens; though managed hunts were once controversial, the county rarely hears objections now.
The only opponents these days are the deer, who are getting wise to these operations. Smith and Hodnett scrutinize the aerial map, trying to come up with a strategy to outwit them. "They'll use this area as a back door," predicts Smith, pointing to a subdivision off-limits to the hunt. Already, they say, the older, more experienced deer had fled."They recognize this activity and they know what it means," says Hodnett, meaning that the deer see the tree stands, smell humans, sense that things feel different today, and seek refuge in places they know are safe.
And he is right: Around 8 a.m., Hodnett leads a group of "drivers" into the old airfield, the area that Smith had instructed him to stir up. Their mission is to hoot and holler and scare the deer toward a group of hunters stationed ahead of them.
The hunters have been instructed to take only antlerless deer, which in most cases will be does. This policy represents an important adaptation by game officials. For years, hunters concentrated on the wrong gender. They traditionally hunted bucks, both because hunting regulations encouraged it, and because an antlered buck is such a desirable prize. But it is the does that are increasing the deer population so exponentially, and it is the does, therefore, who need to be "managed."
Indeed, it is does who are central to deer society. Highly social animals, deer congregate not in herds but in small matrilineal groupings dominated by a female. In the second year of a buck's life, his mother will evict him, a process that helps prevent inbreeding. Depending on the time of year, the males will travel alone or clump loosely together. The doe hangs out with her daughters, who may drift when they have fawns of their own, but never far away.
Creatures of habit, deer have home ranges, patches of landscape they know intimately. Bucks can have a wide range; bucks that were ear-tagged in Gaithersburg have been found in Fairfax County. (Deer are very competent swimmers, particularly in winter, when their hairs are hollow, a quality that provides insulation but also buoyancy.) Does usually spend their lives within a fairly small area, and studies have shown that if they're driven from their home range, they will invariably return.
And they can populate that home range quickly, thanks to the doe's tendency to have twins and, when well fed and healthy, triplets. (If she is malnourished, she may only have one, and can even re-absorb the fetus during pregnancy.) Owing to this fecundity, it's possible for a deer population to double annually. "You can take all the bucks you want," says Nelson Lafon, a deer manager for the state of Virginia, "and it hasn't made a difference. You have to take does."
As the drivers for the managed hunt move off of Braddock Road and into the patch of nature, it is easy to understand how the does and their offspring thrive in the suburbs. Almost instantly the noise of traffic subsides and there is the feeling of being in a haven. The drivers push through blackberry brambles and native grasses, seeing innumerable deer trails punctuated by droppings. Here, in this intimate space so close to the chaos of suburban life, deer can rest against a cedar to catch the sun. They can go out at night to forage in a subdivision, and return to digest without being seen or bothered. They can drink water from a pond. But as the drivers move through, it is apparent that today, the deer have skedaddled.
All except one: a doe. No, two. With her is another deer, smaller, a yearling. The two creatures rise up suddenly out of a bramble, and the drivers whistle and shout, trying to send them toward the hunters. The doe is too crafty. With her yearling following closely, she angles and runs in the opposite direction they want her to go. Hodnett watches her admiringly. The problem, for her, is that she is heading toward Braddock Road, on the other side of which is a hardwood forest stocked with hunters.
After the hunt is over, Hodnett is curious to see what became of that sharp-witted doe. Around midmorning hunters start bringing in carcasses, which are delicate and incongruously twisted in the tall grass. They are weighed by a biologist who also gauges their ages. Many are just two or three, not yet old enough to be wise to the ways of hunters; there are also "zeros," fawns born last summer who had not yet reached their first year. All together, 32 deer were taken: 25 does, and seven antlerless bucks. Hodnett sees this as a sign of success. In last year's three managed hunts, they took 80 deer in the first, 54 in the second and 26 in the third. Declining numbers suggest the hunts are working. Problem is, the county budget needs cutting, and the police chief has proposed curtailing hunts. Even a single remaining doe could begin repopulating the areas they've thinned.
