Urban deer population a conservation challenge

By Al Smith - Guest Columnist

Here are some numbers to think about as the whitetail deer hunting season comes to a close this weekend in Ohio.

Around six million whitetail deer are harvested by hunters annually in the United States. That barely makes a dent in the overall population of about 30 million.

While all states use a scientific management program for their herds, the biggest problem biologists face with deer is the number that live in urban or suburban areas.

“I can speak very generally about urban. If you think CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) is going to make life difficult, let me introduce you to our urban deer problem,” Dr. Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife (DOW), said. “Like CWD, there is no cure, at least not right now.”

Tom Rawinski, a U.S. Forest Service botanist in the Northeast, calls such overabundant whitetails “the greatest conservation challenge of our time.”

Deer are very adaptable. In most of the country they have no predatory animal to fear. For that reason, they tend to live along edges of wood lots and forests where they feed, often in cornfields and soybean fields. However, over the past couple of decades, deer have chosen well fertilized and watered landscapes and gardens in urban and suburban areas as much more desirable.

These urban deer populations exploded quickly. One doesn’t see just one deer, but likely a handful or more. Some properties can safely operate one deer for every eight acres while others must keep their deer density closer to one deer per 15-25 acres, according to biologists. This varies across the whitetail deer’s range.

The best way to reduce numbers in an overpopulated area is through lethal methods. A fine example of this working is the program used in the Indiana State Parks system. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, parks are evaluated every year and only certain ones are chosen for deer management hunts. The hunts help maintain a balanced environment for all of the plants and animals residing in the parks. The program began in 1993 and was held four days in 2020.

Managing or controlling such a population in an urban area is nearly impossible for a few reasons. People like seeing these animals. Some don’t want to see them killed even if their overpopulation is detrimental to the herd. Others, who at one time liked the idea of deer visiting their backyard, now see them as nuisance since they eat flowers, shrubs, saplings, etc. This creates another problem for city or municipal officials since some want the deer thinned and others do not want them harmed.

Thinning the herd becomes difficult since many of these localities have laws or ordinances against hunting or using firearms within their boundaries.

However, the only method that has proven successful is through lethal measures. As Tonkovich said, “Lethal control is inevitable.”

And where special hunts have been approved, controversy often has followed.

So what does a city or municipal in Ohio do if it has such a problem?

They should contact their county wildlife officer. These officers in northwest Ohio have been advised by Bob Ford, wildlife management supervisor for Wildlife District Two, that as soon as they hear of urban deer issues in their county, they need to advise city representatives of two things. The first is that the wildlife management section of the DOW is more than happy to help advise them on approaches to alleviate these issues. The second is to begin doing the homework needed to justify future actions.

As an example, Ford said, “If city officials are receiving damage complaints, they need to formally quantify those complaints / issues. The problem most municipalities have issues with in addressing their deer conflict problems is the establishment of goals. All they really know is that their constituents are not happy with deer causing problems and they want to do something to bring resolution. However, there needs to be an evaluation process in place, facilitating goals.”

He explained, “This could be as easy as to reduce the number of annual complaints by X%. This evaluation and planning process takes resources that these municipalities may not necessarily have or want to commit.”

Ford noted most officials are reluctant to even consider lethal control due to opposing opinions.

“Exclusion, repellents, controlled hunts and culling are all possibilities,” he added. “Many times, exclusion and any type of lethal control may conflict with local law, which is another hurdle to overcome.”

Ford admitted there is no quick answer. “But he added, “As I indicated before, we are here to provide technical guidance and support.”


By Al Smith

Guest Columnist

Al Smith is a freelance outdoor writer. You may contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @alsmithFL

Al Smith is a freelance outdoor writer. You may contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @alsmithFL

Post navigation