By David Cantor
Human beings do not have total control over all other species despite
our species’ huge impacts. The dramatically increased presence of
white-tailed deer throughout the East Coast and elsewhere in the last
couple of decades is mainly due to the transformation of the landscape
brought about by our species — suburban sprawl in particular. Altering
the landscape brings about countless changes, some of them conspicuous,
some of them at a microscopic level, some to our liking, some not. To
reverse unwanted changes, we must again change the landscape.
Deer kills are essentially the same as deer hunting administered for
many decades by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and other state
wildlife agencies. Broadly speaking, hunting and suburban deer kills
operate the same way:
(1) Destroy sections of forest, providing abundant new low-growing
vegetation - deer food.
(2) Kill enough deer so that the population is noticeably smaller
immediately afterwards but few enough so that surviving deer produce an
overall increase in the local population.
(3) Same as (2) the following year and for years to come as long as
other factors remain the same.
The increase in the deer population after a sizeable kill that does not
amount to an extermination is a response to the new landscape with more
food per animal than the old landscape with more deer. That is why some
places in the Philadelphia area where deer “management” consists of
killing deer have had deer kills every year far beyond a decade.
The part of the landscape known as “edge” - forest edges or clearings -
is where sunlight provides the most low-growing vegetation. That is
where deer obtain most of their food. Edge may consist of backyards,
gardens, golf courses, roadways, or Game Commission clearcuts - wherever
the forest that used to stretch from the Atlantic Coast to the
Mississippi River is interrupted. Edge is deer food regardless of human
As Dr. Thomas Eveland said in his presentation Why Killing Deer Makes
Poor Park Management, in Philadelphia on June 15, 1998, “A quick surge
in a deer population can occur if hunting is implemented where it hasn’t
been before. In any event, if hunting is started, it’ll have to
continue.” As Dr. Allen T. Rutberg wrote in “The Science of Deer
Management: An Animal Welfare Perspective,” “The most visible weakness
in the assertion that hunting is necessary to control deer populations
is that it has largely failed to do so over the last two decades. … Just
because deer are being killed doesn’t mean that deer populations are
How should problems associated with deer be solved, then? The main thing
is to recognize each of the typical complaints - Lyme disease, the
eating of vegetation, and car-deer collisions - as human-caused problems
that must be solved through changes in human practices. Responsible
Policies for Animals, Inc. (RPA) is glad to provide details of the
approaches briefly outlined here. Many items in the attached reading
list give details. RPA believes one consideration in important choices
like home purchasing and car driving should always be what animals are
likely to be encountered and whether one is prepared to co-exist
humanely with them.
The American Lyme Disease Foundation does not recommend killing deer to
prevent Lyme disease, and in some locations where all deer were removed,
incidence of the disease did not diminish. Useful short-term approaches
include avoiding walking through brush when outdoors and to check for
the very small ticks that spread Lyme disease after time outdoors.
Car-deer collisions depend on how much and how fast human beings drive.
They peak during hunting and mating seasons. Special signs and
patrolling can help. Roadside reflectors that cause deer not to enter
roadways when cars are approaching between dusk and dawn are highly
effective if installed and maintained properly. See
or phone 309-794-9800.
Fencing can keep deer away from vegetation people wish to protect, over
large or small areas. Vendors with expert staff include Benner’s Gardens
- 800-753-4660 / http://www.bennersgardens.com; Master Gardening -
301-694-1238 / http://www.mastergardening.com; and Wildlife Control
Technology - 800-235-0262 / http://www.wildlife-control.com. It also
helps to plant species deer do not prefer to eat.
Large-scale, long-term solutions to which we all can contribute will be
the most effective, the most humane, and the best for people and
ecosystems. Developing a genuine ecological perspective rather that of
the last few centuries based on convenience, domination, manipulation,
exploitation, and short-term private gain will help bring about the
changes that are needed for human beings to live in peace with
white-tailed deer and other wildlife as well as with each other.
Solutions must include restoring forest to the extent possible,
including where no deer currently exist.
Changes that will help:
minimizing needless farming such as intensive feed-crop production for
animals not needed for the human diet; curtailing and reversing suburban
sprawl, which contributes to economic problems, air and water pollution,
the breakdown of families and communities, and significant urban
problems from loss of the tax base; and ending construction of new
roads. The New Urbanism is on the right track.
In terms of individual American homes, trees are the only plantings that
appreciate in value. Learning to emphasize native tree species rather
than water-, fuel-, and time-wasting non-native grass lawns can help
restore forest where houses and other structures already exist.
Eventually, whether houses remain or not, trees will form forest
canopies that will slow or prevent the growth of huge deer-food
supplies. As Virginia Scott Jenkins writes in her book The Lawn: A
History of an American Obsession, “A new landscape is a cultural
creation, and it remains to be seen whether the environmental movement
in this country can enlist as potent a group of supporters and teachers
for the twenty-first century as the lawn industry, the Garden Club of
America, the U.S. Golf Association, and the U.S. Department of
Agriculture did during the twentieth century.”
David Cantor is founder of Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc.
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