At the end of the 19th century, white-tailed deer were all but gone from the eastern United States, their population reduced to remnant herds in isolated redoubts.
What caused their numbers to plummet? First, the arrival of European traders created a market for deer hide. Then settlers and commercial hunters poured in and commenced a deer slaughter that lasted three centuries. Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that by 1890, a pre-Columbian whitetail population in the United States of perhaps 30 million had been reduced to roughly 350,000.
Conservationists brought them back. It took decades.
But what happened in the late 20th century was not natural, either. Whitetails burgeoned, especially in areas of suburban and exurban sprawl, which were largely off-limits to hunters and devoid of other predators. For deer, this habitat proved to be better than an unpeopled forest. They multiplied with abandon — as anyone who has ventured near Rock Creek Park knows.
Today, with a restored population of 25 million to 40 million whitetails, foresters complain that high concentrations of deer are inhibiting the growth of new trees all over the landscape. The animals gobble up seedlings and other vegetation on the forest floor and browse as high as they can reach standing on their hind legs. In the process, they are threatening rare plants and the birds and animals that count on the forest understory for survival. In some areas, deer have become de facto forest managers, determining what eastern woodlands are going to look like 50 or 100 years from now.
Hunters, long shunned, are being welcomed into some communities to trim local deer herds. Sometimes local governments hire sharpshooters to protect woods, parks and neighborhoods; predictably, these moves have caused controversy. This fall, a California-based group called In Defense of Animals filed two lawsuits, alleging that two such plans are illegal.
On Oct. 25, it sued the National Park Service to prevent it from shooting whitetails in Rock Creek Park, and those plans are now on hold. This month, it challenged Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to stop its plan to cull white-tailed deer in its 527.5-acre ecological preserve.
The lawsuits assert that five residents of Washington and two of Poughkeepsie would suffer, among other things, “emotional and psychological distress” and might even have to move away if deer were killed. The suit against the Park Service asserts that the local plaintiffs would no longer enjoy using Rock Creek Park if they knew hunters had been there and that they might risk seeing an injured or dead animal, thus “compromising [the park’s] aesthetic value.”
With all deference to their emotional well-being, one also thinks of the anxiety and distress suffered by the 4,000 drivers in the United States who hit a deer every day. Not to mention the 250 people who die every year in these crashes or the 30,000 who are hospitalized because of them.
But let’s not dwell on them, or even the damage deer do to gardens, shrubbery and landscaping, or their disputed role in spreading Lyme disease. Let’s just look at the ecology.
“The Science of Overabundance,” a Smithsonian book published 15 years ago, asserted that even then, many areas clearly had too many whitetails. The book, written by 42 scientists and wildlife biologists,defined overabundance this way: when deer threaten human life or livelihood, when they depress densities of favored species, when they are too numerous for their own good and when they cause ecosystem dysfunction.
Administrators at Rock Creek Park and Vassar College argue that two of these standards apply to their deer herds: They depress favored flora and damage the ecosystem.
Habitat varies widely, of course, but a rule of thumb is that once deer populations exceed 20 animals per square mile, they begin to diminish the vegetation on which they browse. Rock Creek Park has about 80 deer per square mile, the Vassar preserve more than 40. Both areas are near vast tracts of suburban and exurban sprawl.
William McShea, a wildlife biologist at the National Zoo, calls this sprawl “deer nirvana.” Whitetails are an “edge species,” flourishing in transition zones where one type of vegetation ends and another begins. Sprawl creates a mosaic of places for them to feed, hide, water and bed. And the people living there have largely removed from the landscape the only major predator of whitetails left: themselves.
Humans, along with wolves and mountain lions, have been the deer’s main predators since the end of the last Ice Age. Some evidence suggests that people have killed more deer than all other predators combined. In the past few decades, however, sprawl dwellers have largely gotten out of the predation business. They have plastered their property with “No Hunting” signs. Towns, townships and even entire counties have outlawed the discharging of firearms in the name of safety. (Hunters kill 100 people or so a year, mainly each other, in cases of mistaken identity. Deer kill more than twice that number in deer-vehicle collisions, euphemistically known as DVCs).
The result: For the first time in 11,000 years, huge swaths of landscape in the heart of the white-tailed deer’s range are off-limits to its biggest predator. Though vehicles and coyotes kill deer, it’s not enough to keep whitetail populations down in many of these areas.
The Rock Creek and Vassar culls together aim to kill about 200 whitetails. By comparison, hunters kill about 6 million deer annually. Say another 6 million die of other predation and disease. Virtually all the deer involved in DVCs die, so there’s another 1.5 million killed (at an estimated cost of $1.5 billion). Let’s be generous and say 14 million whitetails die annually of all these causes. That’s still not enough to keep their numbers in check. Deer biologists say two-thirds of does need to die annually in any area to stabilize the herd.
The Vassar cull would use sharpshooters, just like the one it conducted in 2010, in which 65 deer were killed. Rock Creek Park’s cull would use sharpshooters and bow hunters to initially kill 157 deer.
People who oppose culling deer put forth all sorts of arguments as to why it wouldn’t work. Two relate to the “vacuum effect.” The deer not killed, the theory goes, won’t have to compete for food, and thus the females will produce not one fawn but twins, even triplets, and quickly grow the herd back. Or deer from outside the area will quickly move in to fill the vacuum left by culling.
Using this loopy logic, a gardener would not pull weeds because new ones would take their place.
True, the whitetail population would rebound, but it would take years. Thinning the numbers would be healthy for the herd and for the ecosystem.
Princeton, N.J., banned firearms discharges in 1972, effectively ending hunting with guns. By 2000, its whitetail herd had grown from 220 to 1,600 — or 94 per square mile. After years of arguments, sharpshooters and bow hunters were hired. The cull is now an annual event, and the deer herd fluctuates between 200 and 500 animals, a sustainable level.
A lot of people against killing deer say fertility control works and is the humane way to go. And they are right — in certain circumstances. Put deer inside a high fence and use contraceptive darts to inject females regularly, and their birth rates will drop. That’s what the Humane Society of the United Stateshas done on the fenced grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg. Problem solved — expensively.
But for free-ranging whitetails, it does not work. And it is neither practicable nor affordable.
The National Park Service threw in a fertility-control option for Rock Creek Park with the proviso that it will try it if an acceptable birth-control agent is available and effective. Fat chance. The Park Service has been monitoring the Rock Creek deer situation for more than 20 years. It produced an exhaustive 592-page environmental-impact statement with various options and chose a politically correct combination of lethal and non-lethal means of responsibly managing this ecosystem for the good of flora, fauna and people. (No telling how many tax dollars it all cost.)
Once deer, or any other wild species, exceed what’s called their social carrying capacity — the point at which they become more of a nuisance than a pleasure — the animals tend to be demonized. In some places, these elegant ungulates are viewed as long-legged rats. In Pennsylvania, some people call them “mountain maggots.”
Bambi doesn’t deserve this. With reasonable control measures in place, the white-tailed deer can resume its place in our lore, our communities and our hearts.
Jim Sterba, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, is the author of “Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.”