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Nature Watch: Sorry, Bambi, Gotta Shoot You

Have deer become the No. 1 problem in your garden? Are you one of the 80,000 drivers in New York State who hit a deer between 2008 and 2010? White-tailed deer are beautiful animals, but their overabundance in Fairfield and Westchester counties creates serious problems not only for humans but for wildlife, too.

You might be surprised to learn that increasing numbers of conservation groups are partnering with bow-hunting associations to manage deer populations. Science is telling us that this is the only way of bringing the local ecosystem back into balance.

Studies of healthy herds show that the maximum number of deer per square mile that an environment can tolerate is no more than 25 to 30, with 15 to 20 being preferable. But in rural parts of Westchester and Fairfield counties, we see counts of more than 100 deer per square mile.

For humans, this has brought an increased incidence of Lyme disease (deer don’t carry the disease, but they can carry infected ticks that drop off in your yard). For drivers, repairs for deer-related accidents cost an average of $1,577 in Connecticut, adding up to $28 million in repairs per year.

Speaking of deer damage, almost every gardener in our area now searches for “deer resistant” species to plant. Deer are perfect survival machines. In the coldest of winters they will even chew on tree bark, so almost any plant falls victim to them at some point.

Deer ravage much more than your flowers. They are ruining our region’s forest ecosystem. An adult deer can eat between five and ten pounds of forage every day. Multiply that by 50 to 100 deer per square mile and you quickly see why we’re losing almost all the ground cover and shrubs that make up the forest understory. Lilies, trillium, mayflowers and other forest floor and shrub-layer species fall victim to deer, wreaking havoc on the area’s biodiversity.

To make matters worse, deer chomp through new forest growth such as small sprouts and tree seedlings, which should one day emerge to replace the current canopy. Studies done at the Audubon Greenwich Sanctuary in 2003 showed that witch hazel, dogwood, sugar maple and other species had almost all disappeared from the understory, and maple seedlings were not surviving the summer. This is bad for birds and other wildlife. In severely browsed areas, songbirds have no place to forage or nest. There are similar effects on small forest-floor and arboreal mammals, such as mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks and flying squirrels.

How can deer populations be controlled over the long term? Only four ways, three of which aren’t realistic.

The cheapest solution would be to have an adequate predator population but I don’t think there is much support for reintroducing wolves and mountain lions to our area. Trapping and relocating “surplus” deer seems humane, but it costs $400 or more per animal and no place currently accepts them. Birth control for deer can be administered surgically or through chemical contraception, but the only safe way to do it is by capturing each female individually.

Hunting remains the most cost-effective and widely used strategy to reduce herds. Although it may seem cruel to some, it is probably far more humane than having deer starve to death because they have eaten themselves and other wildlife out of food in our area.

You can find information on Connecticut’s deer management program here . For Westchester, look here . For information on deer resistant plants and shrubs go to this excellent site maintained by Rutgers University .

John Hannan is Audubon’s Director of Development for Audubon in Connecticut . For more information, contact him at jhannan@audubon.org.

What do you think of bow hunting as a method of controlling the deer population? Leave a comment below.

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