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APRIL 2010 (links updated 2012): We say we want wild animal populations to recover. We put policies in place to help. Their numbers grow. Success! Then buyer's regret sets in.

Wild Things
Can we share the earth with them—or not?

Growing up in Essex County, New Jersey in the 1960s, I used to love visiting the South Mountain Reservation with my father to feed the deer. In those days, deer were relatively scarce. One rarely saw them in the wild—and never up close—which was why a trip to the reservation's deer paddock was such a treat.

I didn't know much then. What looked like scarcity to me was actually a state of plenty compared to what had been. Overhunting and habitat destruction had nearly extinguished the white-tailed deer by 1900. But a comeback was underway in the 60s, thanks to hunting restrictions and other conservation efforts. Ultimately, the population was to rebound completely.

Today, wild deer are once more common in the East—and their range has even been extended. It is a case of total victory.

So, what is the reaction to this stunning recovery? A sigh of relief at a tragedy averted? Delight at the chance to see wildlife near home?

Not at all!

People are bothered that deer are spilling out of their reservations into "human habitat." They don't want deer to eat their ornamental plants and are scared of collisions with deer on the road. Many conservationists are unhappy with the deer's impact within the parks on the forest understory. The risk of Lyme disease is the final straw.

The response by many communities has been to kill them. Essex County, for instance, has sponsored deer hunts to cull the herds at South Mountain and elsewhere, eliminating roughly 750 deer over the past three years.

I'm not sure whether to rail at the hubris or laugh at the absurdity.

First we almost exterminate the white-tailed deer. Then we flip out over the possibility that we've destroyed one of our country's most beautiful animals. Next come extraordinary efforts to rescue them, which bring the population back to size. Then we feel we can't handle so many, so we kill the "excess" and call it "deer management." It doesn't make sense.

Don't get me wrong—I see the point about plant destruction, accidents and the like. These are legitimate concerns. I only take issue with the solution. If we want some wild animals left on the earth, and most people do, we have to accommodate them to some degree.

Killing isn't a form of accommodation.

There are alternatives—maybe not perfect ones, but more perfect than killing the deer year in and year out. (For that's what it takes to keep the numbers down on an ongoing basis.)

To limit the deer population, a contraceptive vaccine can be administered. It's a costlier approach than shooting the animals, especially as the vaccine must be given twice. But research can probably solve that problem with a little funding.

Collisions on the road can be reduced with the new DeerDeter Wildlife Crossing Guard. (Essex County is experimenting with it now). Installed on the roadside, it is activated by approaching headlights and emits a sound simulating a predator or cry of fear. It also triggers the flash of a strobe light simulating reflected movement from a predator's eyes. When no cars are present, deer can cross as usual.

Another option is to clear roadside land to make deer more visible to drivers. At particularly dangerous sections of road, deer-proof fences can be installed.

Deer-proof fences can also be used to protect vulnerable plants, as can natural deer-repellant sprays. When landscaping, deer-resistant species can be planted. All these options are available to the home gardener, too.

Catie Byrd, a fan of the TGL Facebook page, suggests this ingenious technique: "On the outer edges of your property plant items they [deer] like and then farther in plant items they don't like. Then plant your garden in the interior where they won't hopefully get to as they are occupied on the outer edges. We did that for the squirrels and rabbits and we didn't have them in our garden last year. ;-)"

Some plants will be eaten, whatever you do—that's nature for you—but the losses can be curtailed.

As for Lyme disease, the answer is wearing appropriate clothing and checking the body for ticks. Inconvenient, yes, but doable. (I've done it.)

If we are not willing to make such small concessions for the lives of animals as gentle as deer, what hope is there for the big predators that pose more significant risks? All around the country, animal populations are recovering—from wolves in the Rockies to bears in northern New Jersey. Once we bring these magnificent creatures back, we need to find it in ourselves to live with them.

—Sheryl Eisenberg


Deer vs car

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On This Topic


OPINION RUNS STRONG on deer control, and hunting generally, so let me be clear: the views expressed here are solely my own. NRDC has not studied or taken a position on the deer question. Feel free to agree or disagree—civilly of course—on my blog or Facebook page.


Lavender
DEER-REPELLANT & RESISTANT PLANTS. One strategy for keeping deer out of your garden is to border it with highly aromatic herbs, such as lavender, that deer find repellant. You can also plan your entire garden around deer-resistant plants. For instance, instead of tulips, which deer love, plant daffodils.


Wolf
AS WITH DEER, SO WITH WOLVES. Soon after the Northern Rockies gray wolf was taken off the Endangered Species List (prematurely, by the way, without proper scientific review), the hunts in Montana and Idaho began. Take a minute now to help save the wolves.


South Mountain Reservation
LIVING NEAR WOODS may require a change in attitude. As Dorothy Wisnewski, who lives near woods herself, commented on the TGL Facebook page, "People just recognize that if you live here, you're obviously going to have deer walking through your yard (they don't vanish when people decide to build on their land!), and you landscape accordingly."

See my blog for a wonderful poem by my brother, Ted, in response to the Essex County deer hunts, which he and his wife, Karen, protested.

Above: Part of South Mountain Reservation.

Resources


NJ.com
Deer hunt in South Mountain Reservation

The New York Times
Putting Nature on the Pill

Gardens Alive
Oh, Deer!

Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Deer Deterrents that Work

Jafa Technologies
DeerDeter - Wildlife Crossing Guard

MSN
Are Deer Putting You at Risk?



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Sheryl Eisenberg is a writer, web developer and long-time advisor to NRDC. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), where—along with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Peter—she tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling.