February 7, 2023

Virginia's Overpopulation Of Deer

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Some states struggle to maintain a large enough herd of deer, while others don’t know what they are going to do with ridiculous numbers of deer overtaking the woods. Maybe our wildlife biologists are doing too good a job in managing things. Could this be?

Virginia is one of those states that has a deer overpopulation problem, at least in some areas. All state wildlife biologists have a target goal of how many deer per square mile they would like to see in their woods. This number will vary from area to area depending on things like carry capacity – the number of deer an area can comfortably handle. Too many deer will strip the food sources and could ultimately result in starvation. Large concentrations of deer can also result in the spread of disease to other deer and to humans in the form of Lyme disease.

This figure that biologist derive can vary as I said, but ideally anywhere from 12 – 18 deer per square mile is what many scientists believe would be a desirable goal.

Earl Hodnett, Fairfax County, Virginia’s wildlife biologist, says areas of the county have so many deer per square mile they’re not sure what to do. He cited several different examples of varying deer populations in an article by Ari Cetron in The Connection.

An optimal deer population, in terms of the health of the herd is 10-15 animals per square mile, Hodnett said. State studies show some areas of the county with populations more than an order of magnitude larger than that. Bull Run Regional Park has about 419 deer per square mile, Riverbend Park has 219 and Meadowlark Gardens Park has between 90 and 115, according to the Environmental Quality Advisory Committee’s annual report.

In my wildest imagination, I can’t fathom 419 deer per square mile. This seems unheard of and a potential time bomb. Virginia creates managed hunts in which hunters can take antlerless deer only. This is really a meat hunt for most hunters and often times these hunters will donate the meat to the hungry. Part of the problem of the managed hunt is getting enough hunters to participate in areas where they are needed the most.

Wildlife biologists do a great job in my opinion managing our wildlife. As knowledge increases along with technology, better methods are employed to care for the animals but the overpopulation of the deer isn’t all the credit or fault of the biologists. Human sprawl is probably the biggest contributing factor.

A classic example of the type of sprawl that deer love is when housing developments are created with lots of 2 – 10 acres. When the wooded areas and farm fields become dotted with house after house with lot sizes mentioned, it creates patches of woods that deer are finding as safe havens. Combine that with the lavish landscaping most of these homes utilize, it’s similar to you and I moving in and living at the Ritz Carlton, complete with free meals. These areas become either posted to no hunting or more times than not, become unhuntable by guns and the only hunting that might be allowed is by bow and arrow.

In areas like Fairfax County, the battle lines get drawn between the state’s biologists trying to manage the deer herds with the best methods available and animal rights groups who think the deer should be left to Mother Nature or are demanding other methods of control other than hunting.

Hodnett says that Fairfax County has tried several methods of herd control but like all other wildlife management organizations, they find that hunting is the most effective.

AS AN ATTEMPT to get a handle on the deer numbers, Fairfax County has explored numerous methods, but hunting turns out to be the most effective, according to Hodnett.
The county has several managed deer hunts in the winter, and also allows police sharpshooters to shoot some deer as part of their training.
The number of deer killed in a managed hunt can vary greatly depending on the number of hunters. During a managed hunt, Hodnett said, hunters are only allowed to take deer without antlers, since reducing the doe population is the only way to reduce the overall herd. “We don’t have managed hunts to provide [hunters] with a sporting opportunity,” he said. “Most of the managed hunts, the hunters want the meat.”
In cases where the hunters do not want the meat, the carcasses are usually taken to a local butcher, and the meat is then donated to needy families through a group called Hunters for the Hungry, Hodnett said.

Laura Simon of the U.S. Humane Society says killing the deer isn’t the answer.

“Killing deer is not the answer,” said Simon. The Humane society’s research shows that few localities study before and after hunts to determine if they are effective.
She said that when hunters reduce the deer population, the deer sometimes have more fawns the next year, bringing the population back up to the old levels. “If you reduce the herd, then it’s a yo-yo effect,” Simon said.

Hodnett disagrees.

By focusing efforts on does, he said, there is a verifiable reduction in the size of the herd.

Both sides agreed that there is a population problem, it’s just they want to deal with it in a different way. Another thing they both agree on is that people have to learn how to adapt in a couple of ways. One they need to be aware there are a lot of deer and adjust driving habits accordingly. The other is to landscape with plants that deer don’t like to eat.

In the meantime, scientists are working on a new birth control pill for deer but this is problematic. To administer the pill to the does, each animal would need to be tranquilized, given the drug and tagged in such a way that officials wouldn’t drug an already drugged deer. Another issue concerns the effects of the animals excretions as the result of the ingested drugs.

New studies have proven that estrogen from human birth control pills that finds its way into the water treatment plants across America through normal human waste, is finding its way into our drinking water. It should be determined if administering this drug to deer would cause similar problems.

The difficulty in utilizing such a drug is the cost associated with it. According to Hodnett, it would run about $100 per deer.

Even if such a contraceptive is approved, Hodnett is not optimistic about its use. In order to administer it, the deer would need to be tranquilized, and then be given the contraceptive. The deer would also need to be tagged, so that biologists would not attempt to give the contraceptive to the same animal multiple times. The whole procedure, Hodnett said, could cost upwards of $100 per deer.
The number of deer that would need to undergo the procedure to have a noticeable impact would cause a major drain on the county budget. “We could do it,” Hodnett said, “but where do we get the money” From the schools?�

On the opposite side of the argument, Hodnett says the state makes money using a hunt for management.

In contrast, the county actually turns a profit on managed hunts, since licensing fees exceed program costs. The first hunts, which began in 1998, were considered unsuccessful, both in terms of costs and number of deer killed. But within a few years the county turned the program around, in the 2002-2003 season, saw a profit of $79.60 per deer.

Tom Remington