And they know for sure that a doe remains. Eventually the hunters come in from the hardwoods. The doe got away, and so did her yearling. "They probably knew where the hunters were better than I did, " says Hodnett. "The sharp ones," he says, "are very sharp."
Despite their effectiveness in reducing deer populations in parts of Maryland and Virginia, managed hunts aren't feasible -- or politically viable -- in many areas that are laden with deer. Many neighborhoods call for a more surgical strike -- and for hunters willing to forgo the big woods and cater to the sensibilities of suburbanites who want the deer gone but are uncomfortable with the messy reality of killing them.
That's where Eric Huppert comes in. Huppert is the president of an organization of bowhunters with the delightfully corporate-sounding name Suburban Whitetail Management of Northern Virginia. In areas where bowhunting is legal, his operation allows homeowners to outsource their deer problem, just as they outsource so many other things; he and his volunteer hunters will hunt their parcels for them.
Suburban White Tail Management imposes stringent restrictions on its 100-odd members. For safety, they are not allowed to shoot a deer more than 20 yards away, though they must show their ability to hit a six-inch target from 30 yards. "I tell people that I just want to know that you can do it," says Huppert. He has also set strict conduct rules designed to minimize the hunters' presence. "We want you to get in and out without getting noticed," he tells his bowmen. "Come in and go out in civilian clothes. We don't allow camouflage clothing in public view. We don't allow deer [carcasses visible] in the back. All your hunting equipment is out of sight. It's all very -- covert, I guess."
"We're trying to give hunting a good image," explains Steve Barry, the organization's Loudoun County coordinator.
Barry is a prime example of the new, suburbanized breed of deer hunter, someone who sees hunting as a public service and an opportunity to de-stress, not just a chance for a trophy. A partner at the accounting firm KPMG, he works a 50-to-70 hour week but still finds time to hunt about 100 times a year, in part because he loves the outdoors and loves contemplating deer, in part because he can get "some of my best problem-solving" done in a tree stand.
An accomplished shot, Barry won't even try unless he is certain it will be lethal. He will let a buck go by in favor of a doe. He often gives the venison to Hunters for the Hungry, which donates it to soup kitchens. Other times, he has the carcass butchered locally, then sends the meat by UPS to a couple of butchers in other states, who turn it into pepperoni, salami, and/or breakfast sausage, and ship it back. He may feed his family with it, or give it to the homeowners who let him hunt their land.
Or, rather, the homeowners who beg him to hunt their land. Recently, he was contacted by one exurbanite desperate for him to set up on his property and kill the deer ravaging his expensive landscaping. Driving by the property, part of a subdivision of massive new houses in Leesburg, Barry points out a deer standing near a swing set and another one bedded down in a side yard. The problem is that bow hunters need to set up stands high in sturdy large trees, something new subdivisions often don't have. Barry couldn't help the individual but agreed to meet with the homeowners association.
This day, his destination is farther out: a quasi-rural property in the Round Hill area, where the owner values the deer but worries about the damage that they are doing to the environment. Barry sits in a tree stand for two hours and watches as several deer -- a solitary male, and a doe with two offspring -- make their hesitant way through a forest, never close enough to shoot. Hunting like this requires an incredible amount of patience. Barry takes a deer one in every 10 excursions.
"People think that hunting deer is so easy, and it's really not," says Eric Huppert. "You're not dealing with a dumb animal."
And that is the interesting thing about deer. Studies have shown that they have the capacity to learn. Or some do. They can figure out which land is hunted, and which is safe.
Jacob Bowman, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, conducted a study that confirmed this. At managed hunts in Cecil County, Md., Bowman found that the deer knew about areas near a horse stable and a nature center, spots where hunting was impossible because of the proximity of humans, and congregated there until the hunt was over. Like schoolkids playing tag, they understood the concept of "base." Deer may not be rocket scientists, but in addition to memorizing the path to your hosta, they are capable of modifying their own behavior.
Given this, the question is what to do in jurisdictions where large-scale hunting is not safe. Among these is Rock Creek Park, whose deer population is creating rancor among neighbors. On a Chevy Chase listserve, the marauding park deer are a topic of controversy: One e-mailer declared them a "public health and property menace" and angrily opined that park officials had lost control of their management, while another urged "a spirit of tolerance and the ability to co-exist."
