(Conservation Currents, Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation
Humans and Deer, A Historical Perspective
Charles Smith, Senior Natural Resource Specialist, Fairfax County
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
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?
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.