Deer Impacts on Long Island and Beyond

Mashomack Exclosure, Courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski

An Exclosure at Long Island’s Mashomack Reserve:
Deer on the Left, No Deer on the Right

From the Suffolk Times: “It is reported that wild deer are doing considerable damage on the Island.  Those who have suffered most wrote to the State Conservation Commission, who came to investigate.”  And the same paper’s headline, just a month later: To Save the Deer: Tremendous Opposition Prevents Slaughter on Shelter Island.  Those stories aren’t from last week.  They’re from 1916.

Of course, since then some things have changed on Long Island. Very few deer remain in Deer Park.  If you’d like to live among deer, head a little farther east. Or, head west to one of America’s dozens of other Deer Parks. There’s also Deer Ridge, Deer Hill, Deer Hollow, Deer Valley, Deer Meadow, and Deer Creek. Want more? An online search for “deer real estate” yields over 69,000,000 hits. Why so many suburbs, housing developments, and streets named after deer?  Because it sells.

For all of us, whether we hunt them, watch them, or just plain love knowing they’re out there in the shadows beyond the edge of our lawn, deer have become an archetypal symbol of wilderness, wildness, and a return to nature—or at least an escape to a gentrified country lifestyle.  Love is blind; for hunters and watchers alike, the term “overabundant deer” can seem a puzzling oxymoron. But all too often we’re choosing Bambi over biodiversity and whitetails over all other wildlife. Inevitably, these changes echo and reverberate through entire ecosystems. Higher deer numbers, for example, invariably lead to lower songbird numbers and less songbird diversity.

Most of us, even if we spend a fair amount of time out in the woods, have never once seen a forest that’s not shaped by deer. It’s not just that we don’t know what we’re seeing. It’s that we don’t know what we’re not seeing, because deer have already eaten it. We even seem hard-wired to prefer a forest missing its understory. That craving may have once kept us safer from predators, and today it explains our lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, and parks. The words we most often use to describe a forest with too many deer can sound like praise: “open and park-like.”

Meanwhile, deer densities per square mile in America’s suburbs and parks have at times reached 207 in Kansas City, 241 in Philadelphia, 300 in parts of New Jersey, and 400 in Washington, D.C. Obviously, the numbers didn’t stay that high for years on end. They couldn’t. Something had to give, and standing back to watch and “let nature take its course” isn’t always our best option—or our most humane.

There are no easy answers, and not everyone will agree on the best solution.  In fact many people, even though they see themselves as environmentalists, deny there’s even a problem in the first place.  “So deer are eating a few plants in the back corner of someone’s lawn,” they argue.  “What’s the big deal?”  But exploding deer populations are more than just a minor nuisance.  If we care about the entire ecosystem, and if we truly care about the deer themselves, then at times we may need to make difficult choices.

To help spread the word, I wrote this op-ed that appeared in today’s Wall Street Journal.  (Update: You can also click here to download a PDF. My op-ed is on the bottom half of the page.) There, we didn’t have room for photos.  Here, I’ve included two from U. S. Forest Service botanist Thomas J. Rawinski. Up above, an exclosure that tells a simple story: deer on the left, no deer on the right.  Below, a shot from Long Island’s Ruth Oliva Preserve.  As you can see, deer have totally eliminated the forest understory. It’s food for thought.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

Ruth Oliva Deer Impacts, Courtesy Thomas J. Rawinski


Author: alcambronne

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

7 thoughts on “Deer Impacts on Long Island and Beyond”

  1. Great topic. Oddly enough, I get really angry at the people, generally on the coasts of America, that oppose these culls from my progressive political perspective. I view them as being insensitive to the poor as well as environmental protection. Of course, a lot of these places are bastions of progressivism where my politics on most other matters would line up. But in MN, even cities that don’t allow recreational deer hunting have sharpshooters with silenced slug guns come and kill deer and the meat is donated to food shelves. There is very little opposition to this. Just shows how hunting and wildlife issues sometimes defy easy political category.

    Your overall point that in many places human alteration of the landscape has made a more favorable environment for deer than before, yet people feeling seeing deer is equated with wildness, bring up is an immediate apparent contradiction. Hunting and wildlife viewing are for many people partially driven by getting in touch with “wildness”, yet deer are often most abundant in the least “wild” places. However, your picture changes when you remember the grand sweep of history. MN has more whitetails now possibly than pre-European settlement, but a dwindling moose population, a tiny wild bison herd, a tiny wild elk herd, and NO caribou, All great game species that were present in big numbers prior to European settlement…

    1. I agree. It is frustrating. But I guess it’s because people love deer so much, and love is blind. We have this concept of charismatic megafauna, and that’s deer. I hope I can help raise awareness of how there really are ecological consequences when deer populations explode like they have on LI. It’s not just a trivial matter of deer nibbling on a few plants. But if you look at the comments following any story on this topic, lots of people who see themselves as environmentalists are just totally dismissive of deer impacts as being something to take seriously. Like I say, they don’t know what they’re not seeing.

  2. Congrats on the WSJ op ed, I’ll have to find a way past the paywall somehow, can you repost here after a time? I just got this book Nature Wars out of the library and have only read the first chapter, but I read a small editorial by the guy and think he has great ideas. It’s that same conflict amongst humans you write of, what to do about wildlife. You’ve probably already reviewed it here and I’ve forgotten, but just in case you haven’t read it…

    I hope dear will be an entry species for the larger public to accept scientific wildlife management for all species.

    1. Why, thank you! Keep checking; the WSJ often lets you have a few “teaser” stories for free.

      Yes, I did review Jim’s book back in 2012. His book came out a little before mine did. He was kind enough to supply a blurb for DEERLAND, and we’ve been in touch occasionally since then. Our stories only overlapped a little, and even with suburban deer we really came at the story from different angles. He’s a good guy, and I learned a lot from his book. I suspect you’ll enjoy the rest of it, too.

  3. Nicely written, and congratulation for being published in the Wall Street journal.

    As a small-game hunter, and a descendant of a trapper-hunter family, it has always been an irate of mine somehow deer and elk are more important than caribou, bison, grouse, beaver or marten in habitat management. Those other game are just as vitally important life-blood in the watching- and hunting-communities.

    When I was small, it was fascinating to watch martens and fishers jumping through the trees. They were unforgettable moment. I haven’t seen a single live marten during the day-time in a long time.

    Yet, watchers and hunters alike prefer the majestic elk to the clever fisher-cat.

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