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


A Special Thanksgiving Post

Venison Roast, Copyright Al Cambronne

It’s time for a special Thanksgiving post.  Since I’ve been writing a lot about deer lately, I suppose this could have been a timely history lesson about how turkey wasn’t even on the menu at that first Thanksgiving.  The main course was in fact venison.  Which is true, and the “story behind that story” gives us fresh insights into American history.  But more about that another time.

Instead, here’s a post about being thankful.  First, of course, for deer—even though botanists, ecologists, and foresters have taught me and my readers a great deal about how too many of them in one place can be a mixed blessing.  Deer are wondrous creatures, and their mere presence makes the woods feel wilder.  They have also provided us with a few dinners, and writing about them has even paid a couple bills.

For turkeys, especially of the wild variety—a few of which occasionally wander through our neighborhood.  For being far to the north and far upstream of the “farms” where those other turkeys come from.  (Sorry.  This was supposed to be an unrelentingly positive post.  I’ll get back on track in a moment here.  Please continue enjoying your leftover turkey sandwich.)

For all the reviewers, columnists, and bloggers who read DEERLAND, enjoyed it, and helped to spread the word.  For the TV and radio hosts who patiently coached me through my earliest interviews—and then later, through the magic of editing, made me sound incredibly fluent and articulate.  Thank you.

For everyone else who read DEERLAND, enjoyed it, and is telling their friends about it.  And even for readers who didn’t enjoy DEERLAND—usually because it included new facts about deer that didn’t fit with their existing beliefs.  I heard from a few of those people, too.  (Interestingly, roughly half were hunters and half were anti-hunting vegans.  People of all sorts have strong feelings about deer.) You can’t please everyone, and those occasional pieces of genuine hate mail helped confirm I hadn’t written a bland book.  For that, and for all the footnotes and rock-solid science I made sure to include, I am hugely thankful.

For tremendously supportive fellow writers and bloggers.  For a great agent who has given me wise counsel, supportive guidance, and tough literary love when I needed it.  For the talented, hard-working editors, publicists, and salespeople I’ve had the privilege of working with at two different publishers.  For all these people, I am deeply thankful.

I should also remember all the non-literary reasons I have to be thankful this Thanksgiving. A loving wife who’s the best thing that ever happened to me.  Our health.  A roof over our heads, and a great place to live.  Wonderful friends and neighbors.  And more.

Although I can often be a real glass-half-empty kind of guy, sitting down to write this blog post has reminded me that I have a lot for which to be thankful.  Every now and then it’s good to pause and count one’s blessings. Glad I did that.  I highly recommend it.

So…  Here’s to the deer, and Happy Thanksgiving!

© 2013 Al Cambronne


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