Suburban Deer and the American Dream

Deer Estates Aerial

Although only 6% of Americans hunt, more of them hunt deer than any other quarry.  It’s not unusual for them to happily spend two or three years’ salary for a small patch of untillable hunting land.  In much of America, deer are now the #1 driver of the rural real estate market.

Meanwhile deer, or at least dreams of deer, can even fuel suburban markets.  After all, it’s not just hunters who want to see more deer.  All the rest of us do, too.  (Well, at least most of us do.)  Deer are somehow magical.  They’re not just deer; they’ve come to mean something more.  In our collective imaginations, they’ve become an archetypal symbol of the wilderness experience—or at least of a gentrified country experience.

One measure of this is the number of upscale suburban housing developments named after deer.  The marketers who cook up these names understand well the dream they’re selling.  They know we’ll happily commute farther and borrow more so we can live beside deer.  Some of these developments, of course, are built on ground that hasn’t seen a hoof print in decades.  But others are newly recolonized by deer that venture out nightly to devour our shrubbery and nip perennials in the bud.  For the newly arrived human suburbanites, it’s pretty darn exciting.

An online search for the words deer and estates turns up over 16,000,000 hits; very few have anything to do with donning tweed, uncasing a rifle, and stalking deer on Scottish estates.  These developments are located in almost every state in the union—plus every province in Canada except Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.

The names of these developments are many, and they are legion.  It’s quite possible that you live in one of them.  Their names include just plain “Deer Estates,” but also every conceivable variation or embellishment that developers have been able to dream up—Deer Run Estates, Running Deer Estates, Dixie Deer Estates, Brown Deer Estates, Deer River Estates, Deer Creek Estates, Deer Path Estates, Deer Point Estates, Deer Pointe Estates, Deer Lake Estates, Deer Hill Estates, Deer Creek Ranch Estates, Estates at Deer Hollow, Deer Wood Estates, Deer Run Mobile Home Estates, and more.

And those are just the developments with “Estates” in their name.  There are also hundreds more like Deer Valley, Deer Run, Deer Path, Running Deer Trail, Deer Creek, Deer Park, Deer Ridge, Deer Lake, Deer View, Deer Run Terrace, and—well, you get the idea.

Truly, we live in Deerland.

© 2013 Al Cambronne

Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.

4 thoughts on “Suburban Deer and the American Dream”

  1. What’s in a name, hey Al? Like many “deer” locations in suburbia – and estates – the deer numbers are often manicured in a way similar to their surroundings, to what is manageable or “sustainable”. The effect of a few deer nibbling on green lawn (how DO they survive The Lawn Ranger’s pesticides and herbicides?). is pleasant until some cranky neighbor attends a town board meeting and wants the deer removed. Then out come the bow hunters. Beauty is only skin deep and it seems most people are not willing to spend and re-spend to replace their shrubbery. I think these are the perfect areas to use deer contraception and to provide education on planting shrubs and ornamentals that are not attractive to deer.

    1. Gail –

      Thanks so much for stopping by to comment. I think your sentiments are shared by many. I would like to point out, however, that it definitely is possible to have too many deer. If we care about other wildlife besides deer, and if we care about healthy ecosystems and biological diversity, then when discussing deer population densities we’d never want to put quotation marks around the word “sustainable.”

      As I researched DEERLAND, for example, I learned a lot from botanists, ecologists, and ornithologists about how overabundant deer can have indirect but very real impacts on birds—not just ground-nesting birds, but also birds that live in the midstory and canopy. Overabundant deer reduce songbird numbers, and also their diversity. So no matter how much you might love deer, if you also care about birds, then this is part of the story you should know about. (My chapter on the ecological impacts of overabundant deer is one of the most important in the whole book.)

      And while many of us might prefer deer contraceptives or other non-lethal remedies like surgical sterilization, they’re not an effective solution on a landscape level—or even in a single sprawling suburb. The only place deer contraception might be worth considering is when we’re dealing with a very small, very isolated population. Examples might include a small island or peninsula that’s difficult for deer to recolonize. And just recently there was a small gated community in northern California that chose this solution. For them, it will work fine as long as more deer—and especially more FERTILE deer—don’t stroll in through the open gate.

      The deer contraceptive story is one I researched very thoroughly, and even an overview required several pages in my chapter on suburban deer issues. But here’s the short version: It’s difficult to repeatedly, right on schedule, dart, capture, inject, and safely release every single doe in a free-roaming population. (For hunters, it’s not all that easy to shoot them just once with an arrow or a bullet.) If we can’t do that, it won’t take long for remaining fertile deer to quickly render our whole effort meaningless. Meanwhile, all the temporarily infertile deer will still be wandering around.

      And here’s why I wrote “temporarily:” The one contraceptive currently approved for use on wild whitetail deer is called Gonacon. It can’t just be loaded into a dart; it needs to be injected by hand. (Its use is also problematic in several other ways.) Although early studies with well-fed, unstressed captive deer were quite promising, it turns out that Gonacon, being an immunocontraceptive that relies on an effective immune response, is far less effective with wild deer—especially when they’re overabundant and undernourished, which would obviously be the case whenever there’s a situation where we’d consider using it.

      This means that Gonacon can’t be relied on as a single-dose contraceptive for wild deer. In a Maryland study, for example, 88% of vaccinated does were sterile the first year, but only 47% the second year. It went down after that. In a separate New Jersey study, 67% were sterile the first year, and only 43% the second year. It also, by the way, will end up costing $500 to $1,000 to inject each deer. And if we still only manage to inject half of the adult does, then after another year or so we’ll be right back where we’ve started.

      In the suburbs, and out in the countryside, too… If it is possible to have too many deer, how many is too many? And if it depends on who you ask, then who gets to decide? These questions have no easy answers, and the problems have no easy answers. It’s not simple. That’s what made this whole deer story so interesting to explore.

      This has been rather a long response to your comment. (Maybe I should have saved it for my next post!) But like I say, none of this is simple. And your comment deserved a serious, thoughful reply. The facts I’ve cited here are based on solid science, and in my book I’ve included lots of footnotes.

      If you still don’t agree with my conclusions, that’s OK. I hope you’ll still return to comment on future blog posts, and I hope you’ll read my book with an open mind.

    2. I would welcome wildlife with shrubbery and ornamentals if other types move in– such as the ruffed grouse. When I was growing up, it was not atypical for houses living near a wildlife reserve or a nature sanctuary to invite native species of birds and mammals. However, I have to wonder if the over-population of deer and bow-hunting bans (within the city limit) are the reason why the other native species disappeared from the suburbs altogether which were once there a few decades ago.

      1. Dave — You could be right. Although there are lots of other variables in suburbia (e.g., other habitat changes, feral and pet cats, etc.), overabundant deer can definitely alter ecosystems in ways that affect bird populations and diversity. That’s true for birds living in the midstory, and even in the canopy. But these effects can be especially dramatic for ground-nesting birds like grouse.

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