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Living In Harmony with Wildlife - White-tailed Deer

I love wildlife and creating wildlife habitat, but combining the lifestyles of humans and wildlife isn't always easy. You need to have some kind of management plan, an open mind and a lot of patience/tolerance. The goal of this blog series is to learn about various "nuisance" species, how to recognize the signs, why they do what they do and how to minimize their presence or the damage done to your property in a humane and eco-friendly way.

One of the growing issues that I have noticed over the last several years is white-tailed deer. Growing up I never would have imagined that deer would be an issue in a suburban/urban environment, but due to habitat loss from urban sprawl and over-population of the species they have become a common sight in these areas, even in tiny fenced in yards like mine.

A little history. By the late 1870's deer were hunted nearly to extinction in the northeast portion of the US for their meat and hides. Starting in 1878 various conservation/restocking efforts began in order to restore populations. By 1935 the deer population had grown to three times their carrying capacity. In 2000 there were estimated to be 94 deer per square mile. We were taught from a young age to love these beautiful, graceful gentle giants, Disney even humanized them in the movie "Bambi." I mean who would want to hurt Bambi, right? Until, that is, you wake up one morning to all of your tulips, lilies, hostas, etc. munched down to the nub, your yard rutted up with hoof prints and turned into a mine field of scat. Most serious of all, having to be on constant alert at night watching for deer jumping in front of your car out of nowhere. Over the course of over 130 years humans did a very good job in helping the deer populations recover and now with urban sprawl and an increase in no hunting zones, deer populations continue to rise.

Our yards have become an oasis for deer offering lots of delicious treats for them to munch upon and a calm, safe place for them to relax. As their numbers increase however, their resources are diminishing and there is not much that will stop a hungry animal. Out of desperation they are now eating plants that were known to be deer resistant and even toxic if desperate enough. So what to we do to help solve this problem?

First, identify that it is, in fact, deer that are the culprits.

Second, understand their habits. Signs to look for include:

  • Jaggedly torn edges on plants and twigs. Due to a lack of upper incisors deer pull and tear their food. This can be seen on the tender parts of plants anywhere from ground level to 8 feet high.
  • Large abrasions on the trunks of trees. From September to December (breeding season) bucks will rub their antlers and foreheads on trees to remove the velvet from new antler growth and to leave their scent in order to mark territory and attract mates.
  • Hoof prints and large piles of black, pellet-sized scat.
  • A large ungulate (deer) standing in your backyard eating your plants.

Third, develop a management plan. You have to ask yourself, "Does the cost of the managment techniques outweigh the cost of the damage?" If so, a few no/low cost management options and tolerance may be the solution. If not, there are several management techniques available. Most often a combination of techniques works best and be prepared to go by trial and error in order to figure out what works best in your particular yard.

Types of management option include:

  • Habitat Modification: Deer see bird feeders as a free and easy meal. Place your birdfeeders in areas that deer cannot reach, purchase deer proof bird feeders or remove the birdfeeders alltogether.
  • Scare Tactics: Let your dog outside more often and when you see the deer out there.
  • Exclusion: Plant more "deer resistant" native plants in your yard and plants that are less attractive to deer (see link below). Put steel or plastic mesh around the trunks of trees that you want to protect and use shelters for seedlings. Put fencing around plants and gardens that you are concerned about. Or install a 6 foot tall fence around your yard.
  • Repellants: These are not 100% effective and they can be expensive and time consuming. They are most effective in smaller areas and where browsing is minimal to moderate. Taste repellants that cause pain or irritation appear to be the most effective compared to using odor repellants alone. Keep in mind that the deer will initially have to eat part of the plant in order to taste it. Some food safe repellants include egg, blood and capsacin (pepper). Be safe and follow all directions on the label carefully.

Remember, however, that a starving animal will most likely ignore discomfort and bad tastes and smells in order to eat. As populations increase, starvation increases. Good luck! Keep an eye for the next "Living In Harmony with Wildlife."

Deer Management Factsheet.

List of Native Deer Resistant Plants.

Resources:

  • "Nature Wars" by Jim Sterba (Chapter Five)
  • "Living with Wildlife: Managing Conflict with Deer, Geese and Many More!" a lecture by Marne Tichenell, The Ohio State University.

Blog Author: Kelly Parker, Urban Conservationist

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