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Deer in the City

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Deer have long been considered a part of the rural landscape, but the urban scene recently has become a haven for them.

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are one of the most adaptable and successful wild animals in Missouri. Back in 1925, deer numbers were estimated at 395 in 23 counties. Current state population estimates are around 850,000 deer statewide.

Because of their voracious appetite, deer have the potential to change habitat more than any other animal in Missouri, with the exception of humans.

High concentrations of deer can alter or destroy entire plant communities. Vegetation within the reach of deer is susceptible to being "browsed" and, in worst-case scenarios, deer can eat an entire layer of vegetation near the forest floor, resulting in a "browse line."

While this may sound harmless, the long term health of a forested system may be adversely affected. Young trees can be eaten or damaged by deer to the point where the composition of the forest is changes. In extreme cases, seed and fruit bearing trees can be eliminated, leaving a void for many other wildlife species.

A healthy forest contains habitat for numerous species. For example, Missouri is home to approximately 400 native bee species and 100 butterfly species. Some of these are "specialists" and require certain woodland wildflowers during their life cycles. If these wildflowers are eaten by deer, bees could disappear from local areas. Excessive deer foraging could also affect numerous bird species that spend their lives in the vegetation at ground level or within a few feet of the ground.

A healthy environment requires interaction of organisms at all levels, whether they are microbes, insects, plants or animals. A missing link at any stage can upset the balance and lead to the ultimate demise of certain species.

Deer have become plentiful in the urban scene and refuge areas for two primary reasons: abundant food and absence of predators. Food sources abound in urban and suburban areas. Natural foods are supplemented by ornamental flowers and shrubs. In fact, sometimes deer will show a preference for tender flowers and shrubs over natural foods, at expense to the homeowner.

In the absence of most natural predators, hunting controls deer numbers across the state. In urban areas, most tracts of land are not hunted and the one-ton, 65 mile-per-hour missile we call the automobile is the major predator on deer and other wildlife. These auto/deer encounters

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