I’m not normally a fan of killing wild animals as the predators that are the usual target are essential to keeping other populations in balance — like deer. Deer are overrunning many suburban areas precisely because of overhunting. But the short-term solution to that over-population could very well be a culling of the excess, for their health and safety
How to Solve America’s Wild Deer Problem? Eat Them
The deer population in the U.S. keeps growing, taking a toll on wild lands and suburban gardens. Regulated commercial hunting and expanding the venison market could be the solution.
By Frank HymanJuly 9, 2021 10:58 am ET
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Before Europeans came to America, there were an estimated 30 million wild deer in what is now the eastern U.S. By 1900 that figure had fallen by 99% due to unrestricted hunting, and conservationists made it their mission to protect deer from extinction. They might have succeeded too well. Today the wild deer population has rebounded to precolonization levels, becoming a nuisance to suburban homeowners who find deer invading their yards and gardens.
Conventional wisdom has it that suburban development takes away habitat from deer, forcing them to treat our yards as drive-throughs. The reality is that suburban sprawl creates better deer habitat than a feral forest can. Despite an estimated 1.5 million car collisions with deer in the U.S. each year, the numbers of deer grazing and razing backyards continues to rise. With our pampered gardens for their dining rooms, deer find richer foods than whatever once grew on the wild plots swallowed by suburbia. Gorging like gourmands on 7 pounds of plant matter a day, a doe that might normally drop one fawn a year now often gives birth to twins or triplets. More buildings and cars also mean fewer predators, whether with two legs or four.
Urban-adjacent deer multiply at the expense of forest tree seedlings, songbirds and native plants.
Deer can be frustrating for gardeners, but that is the least of Mother Nature’s worries. Large deer populations also inflict serious damage on wild lands. A 2013 report by The Nature Conservancy declared that “no other threat to forested habitats is greater at this point in time—not lack of fire, not habitat conversion, not climate change.” Urban-adjacent deer multiply at the expense of forest tree seedlings, songbirds and native plants, as well as farmers and drivers.
The problem has less to do with the overall number of deer than their uneven distribution. Before European settlement, white-tailed deer thrived in the eastern U.S. at a density estimated at 2-4 animals per square kilometer. Research shows that if the density rises to more than 8 deer per square kilometer, many songbirds and native plant species decline. Today, there are as many as 50 to 114 deer per square kilometer in some developed areas of the U.S.
None of this is news to wildlife experts. In 1949, the naturalist Aldo Leopold, a patron saint of the conservation movement, wrote in his book “Sand County Almanac”: “I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.” The U.S. Forest Service determined in 2005 that plants like trilliums are unlikely to recolonize the Great Smoky Mountains because of heavy deer browsing. Duke University now allows hunters on thousands of acres of its research forests because deer herds had stripped the woodlands to the point that scientists could no longer conduct meaningful studies.
Hiring professionals to cull deer populations is an expensive solution, costing around $300 per deer. Contraception has proven impractical, since does become fertile every month through the fall and winter, or as much as 11 months of the year in Florida. Recreational deer hunters stocking their larders used to dampen population growth, but hunting of all animals in the U.S. has been in decline for decades. There are roughly twice as many deer now as in the 1950s, but only half as many Americans hunt. And many of those hunters prefer to bag a buck, which doesn’t reduce the population of fawn-bearing does.
Some gardeners manage to dial down deer damage by planting kitchen herbs and medicinal plants with flavors too strong for a deer’s palate. Since deer have no front teeth on their upper jaw, they also avoid the fibrous textures of ferns and ornamental grasses. But that strategy only works until the deer are starving from overpopulation, in which case they’ll eat even the bitter leaves of evergreen Hellebores. Other gardeners keep them away with repellents that smell like soap, rotten eggs or spoiled meat, but eventually hungry deer get used to the smells and learn to ignore them.
A fence is a more reliable deterrent. Some deer can jump as high as 11 feet, but a 7-foot-high fence is tall enough if it’s made of thin black plastic netting, which reflects so little light that deer can’t tell how high it is. They will avoid it instead of making a risky jump. A colleague of mine excluded deer from 5 acres of woodland with such a fence and has been pleasantly surprised by the increase in native plant cover and rebounding populations of quail and red fox.
These techniques can help to keep deer out of a particular area, but they won’t solve the larger problem of deer herds denuding forests, out-competing native species, devouring farm crops and causing traffic collisions that kill about 200 people and injure 30,000 every year.
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In 2011, a group of wildlife experts published a proposal in the Wildlife Society Bulletin to solve the problem by exploiting the appetites of middle-class locavores. Their plan would allow a limited number of state-certified hunters to sell venison to restaurants and at farmers’ markets. The authors argue that venison could become popular as “a high-protein, low-fat and beneficially cholesterol-balanced food that is readily available across much of the eastern and midwestern United States. Opportunities for niche marketing in health food stores, restaurants and local meat counters, as well as supermarket and chain food stores, likely will broaden markets and instill widespread consumer support for commercially harvested venison.”
Such arrangements are common in other developed countries. If you’ve ever eaten boar in Italy, moose in Sweden or kangaroo in Australia, you’ve enjoyed the legal harvest of native wild animals by private hunters who comply with regulations based on safety and conservation.
The lead author of the proposal in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, Kurt Vercauteren of the USDA’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., says that there was pushback to the idea 10 years ago, but wildlife experts seem to be getting more comfortable with it. In 2019 he was invited to present the plan to the largest deer management conference in the country. He suggests a next step would be for one or more states to develop a pilot project that involves all stakeholders.
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Other experts disagree with the idea of regulated harvesting. James Miller, professor emeritus in the wildlife department of Mississippi State University, is “totally opposed” to the idea of allowing commercial hunting. He believes that it would be impossible to manage deer as livestock without causing other problems, such as spreading disease. He also says that commercial harvesting wouldn’t necessarily give hunters access to developed areas with the most abundant deer populations. Prof. Miller and other critics point out that hunting for the market is what nearly wiped out deer in the U.S. in the 19th century.
But that was unregulated hunting. Today, the U.S. allows limited commercial hunting of fur-bearing wild animals without depleting their numbers. Many of these animals have lower reproduction rates than deer, but the regulated market keeps them from being overexploited. The U.S. once managed deer well enough to save them from extinction, so it seems likely that we could now manage them in such a way as to keep them from destroying wild lands and driving down the numbers of other species.
In my hometown of Durham, N.C., restaurant owner Gray Brooks wishes that he could provide diners with wild deer meat. Instead, he uses farmed venison from New Zealand; being grass-fed, he says, “it has a better flavor profile” than grain-fed deer from farms in the Midwest. Feeding grain also makes farmed American venison more expensive, despite the shorter shipping distance. As Mr. Brooks says, “The U.S. is the only nation I know of where you can’t serve wild game.”
—Mr. Hyman is a hunter and horticulturist. His book, “How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying,” will be published in October.