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Problems with Deer

by Karen Jescavage-Bernard

Deer are cute, intuitive, persistant, and adept at surviving in the woods or on our gardens.

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and as gardener-versus-wildlife conflicts go, this one is comparatively new. But we've got to face it: There are more deer in the world than 20 years ago, and there are more people, especially in the suburbs and country. As an ecologist would put it, our respective habitats overlap more frequently than before.

Nevertheless, this overlap is causing traumatizing and sometimes expensive dilemmas for gardeners. In truth, there is no tidy solution. The only sensible option is to rely on a smorgasbord of big-picture and garden-level techniques.

Name That Deer

Name That Deer
The greater frequency of deer encounters on suburban roads indicates their increasing numbers.

Of the 38 deer species worldwide, the whitetail in the East and mule deer in the West are the two that cause the most problems for American gardeners. Surveys estimate the current total deer population at approximately 30 million, compared to about 12 million a decade or so ago. Although the causes of this population explosion are elusive, the threat it poses to gardens and farms is clear.

Deer are a fecund species, and they produce multiple offspring when stressed. Over her average 10-year lifespan, a doe and her daughters can produce up to 100 fawns. In recent years, the incidence of twin and triplet fawns has increased.

Concurrently, residential and commercial development has encroached further into deer habitats, which also discourages herd-trimming activities of hunters and coyotes. Development also adds to garden and landscape plantings that provide more nutritious food sources than were available to deer in the past.

While science works on an effective contraceptive, gardeners struggle with a growing problem. Over the long term, effective planning could minimize future problems. On the community level, replacing widely spaced suburban lots with clustered homes and large undeveloped-land areas would preserve blocks of natural habitat large enough for hunters and animal predators like coyotes to reduce deer populations. Also, managers of public parks, highways, wooded watershed lands, private preserves, and corporate parks could reduce deer damage in residential areas by replacing ornamental plantings in nonresidential areas with species that provide habitat for wildlife.

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