Deer overpopulation taking economic toll

By Allan Sloan
Monday, November 1, 2010; 10:26 PM

If you think deer are cute woodland creatures like Bambi, think again. In the real world - to the extent that suburbs like mine are the real world - deer are pests. "Rats with hooves" is the term for them in my household, which is plagued by deer that eat our plants, defecate all over our yard and show no fear of humans. Then there's the issue of Lyme disease carried by deer ticks, an especially serious problem if you've got young kids or grandkids. And there's the scare we got last year when a deer herd began crossing the six-lane highway on which were driving at 60 miles an hour.

In the Disney movie, of course, hunters shot Bambi's mother. I used to think that was terrible. Now, though, I think what's terrible is not that Bambi's mother was shot, but that the hunters didn't also get Bambi, his father, and the rest of the herd.

And since I'm supposed to write about business, not vent about wildlife, let me show you some numbers about how appallingly expensive rats with hooves are in terms of dollars and human lives.

We're talking big bucks here. (You can groan now.) Deer-vehicle accidents resulted in more than $3.8 billion of insurance claims and driver costs in the year ended June 30, according to State Farm Insurance. Such collisions resulted in about 140 human deaths, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Serious stuff.

We're not even including the financial and social cost of Lyme disease, the expense of hauling away deer carcasses, and the cost in money and time protecting vegetation and crops from voracious deer predation.

State Farm estimates that in the 12 months ended June 30, there were 1.1 million deer-vehicle accidents nationwide that resulted in $3.8 billion of insurance payouts and driver costs. The total exceeds $4 billion when we throw in the cost of accidents in which no claims were made because drivers had no comprehensive insurance on their vehicles, or no insurance at all.

The costs in the adjacent chart combine State Farm's estimate of an average $3,103 per claim paid by insurers with the estimated deductible, $250, absorbed by drivers. We're using a $3,353 cost per accident in all states, because State Farm doesn't provide state-by-state data.

You see that in 16 states, costs run nine digits. In Virginia, by State Farm's estimate, there were nearly 52,000 deer-related accidents last year that cost $174.3 million. In Maryland, deer-vehicle collisions numbered close to 32,000 at a cost of $106.9 million. Even the District of Columbia, not known as a woodland paradise, has roughly 500 deer-vehicle accidents a year, according to State Farm. (You can blame most of them on the deer infesting Rock Creek Park.)

State Farm has published data about deer accidents for seven years to get attention for its accident-mitigation tips: be especially vigilant from 6 to 9 p.m.; remember that deer usually travel in herds; don't rely on car-mounted deer whistles; and so on. It does some interesting math to reach its conclusions. It extrapolates total deer-vehicle damage based on claims made by its policy holders. For example, if State Farm has a third of the auto policies in a given state, it multiplies its cost and the number of accidents by three.

State Farm says there were 21 percent more accidents reported in the 2009-2010 survey than five years earlier, even though vehicle-miles driven are up only 2 percent. That's a telling statistic. It means either that drivers have gotten a lot worse at avoiding deer, which seems unlikely, or there are a lot more deer on the roads than there used to be, which seems extremely likely.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration counted 182 deaths caused by animal-vehicle collisions. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 75 to 80 percent of those deaths involve deer. Call it 140 people killed last year because Bambi was where he didn't belong.

Look, I'm all in favor of cute woodland creatures - as long as they stay in the woods, and aren't destroying the habitat on which plants, birds, insects and reptiles depend. Yeah, deer are just animals and it's not their fault, but they're a menace because there are far too many of them. When you see the New Jersey Audubon Society allowing carefully selected people onto its nature preserves to shoot deer, as it has since 2005, you know that an excess of deer is an ecological disaster.

The next time some bleeding-heart tells you how cruel it is to kill deer to keep them from hurting people and causing property damage, wave these death and damage numbers around. Up with people! Down with Bambi!

Allan Sloan is Fortune magazine's senior editor at large.

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