No Easy Answers to America’s Suburban Deer Conundrum

rock creek roadway

To quote H.L. Mencken, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  The dilemma of overabundant deer in America’s cities and suburbs is just one of those complex problems.  And unfortunately, deer birth control turns out to be one of those easy answers that are “clear, simple, and wrong.”

The idea of deer contraception is compelling precisely because it’s so simple.  It has, as Stephen Colbert would say, a certain ring of “truthiness.”  Meanwhile, the reasons it doesn’t work are complicated, scientific, and boring.  For those with short attention spans, the truth takes way too long to explain.  Which reminds me of another quote, attributed in various forms to Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and the Reverend Charles Spurgeon: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its pants.”

But alas.  Contrary to persistent urban legend, there’s no handy oral deer contraceptive we can sprinkle about the woods or pour out onto piles of corn.  Nor is deer relocation a workable idea.  And for a variety of reasons I summarized in this Washington Post piece, currently available deer contraceptives remain problematic.  Deer birth control is great in theory.  In practice, it’s difficult, expensive, and temporary.

When deer are so overpopulated that they’re malnourished and doing serious damage to their habitat, damage that affects every other plant, animal, and bird in the entire ecosystem, then standing back to watch may not be the best solution—or even the most humane solution.  But in all fairness, lethal control measures aren’t permanent, either.  There are no easy answers.

Deer are good are at two things: eating, and making more deer.  So even though lethal measures may temporarily protect the habitat and prevent the remaining deer from slowly starving, the job may need to be done all over again in another year or two.  Rationally, however, this is almost always the solution that’s best for the habitat and best for the deer themselves.  Still, a lot of people with good intentions just don’t want to ever see deer harmed.  Not even one.

Which brings us to the Washington, D.C. deer that once again put this issue in the news.  These deer don’t just live near Washington, they live right in the middle of it—specifically in the 2.742 square mile Rock Creek Park, which roughly bisects Washington, D.C. Subtract the creekbed and the park’s buildings, parking lots, and roadways, and we’re probably down to just over two square miles.  Park officials estimated the deer population at around 200, which works out to…  Way too many deer per square mile.  The understory was severely overbrowsed, browse lines were appearing overhead, and the deer were hungry.

It’s a familiar and recurring story from suburbs and cities all over America.  This time, rock creek bridgehowever, it was happening right in our nation’s capitol.
Predictably, when the National Park Service (NPS) decided to send sharpshooters out to remove some of those deer, not everyone was happy.  Animal rights organizations filed lawsuits, concerned citizens wrote angry letters to the editor, and protestors marched nightly at the edge of the park.  A couple weeks ago sharpshooters removed 20 deer, about 10% of the park’s population.

Just before that happened, D.C. council member and former mayor Marion Barry weighed in with a tweet nominating the NPS for “MOFOs of the month.”  In later tweets, he wrote “NPS will be sharpshooting deer in Rock Creek Park. So wrong. #dontkillbambi  Can they be relocated? I mean the NPS. The deer can stay.”  (Later Barry apologized, especially for the abbreviation that stands for about what you think it does.  He stated that although the tweets were from his account, they’d been sent by a staff member.)

So I decided I should weigh in, too.  You can read the piece here; it includes links to the peer-reviewed papers I cited.  (Some of which are papers you’ll also find mentioned in DEERLAND’s footnotes.)  For now, here are the last two paragraphs:

The consensus among wildlife biologists is clear: Deer contraception is only a viable option for small, isolated populations such as on an island or in a fenced enclosure. As much as we might wish otherwise, it does not provide an easy answer to the problem of overabundant deer in our nation’s cities and suburbs.

If we feel uneasy about lethal control measures, we should feel even more uneasy about the only real alternative: collisions with motor vehicles, disease, and starvation. As one ecologist told me, “Just because we’re not shooting them doesn’t mean we’re not killing them. And just because we’re not shooting them doesn’t mean they’re not suffering.”

© 2013 Al Cambronne

Photos of Rock Creek Park courtesy NPS.

rock creek waterfall




DEERLAND Now Available for Pre-Order

DEERLAND cover image (60 KB)

I want to thank you for the support and encouragement so many of you have offered as I’ve been pitching, researching, and writing my book about the major role of deer in the environment and in American culture.  It’s been a long road, and now the big day is almost here.

On April 2, Lyons Press will release DEERLAND: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.  With only a few weeks remaining until my book’s launch, I’m asking for your help in making DEERLAND a success.

Although I’ve been blessed with great early endorsements and reviews, this is only my second book.  My first, written with co-author Eric Fromm, was Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.  While I’m proud of that book, and while it continues to do well, it’s in a different genre and aimed at a different audience.  In a sense, I’m almost starting over as a first-time author.  That makes it challenging to help DEERLAND find the audience it deserves.

Pre-ordering DEERLAND before the launch date will help build momentum among bookstores, libraries, and the media. (You’ll also get a substantial discount.)  I’m asking for your help with these simple steps:

1. Pre-order your copy (or copies!) today.  You can click on any of the links in the upper-right corner. 

2. Share this information with your friends, colleagues, students, classmates, book clubs, and any organizations of which you’re a member.  Promoting the book on Facebook, Twitter, and your other social networks is also greatly appreciated. 

3. If you’re a blogger or member of the media, please spread the word among your readers, listeners, or viewers.  If you like, I’ll be glad to put you in touch with my publicist at Lyons so you can request a review copy.  (You can also find her contact info by visiting my Press page.) 

The U.S. is now home to 30 million hungry deer—100 times more than were here a century ago.  When we see all those deer out in the woods, most of us believe it’s a measure of the forest’s health.  It is, but in exactly the opposite way we think.  All across America, overabundant deer routinely devastate ecosystems and alter entire landscapes.  DEERLAND traces the story of how we got here and asks tough questions about what it will take to restore the balance we’ve disrupted.

