What's the Matter with Deer? Humans and Deer, A Historical Perspective

(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District)

Humans and Deer, A Historical Perspective

Charles Smith, Senior Natural Resource Specialist, Fairfax County Park Authority

The foundation for the issue of deer overpopulation lies with humans. We completely altered the landscape and removed deer and their predators by about 1900. Native plant communities, particularly forests, began significant regeneration from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century as people moved away from agriculture, timber harvests had declined due to severe overharvesting, and there were few invasive plant species and no large herbivores to disrupt native plant life cycles.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, there was widespread development in urban areas, agriculture switched to use of heavy machinery and chemical applications, non-native invasive plant species were being introduced on a large scale, and white-tailed deer were reintroduced for hunting.

The growing human population coupled with the use of machinery and chemicals resulted in massive fragmentation of the landscape; poisoning of air, water and soils; and overall species decline. The non-native invasive plant species benefited greatly from the large scale disturbance of vegetation and soils.

White-tailed deer thrived in the fragmented landscape which greatly increased their preferred habitat: edge habitat, where there is abundant sunlight close to the ground providing large amounts of broad-leaved plant forage. In addition to the expansion of preferred edge habitat with native plant species, human development offered nutritious crops in agricultural areas and fertilized grass and ornamental plants in suburban areas.

With high reproductive rates, lots of available habitat and food, and low hunting pressure, white-tailed deer populations began to explode by the 1980s, fueling current overpopulation levels.

As white-tailed deer populations increase, they have a devastating effect on native flora, particularly in forest communities. First, native species on the forest floor begin to decline. Then the deer eat all of the shrubs, acorns and hickory nuts, and the tree seedlings. The forest floor and understory are stripped bare and non-native invasive species move in, resulting in a low diversity landscape with dozens of fewer species overall.

What’s the Matter with Deer?

White tailed deerThey chomp up our flowers and make us nervous when driving on forested streets at night. Even so, what’s the big fuss about a few deer? Can’t we coexist with these graceful creatures?

The problem is that there are more than just a few deer out there. Even nature lovers may not be aware that deer are currently a huge threat to the biodiversity of our forests. Deer populations across the east coast have exploded, far surpassing sustainable numbers. Ecosystems are thrown out of balance, and all other wildlife and plant communities living in our forests have been negatively impacted.

As huge numbers of deer eat their way through the forests, native plants disappear from the landscape. Urban Forester Jim McGlone explains, “The forests in Northern Virginia look like they have been mowed. Most of them have been overbrowsed so long they no longer show a browse line; the shrub layer that would normally show where deer are browsing is gone and along with it the nesting habitat for three-fourths of our bird species.”

Biodiversity is crucial for ecosystem resilience, healthy populations, and fewer extinctions. Strong plant populations lead to bug biodiversity, bird, frog and toad health, and healthy ecosystems. Migrating birds rely on nutritious native plants and insects to help them live through their long, arduous travels. Native spring wildflowers such as the yellow trout lily pictured at left are vulnerable as well.

We host many beautiful animals just outside our doors. In order to live among them, we will need to help keep the system in balance. That means participating in invasive plant removals and putting deer-resistant, wildlife-friendly plants in our gardens. That means supporting science-based deer management efforts. That means valuing all the creatures who live around us.

Current levels of deer overpopulation are threatening other wildlife’s ability to simply survive. While it may be striking to see deer in the forest, we must also know that there are just too many of them.

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