GREENSPACE: Beware of Bambi

No serious discussion about conservation can ignore the issue of deer management. 

Published December 4, 2015 1:47 PM
3 min read

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No serious discussion about conservation can ignore the issue of deer management. 

No serious discussion about conservation can ignore the issue of deer management. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more insidious threat to national forests and other wildlife in America than deer. Not to mention the key role that they play in the spread of Lyme disease, which has become a full-blown epidemic in the Northeast, but that’s a discussion for another time.  

Now, I know that White-tailed deer are beautiful. We’ve all seen “Bambi,” a movie in which you can’t help but root for deer. However, the scary fact is that if we don’t do something as a community to curb the deer population, public spaces in Rye like the Edith Read Sanctuary and the Marshlands Conservancy will cease to exist as they do today.  

What is the biggest argument against deer population management, and why is it misplaced?  The most common that I’ve heard is: “The deer were here first; we’ve taken their habitat away.” My first reaction to this is: even if this were true, why does it matter?  We are where we are; now, it’s time to take action to safeguard our natural spaces and the other wildlife that depend on them, too. Perhaps a better reaction to the habitat question framed as such would be to limit the square footage of land taken up by homes, and preserve more land for deer, other animals, insects, and birds.  

Actually, though, the truth about why there are so many deer here is a lot more complicated. Yes, we’ve built larger and larger homes on smaller and smaller plots, but we’ve also: eliminated most of the deer’s natural predators; we don’t allow hunting; we’ve provided the deer with artificially abundant winter food sources in the way of landscaped gardens (thereby reducing the natural winter death rate); and we’ve failed to take into consideration the rapid population growth rates in unchecked deer populations. Under normal circumstances, does that are two years or older produce twins annually, and yearling does typically produce single fawns. On excellent range, you’re looking at triplets, and fawns giving birth (i.e., propagating within the first year of life). In the absence of predation or hunting, this kind of reproduction can result in a deer herd doubling its size in one year.  

If a forest is healthy, it will support 15 deer per square mile, and many scientists say that a degraded patch cannot be restored unless the population is reduced to 5 deer per square mile. Compare that with actual deer densities throughout the Northeast – and especially in suburbs like Rye – and you start understanding the enormity of the problem. One study performed by a SUNY Purchase student that studied and observed the deer for a year estimated that the Marshlands is home to a herd of 52 deer. That translates into a density of 193 deer per square mile. If you’ve driven down Manursing Way anytime lately, you’ll recognize that the density in Read Sanctuary must be of a similarly destructive proportion.

Here’s the good news: we can all work together. Why? Because, coincident with the degradation of forests due to the over-browsing by deer is a decline in herd health. So, if we really care about deer, then the goal of conservationist and deer empathizers need not be in conflict at all. In fact, they are one in the same. We’ve upset nature’s balance, now it’s time to put it right. 

— Rye Garden Club Conservation Committee

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