Managing the ‘deer problem’ in urban areas

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white-tailed deer

By Jim Smith

While Medina County still has its fair share of woodlots, fields, ponds and old meadows, we are quickly urbanizing and expanding in areas that used to be natural habitat for wildlife like deer, turkey, ducks and squirrels. Over the past few years, you may have heard organizations express their concerns with having a “deer problem.” 

Now, this may not be an issue with the individual deer, but the amount of deer becomes a point of concern, especially when high densities of deer mesh with a high density of people. These record amounts of deer pose several issues to the landscape and public health. 

End of an era

Over 350 years ago, nature was doing exactly what the natural world is designed to do, keep the ecosystem in check. Every living individual from the bugs to the bears, to the Indigenous people who lived here initially, played a key role in making sure the resources remain at optimum levels. 

Pre-colonial settlement was really when everything was in some sort of a natural state of balance. The forests were healthy and diverse while the streams meandered free of interruption, which enabled the ecosystem to thrive. That brings us to east coast colonization and expansion. 

As non-Indigenous people began to settle and make their way west, more land was cleared for buildings, roads and farms. More people calls for more food to eat. Starting in the late 1700s, unregulated hunting and loss of habitat contributed to a major decrease in deer populations across the region. 

In the 1850s, the first regulations on deer hunting were implemented in the state, but these regulations did not relieve the stress brought onto the deer population. By the early 1900s, deer were virtually eliminated from the region and officially extirpated from Ohio in 1911. This raised some eyebrows, and people started to notice that we have to make some changes if we want to keep these resources.

Ferocious rebound

After the noticeable decrease in deer numbers and overall wildlife, government organizations banded together to implement conservation programs in efforts to bring back native wildlife. 

In 1943, Ohio allowed hunters to pursue white-tailed deer in only three counties statewide; Adams, Pike and Scioto. Due to the geographic nature of these counties, they were best suited for deer habitat, and allowed deer to easily move back in. 

After years of large timbering programs and mining operations, reforestation efforts were being heavily pushed throughout much of southern Ohio, further expanding wildlife back to their natural ranges. Soon, we begin to see more wildlife throughout the state. Awesome, right? 

Yes, but keep in mind, over those 30 or so years, much of Ohio’s landscape has significantly changed. Towns and cities have grown, roadways have expanded and farm fields have gotten bigger. Fast forward to the 1990s, deer and other wildlife are sharing backyards with humans to a capacity that is becoming a concern, both for the health of the ecosystem and for the safety of the public. 

While having wildlife that was once considered to be extinct in the state make such a tremendous comeback is a Cinderella story, this fairy tale comes with its own set of issues. 

Ecosystem overload

In nature, each environment has a carrying capacity. A carrying capacity is the number of individuals and resources that an area can support without environmental degradation. Deer have an incredibly remarkable ability to adapt to their surroundings, which give them the upper hand in how well they can thrive in modern society. 

The advent of bird feeders, backyard gardens and flower beds give deer a readily accessible supply of food year-round. Throw in a lack of natural predators such as wolves, bears and mountain lions to keep the population at bay; this is where our “deer problem” begins. 

Looking across a field to a woodlot, you may notice a very defined vegetative line stretching clear across the wood line, about four feet off the ground. To an untrained eye, this may seem natural. But in the conservation world, we refer to these as “browse lines.” Browse lines happen when deer cruise the edge of the woods and eat all of the leaves that they can reach. 

This is problematic because there are dozens of different species of birds and small mammals that rely on these field edges being thick and shrubby to survive. It’s not only the edges of fields and yards that get hit hard; it’s also our mature hardwoods and creek bottoms. 

Just like humans, deer seek out the best-tasting foods they can get, often being our native wildflowers that are the first to emerge after a long winter. Native wildflowers, like large-flowered trillium and Virginia bluebells once created carpets across our forests, are now sparse due to deer browsing. These carpets would usually harbor wildlife, reduce soil erosion and add nutrients back into the forest floor. 

What can we do?

As a residential landowner, if you’re experiencing deer damage in your yard or garden, fencing around gardens or flower beds could be a simple yet effective solution for keeping the deer and other unwanted critters out. 

You may also experiment with planting native deer-resistant plants such as butterfly milkweed, broadleaf mountain mint and wild bergamot. These species are excellent host plants for pollinating insects and birds.

In more rural areas, the implementation of hunting is the best solution for controlling the deer herd. Hunting, if done strategically, can majorly affect deer behavior and alter their patterns, reverting them back to establishing a fear for humans and keeping them away from roads or buildings. 

In recent years, many cities and park districts across the state have been implementing a deer management program. These efforts are not going unnoticed. In areas where the number of deer has been reduced, we’re seeing healthier ecosystems and natural regeneration of native vegetation. 

These trends seem to get more attention as education and awareness get spread throughout the communities. In order for us to have and keep beautiful and prosperous land for generations to come, we must keep conservation in mind. 

(Jim Smith went to Hocking College, where he studied wildlife resources management. He is a Medina Soil and Water District technician. Contact him at jsmith@medinaco.org.)

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