By the 1990s the deer population had exploded. Various estimates for the United States put it at 25 to 40 million and growing unchecked, and apparently uncheckable. By 2006 this vast and scattered herd was being called “a mass transit system for ticks carrying Lyme disease.” Sterba’s figures put deer damage to farm crops and forests at more than $850 million; the deer had eaten $250 million worth of landscaping, gardens, and shrubbery. By eating plants that grew under large trees they damaged songbird habitats and put certain bird groups at risk.
“But threats to forests and songbirds paled in comparison to the whitetail’s menace to people in the form of collisions of deer and motor vehicles, which were occurring at a rate of three thousand to four thousand per day,” according to Sterba. “The toll of cars crumpled, people killed and injured, Lyme disease contracted, gardens destroyed, crops eaten, and forests damaged,” he writes, justified The New York Times’s editorial conclusion that “white-tailed deer are a plague.”
Sterba lists several factors that made “such beautiful creatures become so much trouble.” These include a lack of predators, a decline in hunting, changes in habitat, mismanagement by state wildlife agencies, and human sprawl.
Whitetails are “quick studies,” he writes. It took them very little time to discover that “people who have sprawled across the landscape aren’t the predators they used to be.” The sprawl people brought with them attitudes that created ideal conditions for a whitetail explosion. Sprawl culture with its “exurban subdivisions, big-box houses on multiacre plots, weekend places, second homes, hobby farms, and even semiworking farms” created “a mosaic of hiding places, open places, feeding places, watering places, bedding places.” Moreover, sprawl people grew many plants they did not eat, harvest, or market. Using “prodigious amounts of fertilizer, water, and hired labor, they grew plants mainly to look at.” They created “deer nirvana,” a wildlife biologist said.
Then, says Sterba, they made one last crucial adjustment: they cleared the landscape of the last major deer predator remaining: themselves. Most did not hunt. They posted their property with “No Hunting” signs and passed laws against discharging firearms that effectively put large areas of landscape off limits for hunting:
Suddenly, for the first time in eleven thousand years, hundreds of thousands of square miles in the heart of the white-tailed deer’s historic range were largely off limits to one of its biggest predators. Suddenly, an animal instinctively wary of predators, including Homo sapiens, found itself in a lush habitat where major predators—drivers being the exception—didn’t exist.
Thinking of possible ways to avert a disaster in deer–human conflicts, Sterba imagines a return of the human predator. He writes of “professional” hunters who are seen as “new saviors” in some suburbs where sharpshooters are hired to kill deer and are paid with tax dollars. He describes a proposal to have professionals train local hunters to become “urban deer managers,” with the costs offset by selling venison in farmers’ markets. “It seems like a good solution,” he concludes, “but it probably won’t happen anytime soon.”
Animals: Nonlethal Solutions May 23, 2013