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Home on the Fringe: White-tailed Deer Thrive in Suburbs

Photo of deer crossing the road

Photo by Ken Mullinix

Suburban deer sightings are so common that few of us pay much attention anymore. White-tailed deer are everywhere – along the roadways, throughout our parks, and in our very own backyards. 

Many people incorrectly presume that these animals belong in the deep woods, and the ones wandering into our neighborhoods are refugees displaced by residential, commercial, or agricultural development. In fact, development actually creates better habitat for deer. White-tailed deer are a fringe species, exploiting the benefits of forested land for cover and open areas for food, requiring a substantial portion of each to survive.

As it turns out, their natural habitat bears a striking resemblance to the one we’ve built for ourselves. When residential neighborhoods grow and multiply, they support much higher densities of deer than a natural setting would. We unwittingly provide a refuge in which a lack of natural predators, limited hunting, quality habitat, and a variety of abundant food resources combine to allow deer to reproduce at an equal or higher rate than natural environments.

Living in close proximity isn’t for everyone. While some can’t wait for another glimpse, others lament the financial costs to their property and would rather not host a herd of hungry deer

Whitetail are browsers, not grazers. Natural food sources include acorns, hickory nuts, berries, herbaceous plants, tree seedlings and other woody stems – even things like greenbrier and poison ivy! 

They’re also known to satisfy their appetite at the expense of cultivated crops like corn and soybeans. And many homeowners would note that nearly all garden vegetables and ornamental plantings are on the menu as well. 

Intentionally feeding neighborhood deer is strongly discouraged by wildlife professionals. Such food sources tend to attract and congregate the animals, not only increasing the chance of disease transmission between them, but also upping the danger posed to them by traffic on adjacent roadways. Even in severe winter conditions, providing food actually does the animals more harm than good, as it disrupts and overwhelms their stomach’s seasonally-tuned balance of bacteria and protozoans necessary for proper digestion. 

“Despite good intentions, the reality is that feeding whitetail adversely affects not only their wildness, but also their well-being,” says Urban Deer Biologist George Timko. “ Human response to presumed deer health is often misguided and not in line with the animal’s specific biology or behavior.”

In general, most rescue efforts are ill advised. More often than not, it’s better to let wild things be wild. Keep your distance, respect the potential dangers to yourself and the animal – and though it may seem cruel – leave things in the hands of mother nature. 

When in doubt – but before acting – reach out to a wildlife expert. Check out our website for a searchable list of local wildlife rescue and rehab organizations, or call our Wildlife and Heritage Service at 1-877-463-6497. 

Don’t be a fawn napper!

Photo of fawn in forest

Photo by Justin Prden

Each spring, countless fawns are removed from their natural environment for fear of parental abandonment – a strategy intentionally employed by the mothers to protect their young. In the first few weeks of a young deer’s life, it has no scent and limited mobility. During this time, the mothers will stash their fragile offspring, returning only occasionally throughout the day to nurse before wandering away again – and in doing so, diminishing the threat she herself brings from predatory attraction.

How many is too many?

One of the more far reaching impacts of overpopulation is on the understory of our forests. Hungry deer have voraciously thinned almost all of the underbrush in high-population areas, not only challenging their generational succession, but also altering the ecosystem. This has resulted in lost flora, impacting other creatures that depend on it.

There’s also human health to consider. Robust deer herds can better support large populations of blacklegged ticks, the parasite that transmits Lyme disease — the most commonly reported tickborne disease in the United States. 

Perhaps the greatest threat to us is that from motor-vehicle collisions. Across the nation, more than one million automobile accidents each year are deer-related, and several hundred of those result in human fatalities. Countless more result in severe injury and significant vehicle damage. In Maryland, there are an estimated 30,000 strikes a year.

The majority of such incidents occur in October and November, as breeding season make male and female deer more active and somewhat prone to irrational movements. Another, less-intense spike in activity can be observed in May and June, after does give birth to their young — requiring mother’s to cover more ground while foraging. 

Control

If left unchecked, the number of deer in our state might very well become untenable. For decades, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources has managed stable populations through well-regulated hunting practices. 

Currently, the statewide deer population estimate is about 225,000, down from a one-time peak of about 300,000. Biologists credit the drop to expanded hunting seasons and bag limits. Some attempts were also made with birth control or sterilization, but to date those have proven largely ineffective.

In urban and suburban neighborhoods, hunting presents a challenge. There are examples of communities successfully reducing deer populations by conducting controlled hunts or contracting sharpshooters, but allowing such hunts requires close study, broad consensus, and special permitting. 

There are also several non-lethal options to help reduce damage by exclusion or behavior control. The installation of tall or electrified fencing can help keep deer from entering yards or gardens. Individual plant protection, such as wire cages, plastic netting or tree shelters, is also commonly used. Taste and odor-based repellents are also somewhat common, but must be frequently re-applied or managed, and in some instances deer have adapted to their use. 

Biologists with the Department of Natural Resources will continue to investigate both non-lethal and lethal deer control methods as they evolve, and make this information available to the public. Likewise, deer numbers will be carefully monitored and efforts will continue to manage populations at levels compatible with their human neighbors. 

Additional information about the species and control options for it can be obtained online at dnr.maryland.gov, by phone at 410-260-8540 or via email at CustomerService.DNR@Maryland.gov.

dnr.maryland.gov/wildlife

Stephen Badger is a public affairs officer with the department’s Office of Communications. Appears in Vol. 22, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2019.

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