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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 average $1,000 to $2,000 in damage per accident and can result in injury or, in extreme cases, human deaths.

Still, the benefits of having deer near your home or on your property are immeasurable. Most people are excited to see a white-tailed buck or a doe and her fawns in the summer or fall. Seeing deer usually helps our minds relax and, even if only for a brief moment, think of things other than our busy lives.

Studies show that properties adjacent to large natural areas have more value than those that are surrounded by intense development. Even if we don't see deer every day, just knowing they exist near our homes and jobs can be comforting.

Economic benefits from having a healthy deer herd statewide are obvious. Deer watchers and hunters spend money for food, lodging, travel, equipment, taxes and licenses, benefiting Missouri and its wildlife management programs. Missouri has a strong deer hunting heritage that helps us "link" to our ancestors, who depended on deer for food and clothing to help them survive. Today many Missourians depend on deer hunting to help them cope with the rigors and stress of modern day living.

There are many benefits to a healthy deer herd, as well as numerous drawbacks to a herd out of balance, and the solution to the urban deer management puzzle is not simple. Many factors must be considered when managing deer, including varying opinions of what constitutes too many or too few deer; arguments over what constitutes property damage; increasing deer/vehicle collisions; anti-hunting sentiment; recreational and economic benefits from hunting; human safety; deer herd health; ecosystem balance; wildlife viewing and photography opportunities.

The Conservation Department attempts to balance social and natural components to keep deer herds at healthy levels for humans and the rest of the natural world. No single solution will work in all situations. Many of these issues are discussed in the new video, The Urban Whitetail Challenge, available for loan at Conservation Department offices.

Deer Facts:

  • Deer are highly adaptable and thrive even in urban environments. They are present in all 114 Missouri counties.
  • Parks and other green spaces provide excellent habitat for deer and other wildlife species.
  • Hunting remains the most cost effective and best way to control deer numbers.
  • Relocation of urban Missouri deer is expensive, and many deer that are captured and relocated die due to stress.
  • Contraceptives for deer are experimental and are not a practical control method at this time.

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