People in our area are divided in their thoughts and actions toward the deer that live among us, and many people have deer-related concerns which include deer-vehicle collisions, stripped landscaping around homes and arrows ricocheting off tree branches.
I interviewed Kevin R. Rose, a district wildlife biologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), to address some of the common questions and concerns regarding our abundant deer population. The interview, lightly edited, is below.
I’ve noticed a few of my friends and neighbors have started feeding deer. Is it okay to feed deer in suburban areas that have reduced natural habitat?
I would advise that no one should feed deer for several reasons: First, it artificially congregates them, which increases the chances of disease transmission. Second, deer are attracted by food, but not prevented from browsing other food sources around feed. The result is that the increased number of deer do more damage to the environment around feed sites. Third, feed for deer attracts non-target species, raccoons being one of the most common. Raccoons pose a human health and safety hazard due to rabies and baylisascariasis concerns.
Bears are also attracted to deer feed. Feeding bears is illegal any time of the year. And, yes, we do have bears in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties.
In addition, it is illegal to feed deer from Sept. 1 until the end of the hunting season in the municipalities in question. For Prince William, Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, that is Sept. 1 to the end of April. This covers the time of year when people think deer need the food to help them through the winter.
Are suburban deer much more stressed and hungry in winter compared to spring, summer and fall?
Winter can be the limiting time of year for deer and other wildlife. However, suburban deer are usually able to find sufficient food during the winter due to landscaping, including evergreen bushes and twigs from leafless plants as well. A starving deer will eat the bark right off a tree.
In residential areas, we tend to have plants that keep their leaves longer, or year-round. While many of those plants are not preferred deer browse, deer will eat less preferred food when the preferred food is not available. I have seen cedar trees that look like topiaries from deer browse. Azalea, holly and Leyland cypress will all be consumed by deer.
Do you know if the deer population in Northern Virginia is increasing, decreasing or staying the same? Are deer-related traffic incidents in Northern Virginia increasing, decreasing or staying the same?
Overall, the deer population in Northern Virginia is declining. In Loudoun and Prince William, we have data that shows a statistically significant decline in the deer herd. In Fairfax, the index we use breaks down because of the highly developed nature of the county and previous lack of hunting. Where the Fairfax County deer management program has been in place for several years, we are seeing a decline in the deer herd. The real challenge there is getting deer management in more areas.
Accurate data for deer-vehicle collisions (DVCs) are very difficult to obtain. Therefore, we have a lack of information to make any solid statements. However, DVCs are dependent on the deer herd and the amount of traffic, among other factors. So, even when the deer herd is reduced, the number of DVCs could increase due to increased traffic. In Fairfax County, we are seeing a reduction of DVCs near some of the parks where deer management has been implemented. That data is incomplete, however, and is not ready for publication.
We also have annual news releases about being aware of deer on roads as we move toward the breeding season and deer activity picks up.
In my Oakton, Va., subdivision, we have backyard bow hunters. They are quite successful. Are there established or separate rules for backyard deer hunting? Is it regulated by the city, county, state and/or yard size?
Hunting is regulated by the VDGIF, but localities have the ability to limit weapon discharge due to safety concerns. VDGIF does not set different regulations for suburban vs. rural areas, but the localities often do. In Fairfax, there are no parcel size or distance limitations for archery tackle. Fairfax County law states that the projectile cannot be shot in a manner that would reasonably result in an arrow landing on someone else’s property without permission. In other words, an arrow can’t cross your property boundary.
Firearms are highly restricted by Fairfax with a large minimal parcel size required to discharge a firearm. Each county/city is different in this regard. In western Loudoun you can use a high-powered rifle to hunt, but in eastern Loudoun you are restricted to shotguns. Some areas of Stafford allow high-powered rifles while others are restricted to archery tackle. Etc., etc., etc. It all gets very confusing, so we always suggest checking with your local police department about what laws apply. In Oakton, responsible archers will be within the law since there is no minimum parcel size or distance to buildings for archery in Fairfax County.
Do you have any thoughts about the tall deer fences people are putting up on their property to keep out the deer?
Exclusion fences are an effective way to keep deer from damaging landscaping or agriculture, though they can be expensive and their use is restricted in some areas due to their appearance. Cages over flower beds and vegetable gardens are also effective.
Do mice, squirrels and other animals carry and spread Lyme disease? Or is it primarily the deer that spread Lyme?
Deer carry and spread ticks, but do not transmit Lyme disease to ticks or humans. The ticks get the bacteria that causes Lyme disease from other animals, such as white-footed mice, Eastern chipmunks and American robins. There have been few robust assessments relating deer population densities and incidence of Lyme disease. Further, a linear relationship has not been established between deer population density and the abundance of the disease.
What is the most effective method to harvest or thin the deer population in suburban areas?
The most effective method in terms of ability to reduce a deer herd quickly is through sharpshooting. However, the use of sharpshooting is limited by funds and locations where sharpshooting is appropriate (use of firearms). The Fairfax County Archery Program has shown that organized archery hunting is cost effective and successful at reducing deer herds over time. This is the method best suited for use in most suburban and urban areas.
What about salt licks for deer? Are they discouraged too?
Salt licks are not as bad as feed due to fewer non-target species being attracted by them, but they still congregate deer in artificially high densities and contribute to potential disease spread. Also, many salt licks are now scented with food scents. Those will probably attract the non-target species too.
What are your thoughts about the deer? Do you love them, hate them, hunt them or just photograph them, like me? Let us know in the comments.