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Deer hunters as ecologists

By Donald L. Gibbon / November 16, 2000



PITTSBURGH

Deer-hunting season is upon us again, and hunters around the country are packing their guns and heading for the woods.

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It may seem ironic that in this time of loss of biodiversity, hundreds of thousands of people undertake to shoot deer for sport and food. But while I come to this issue from an ecological perspective, and I don't hunt, I would argue that the No. 1 wildlife issue in the Eastern United States is a gross overabundance of deer that is actually threatening the ecosystem, not to mention posing a serious hazard to motorists and farmers.

Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.qdma.org), says the white-tailed deer range extends from Texas to Maine and west to Minnesota, a sort of backwards "C." Within that area live about 32 million deer. Of those, 1 million to 1.5 million are involved each year with deer-vehicle collisions.

How did the deer population skyrocket to the point of throwing our ecology so far out of balance? The answer in Pennsylvania is virtually identical to that of West Virginia and virtually all of New England. During the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, much of the Pennsylvania forest was cut for wood and farming. By the late 1800s, narrow-gauge railroads pushed up ravines and creek beds throughout most of the state. Then, by 1900 the land was cleared, ravaged by fires that burned the remaining brush.

Today, with few exceptions, Eastern forests are second-growth, consisting of what grew back naturally after this period of human expansion. The most important impact has come from the loss of predators at the top of the food chain: the wolf and mountain lion. Those predators controlled the deer population.

In Pennsylvania, there are so many deer in the forests, fields, roads, and suburbs that they cause at least $300 million in damage each year. About $100 million of that is done to crops - and this in a state where agriculture is still the No. 1 revenue source. Some 45,000 deer are killed on state highways each year, doing another $100 million in damage to cars and drivers. And another $100 million of damage is done to private and state forests, which is where the problem is most acute.

Deer populations are so thick in some areas that they are entirely preventing the regrowth of saplings. Rare and famous old-growth forest areas such as Cook Forest State Park consist almost entirely of mature trees, with no new growth coming along to replace those giants that eventually fall from old age.

But perhaps more threatening is the fact that the deer are also eating the understory (where migratory songbirds nest), the wildflowers, and even the grasses. The forest is turning into a virtual species desert. There are areas such as Valley Forge National Park where there are more than 500 deer per square mile! While this is a uniquely high density, it is not uncommon to have more than 30 deer per square mile - a density which is beyond a sustainable level.