Downtown Deer

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Published on: Oct. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

We've come a long way with our deer herd. Early in the century, Missouri deer were on the verge of extinction. Researchers believe that only about 400 deer lived in the state in 1925. We endured an entire generation when whitetails were rarer than gold nuggets.

Now, as we close out the century, we have more than 800,000 deer in the state. Thanks to careful management by the Conservation Department and the natural reproductive capacity of deer, we've gone from about 1 deer for every 175 square miles to nearly 12 deer per square mile.

If deer were as evenly spaced as these numbers suggest, people and deer would get along happily. But deer populations don't heed statistics. Some areas in Missouri have few deer per square mile. Others have plenty of deer per square mile - some say too many.

Some of the state's highest deer densities are recorded in urban and suburban areas. High numbers of deer and high numbers of people in the same area results in conflicts, including deer damage to yards, gardens and shrubbery and lots of deer-vehicle collisions.

Deer will eat almost anything, including tree bark, when they are hungry. Tulips, shrubs, bulbs, garden vegetables and flowering plants are all delicacies for deer, and it doesn't take much browsing by a few 100-pound munchers to destroy a garden or a landscaping project. The deer's appetite for understory plants also reduces the food and shelter of songbirds and other urban wildlife.

Car-deer accidents have become a major problem in urban and suburban areas. Coupling a high volume of traffic with deer that have become less skittish than their wild neighbors results in many deer lying dead on the roadside and thousands of vehicles requiring repairs.

In metro areas, cars are probably the most efficient predators of urban deer. Out of 130 deer carrying transmitters as part of a study of urban deer in the St. Louis area, for example, at least 15 have been killed by vehicles in the last six months.

Each car-deer collision threatens lives. Nationally, about 100 people a year are killed in car-deer collisions across the country, and in a recent year 300 Missourians were injured in that same type of accident.

Public health officials believe that the increased incidence of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can lead to arthritis and heart damage, is related to increasing numbers of deer. The deer don't carry or transmit this affliction, but deer carry a tick that spreads the disease. Researchers believe larger numbers of deer have allowed the tick population to grow, helping spread Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

About 600 deer browse in the 2.5 square mile peninsula town New Haven, Conn., for example, and researchers estimate that more than half of the people there have had or have Lyme disease. Lyme disease has yet to reach epidemic proportions in Missouri, as it has in some eastern states, but every year sees an increase in the number of cases reported in the state.

Deer aren't attracted to the cities, the way that people are. Instead, their numbers tend to increase where food is plentiful and predators are few. Mature female deer - does - have twin fawns every spring. Where survivability is high, deer numbers can increase rapidly. Our urban areas provide abundant food and protection from hunters and other predators.

Even when food is sparse or competition for available food is high, deer continue to multiply. Areas that have been stripped of vegetation still can have too many deer. They just don't grow as large and usually you can see their ribs.

Those skinny deer have outnumbered the carrying capacity of their environment, much like stunted fish in a pond. Wildlife managers worry about overpopulation, because it could lead to mass starvation and outbreaks of disease, but they also are concerned with the cultural carrying capacity of the places where those deer live.

Cultural Capacity

Cultural carrying capacity has to do with how people feel about deer. Missourians currently are overwhelmingly in favor of protecting deer. They like to see them, to hunt them.

But people can get too much of a good thing, especially when that good thing makes it impossible to landscape their yards, grow a garden or drive safely at night.

People who once welcomed the sight of deer may, after seeing them demolish their yard, begin to resent them and look for ways to get rid of them.

In many other communities, especially east of the Mississippi, deer have gone beyond the cultural carrying capacity of their environment. Residents of communities with high numbers of deer no longer view them as unique and beautiful creatures, they see them as troublesome pests.

We don't want our deer to lose their value to Missourians, so the Conservation Department works to manage deer populations.

The goal of urban and suburban deer management is to maintain enough deer to make them wonderful and unique without letting them multiply to the point where they inflict suffering and hardship on the people living in the same area.

Population Control

Our urban and suburban deer problems are the result of having a wild population living in a civilized landscape. They might nuzzle us or eat out of our hands, but the deer in our cities are still wild animals. They don't live with us and we don't control their mating habits, as we do our pet cats and dogs. Yet we still must limit that population.

People often propose birth control chemicals to keep deer from propagating. We have the histories of contraception and sterilization efforts tried in other communities to limit deer and the results are not promising.

The typical birth control method involves an initial injection, followed by a booster a few months later and annual injections thereafter. To be effective this expensive procedure requires careful monitoring of the entire population and repeatedly finding and treating individual deer.

Sterilization and contraception probably work on isolated populations, such as those confined within a bordered or fenced area, but our urban populations, which mingle and wander where they will, simply aren't susceptible to chemical control.