While they argue, Ken Ferebee is trying to come up with a deer management plan, which he will submit for public comment. He's open to any number of possibilities. A managed hunt is not one of them, but he'd consider fences, sharpshooters and contraceptives.
The last option is one that animal protection groups would prefer, but so far the choices are limited. The USDA's National Wildlife Research Center has developed one, GonaCon, which is currently before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It works by immunizing against the release of a sex hormone; the female never comes into estrus. "They don't get chased, and the males treat them as if they're not there," says Kathleen Fagerstone, the USDA official who helped develop it. The problem is, it has to be injected--meaning the doe has to be handled--and eventually wears off. It is only workable, Fagerstone says, in conjunction with culling.
In the meantime, the deer are coming up with their own game plan. Biologists are not sure how deer understand vehicular traffic. They proverbially freeze when they see headlights, not necessarily because they know a car can crush them, but more likely because noise and lights signal danger. One study found that given the opportunity to cross a road safely using a special culvert, deer will seize it.
"They adapt," says Southern Illinois' Clay Nielsen, who thinks car-savviness is one way suburban deer may differ from their rural counterparts. "They learn to cross roads in areas that minimize their mortality . . . Some deer have the ability to learn and some don't, and those that don't, die . . . They have not evolved knowing what a car is, or knowing how to avoid cars and vehicles in the landscape. They are trying to learn."
And, he adds: "These are the ones that are surviving and passing along their genes and learning how to thrive in the urban landscape."
Perhaps the Rock Creek Park doe that Ferebee fitted with the leather collar is among the survivors. On a morning in late February, Ferebee goes looking for her. He knows he's running out of time. Spring is coming, and her coat soon will have filled in and changed color. Hiking around the woods by the police stables, he spots a little herd down the hill near Beach Drive -- five or six deer hanging about in the woods. He scrutinizes them with binoculars, but none has a bare patch at the neck. After a few minutes, he comes upon another herd, not far away. Not there.
As he walks, it's easy to see the impact of browsing. Across the ground, even spicebush plants are being denuded of their vegetative buds. "They didn't used to touch that," he reflects.
A number of years ago, park officials created a small plot with a high fence that deer could not get into. The contrast between what's growing within the fenced plot--quite a bit--and what's growing outside it has gotten stark. "The vegetation has really changed," Ferebee says. "Tree seedlings is what we're most interested in. They've really dropped. We think the deer are starting to change the vegetation structure in the park."
Then, rounding the hillside, he sees yet another herd, four deer in all, two does and two yearlings. He raises his binoculars. "That's her," he announces. "That's her little herd." Through the binoculars, he can see the bare patch on her neck. She is browsing happily, unharmed, unfazed. He is quietly satisfied, caught between his desire to preserve Rock Creek's foliage and his pleasure at finding the doe alive. "I know she's still kicking."
Later, the mystery of the collar's location will be explained by the person who lives beside the little park at the Episcopal Center for Children. Claudia Russell is quite familiar with the Rock Creek deer, who regularly make a beeline through her vinca, and even -- suspects Russell, who is tolerant of their presence -- ate the knobs off her gas grill.
One day, Russell found the leather collar in her yard -- the canvas breakaway strip finally wore through. Not knowing what else to do, she laid it in a prominent spot in her front yard, hoping an official might come looking for it and pick it up. There was a lot of street construction going on, however, and apparently when workers poured a new sidewalk and built the retaining wall, which runs beside her yard, they thought the collar was trash and buried it in the dirt.
But the doe that shed the collar made it back to Rock Creek Park, safe and sound. Darted as an adult in 2003, she is at least 7 years old, having crossed Oregon Avenue hundreds of times, and taught six generations of offspring how to do it.
She is standing there, now, in her habitat, a forest yards from ordinary houses, comfortable with the beep beep beep of garbage trucks backing up, the revving of chain saws, the hum of engines, the voices of men pulling invasive plants. These are the sounds that are her daily life, just as they are ours.
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.