I’ve also asked tough questions about the rapidly changing gear, tactics, and values of today’s hunters—and about what role those hunters will continue to play in 21st Century America.  And when it comes to deer, are hunters part of the solution, part of the problem, or both?  Rest assured, however, that DEERLAND isn’t just about hunting.  It’s a much larger environmental and cultural story.  (To learn more, please take a moment to explore my website and check out a few more blog posts.)

Whether you’re a hunter, a gardener, or a birder, and whether you care about the environment, the deer in your back yard, or the shrubbery they just ate, DEERLAND is an eye-opening read that will change forever the way you think about deer and the landscape we share with them.

I’ve shared some of the advance praise for DEERLAND on my Home page.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as those readers did.  Thanks to all of you for your continued support!

Best wishes,

Al Cambronne


Book Review: Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars

Jim Sterba’s new book Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds just hit the streets a few weeks ago.  But for years, wildlife has been hitting the streets of suburbia—and quite often becoming roadkill that’s smeared all over those streets.  As America’s suburbs sprawled, we created a whole new type of habitat featuring everything critters could want—food, shelter, safety from both two-legged and four-legged predators, and plenty of welcoming humans.  Eventually, however, the welcome wore thin.

In Nature Wars, Sterba tells his story in three parts.  The first, “Forest People,” offers a brief ecological history lesson—reminding us, for example, that most of the landscapes we view as natural are far less pristine than we imagine them to be.  This section gets its title from another key idea, that much of the U.S. is now more heavily forested than it’s been for centuries.  Surprisingly, that’s especially so for our sprawling suburbs.  Truly, we are people of the forest.

The second part of the book, “Wild Beasts,” traces the stories of five invaders that have joined us in our suburban forests: beavers, deer, geese, wild turkeys, and bears.  (Yes, we’ve invaded their habitat.  But quite often they’ve also invaded ours, sometimes in areas where they hadn’t existed for centuries, if ever.)  The book’s third section, “Denatured Life,” touches on a few more topics while exploring the broader idea of what all this reveals about us and our shifting relationship to the natural world.

Sterba believes we’ve changed from “doers to viewers,” and that our confused interactions with suburban wildlife signal a fundamental disconnect from nature.  We have become, to use his term, “denatured.”  When millions of animals end up as roadkill every year, we rarely notice.  If we do, we make jokes about it.  Although domestic and feral cats kill millions of birds, reptiles, and small mammals every year, many of us care far more about the cats.  Objectively, of course, they might be viewed as a destructive, non-native invasive species.  (Sterba devotes an entire chapter to the story of feral cats and the advocacy organizations fighting to protect them at all costs.)

Many of us, however, do love birds.  In fact, the #1 way—and quite often the only way—that most Americans relate to wildlife is by feeding birds.  Although we rarely give this activity a second thought, Sterba devotes entire chapter to it.  I found it one of the most eye-opening in the whole book.

In DEERLAND, I give readers an insider’s tour of America’s deer-industrial complex, making a strong case that yes, there really is such a thing.  But until I read Nature Wars, I had no idea that there’s also a “bird-feeding industrial complex.”  It used to be that calling something “chicken feed” meant it involved a very small amount of money.  Not anymore.

Sterba notes that by 2006, 56 million Americans were feeding wild birds—more than the 30 million who fish and the 12 million who hunt combined. They were spending 3.5 billion annually on bird seed, and another $801 million a year on feeders, nest boxes, birdbaths, and other equipment.  To prevent feeding from being regulated, and to make sure their products weren’t subject to special taxes that would fund wildlife conservation and habitat preservation (taxes similar to those the hunting and fishing industries actually asked to pay), the industry formed a trade group called the Wild Bird Feeding Institute (WBFI).  Apparently its lobbyists have been quite successful in pressuring state and federal wildlife agencies to keep their hands off the bird-feeding business.

Sterba is a realist, and he doesn’t see us making much progress toward regaining control of our relationship with suburban wildlife.  The one exception might be our new willingness to manage overabundant suburban geese, even when “manage” means “kill, butcher, and donate to food pantries.”  Sterba believes the turning point came on January 15, 2009.  That’s when US Airways Flight 1549 sucked geese into both its engines and ended up landing in the Hudson River.  If Captain Chesley B. (“Sully”) Sullenberger was the hero that day, geese were definitely the villains.

I learned a lot from Nature Wars.  I found it a thought-provoking read, and I enjoyed it immensely.  And in case you’re wondering…  I have to admit that when I first learned of Sterba’s new book, I felt a moment of panic—especially when I saw the hilarious image on its cover.  How much overlap would I find with my own book DEERLAND, which won’t be released until April 2?  But once I began reading Nature Wars, I quickly realized that I needn’t have worried.

Nature Wars does include a chapter about deer, and Sterba mentions them occasionally in other chapters.  In DEERLAND, which is obviously about just that one particular animal, I include a chapter on deer in the suburbs.  (Its title is “Invasion of the Suburban Cervids,” which seemed ominous enough, but without sounding quite as sinister as, say, “Night of the Living Deer.”)  I also mention suburban deer issues in a few other chapters.  It turns out, however, that we’ve approached the question of overabundant suburban deer from different directions and explored it in different ways.

So I’d say the two books are nicely complementary.  If you’re interested in nature and the environment (or, for that matter, deer), then Nature Wars is a book you shouldn’t miss.  While I’ll soon be asking you to buy my own book, I suggest you click here and buy Nature Wars right now.

© 2012 Al Cambronne