Some animal rightists insist we are the problem, not the deer. They say that if we don't want deer in our yards, we should keep them out with fences or repellents.

Keeping deer off our property only shunts the deer to our neighbors' yards and magnifies their problems. Besides it would take a 8- to 12-foot high fence to keep out deer. Repellents - both noise and odor - only work for a short time, if at all. Deer quickly learn what is truly dangerous to them and what is not.

Others propose moving the deer out into the country, where they would be more welcome.

There are places in Missouri that could support more deer, but deer, even in an urban environment, are not easy to catch, and they don't take to confinement well.

Most communities have eventually accepted the fact that the only way to control deer numbers is to regularly eliminate some of the deer. Some hire contractors or sharpshooters to knock the population down.

The Hunting Option

The Conservation Department favors the use of hunting, where appropriate, to control deer numbers. Hunters alleviate the problem for nothing and use the meat to feed their families.

Certainly, hunting is not the answer in all urban areas. Discharging firearms in some cities is likely to bring squad cars, and some cities even have ordinances against the discharge of archery equipment, even though shooting accidents in archery hunting are rare.

Urban areas also are short on public hunting lands. But to allow people who do have a place to hunt in urban areas to harvest more deer, the Conservation Department allows urban archery deer hunters to purchase and use as many as five Urban Archery Deer Hunting permits. These $5 permits allow hunters to take deer with bow and arrow in units 22, 58 and 59, which comprise Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis regions, respectively.

According to Lonnie Hansen, the state's deer biologist, the availability of the Urban Archery Deer Permit dramatically upped the archery take in the metro areas. In fact, St. Louis County led the state in deer taken by archery methods during the 1996 season with 625 deer harvested. Boone County was second with 601 deer killed.

Urban archers by themselves can't control deer populations, however. They aren't allowed access to much of the deer's habitat, or deer concentrate where hunting is not allowed.

Another solution is managed hunts, where hunters are allowed into certain areas on designated days, using specific weapons, such as archery equipment or muzzleloading firearms. Managed hunts concentrate carefully monitored hunting activity into a short time period, with minimal disruption to other uses of the areas.

Managed hunts are successfully controlling deer populations at many state parks and in many urban conservation areas and parks. At Fleming Park in Jackson County, for example, managed muzzleloader hunts in two consecutive seasons reduced the deer concentration in that area from 195 deer per square mile to about 48 per square mile. The management goal for the park is 30 to 40 per square mile, and thanks to hunting, that goal looks achievable.

Controlling deer populations in all of our metropolitan areas may not be feasible through hunting alone, however.

"It's a dilemma," Hansen said. "We'd rather do it through hunting, but some areas are not conducive to hunting and we'll probably have to go in with trapping, sharpshooters or pest control companies authorized to do deer control."

For the time being, the Conservation Department will rely on hunting as its primary tool for urban deer control. It will also continue to monitor urban deer populations with winter flyover counts and has recently launched an urban deer project in the west St. Louis County area, where researchers are radio-tracking deer to determine the demographics, movement and mortality of the urban deer herd.

The Conservation Department is able to provide recommendations and technical assistance to communities and individuals suffering from deer problems, but many people balk at management of any kind.

"It's difficult to do proactive deer management in urban areas," Hansen said, "We can say these deer are going to cause problems in years to come and we should do something now, but many people will accept deer management only after they have been directly and negatively affected by deer overpopulation. We're reduced to after-the-fact management - after the damage is done and people have come to dislike them." triangle

Landscaping around deer

Deer are generalists and, before starving, will eat almost any plant; but given a choice, they prefer some over others.

Their favorites seem to be arborvitae, euonymus, mulberry, rhododendron, rose and yew.

Their second choice menu would include flowering fruit trees, fir, pine, serviceberry, dogwood, some junipers, Russian olive, autumn olive and most hollies

Their meals of last resort would include the bedding plants of bleeding heart, calendula, California poppy, columbine, cornflower, forget-me-not, hollyhock, iris, ivy, lily-of-the-valley, lobelia, narcissus, periwinkle, spiderwort and sunflower.

Distasteful ornamentals are barberry, bayberry, boxwood, coralberry, cotoneaster, forsythia, grape holly, hydrangea, most junipers, kerria, mockorange, potentilla, privet, pyracantha, quince, smoketree, spice bush, spirea, viburnum, weigela and witch hazel.

The perennials and vines seldom favored by deer include achillea, artemesia, astilbe, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, celastrus, coreopsis, dicentra, some geranium, honeysuckle, Siberian iris, lavender, liatris, peony, evening primrose, salvia, sedum, veronica, Virginia creeper and wisteria.

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