The nation's century-long effort to save the American deer population from extinction has been so successful that, well, deer are becoming pesky.
From major cities to suburbia, on highways and in forests, the surging deer population is causing increasing damage and rising popular discontent. The leap is causing many to ponder a still-unanswered question: How many deer are too many?
At the turn of the century, fewer than 1 million white-tailed deer ranged in the US and Canada, according to estimates. Today, thanks largely to restocking programs and limits on hunting, there are an estimated 17 million to 20 million - almost as many as roamed the area when Columbus set foot in the New World, researchers believe.
For conservationists, deer represent a remarkable success story, yet fewer and fewer people are cheering.
Here in Pennsylvania, which reportedly has the largest deer population of any state except Texas, overall deer numbers have surged in the past 15 years. The resulting damage has been widespread and is causing howls of protest among some groups.
Every year, Pennsylvania has 40,000 known deer-car collisions. The real number is probably twice that, says Bill Shope, supervisor of the forest wildlife research section at the Pennsylvania Game Commission. In addition to the occasional fatality, damage to cars totals tens of millions of dollars a year.
On farms, deer eat an estimated $80 million worth of crops. In many suburbs, they chew up ornamental trees and shrubs and destroy vegetable gardens. Even Philadelphia, the state's largest city, has felt the impact.
At the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum, for example, horticulturists have tried everything from deer repellent to a Jack Russell terrier to protect their rose garden. Finally, two years ago, they erected a 9-foot-high fence. Still, the deer can be seen wriggling on their bellies to get under it.
"Nearly every major city ... is experiencing problems from either white-tail deer or mule deer," says Jay McAninch, a deer research biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He reports having gotten calls from, among other places, Bismarck, N.D., and Rapid City, S.D. But "I think we have a national opportunity," he says. "We have an opportunity to set a different tone for how we live with wildlife. How we deal with deer is going to be an example of how we deal with everything else."
Here in the forests of northwest Pennsylvania, however, evidence of deer damage is dramatic. For 10 years, David deCalesta of the US Forest Service has fenced off forested plots and maintained various-size herds within them. He found that forest biodiversity declined dramatically when deer populations got too high.
In plots with more than 20 deer per square mile, for example, the animals munched so many tree seedlings that many species, including the sugar maple, white ash, yellow poplar, and hemlock, disappeared. Even the number of songbird species declined precipitously when dense deer populations munched the low-lying branches that those species typically call home.
"The evidence is overwhelming," says Mr. deCalesta. "Too many deer hurt the forest."
Unlike other parts of Pennsylvania, where deer populations are on the upswing, deer densities here have fallen from 60 deer per square mile in the late 1970s to about 30 today. And deCalesta wants it cut to 10.
But Charles Bolgiano, director of the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, is skeptical. Drought, insects, and rodents also cause damage to seedlings, he says, but deer get blamed because they're easier to control. In some hunting areas, he wants more deer, not fewer.
The state agency charged with deer control - the Pennsylvania Game Commission - falls somewhere between these two extremes. Officially, it has set a statewide average goal of 21 deer per square mile. But the commission has consistently failed to meet its deer-population target.
Critics charge that this is because, unlike other states where game commissions are part of a larger environmental or natural-resource department, Pennsylvania's commission is an independent agency beholden to hunting interests. "We have a game commission that sees its role as providing deer for the hunters," says Ann Rhoads of the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia. "Meanwhile, the deer are destroying the forest."
The real reason, counters Mr. Shope of the game commission, is that hunting can't quickly reduce the population, no matter how many licenses are handed out. Every year, Pennsylvania hunters kill more than 3 out of 4 bucks in the forest. But the remaining male deer impregnate so many does that by the time the next hunting season rolls around, the overall population has increased 40 percent.
Because other control efforts, such as contraception, haven't proven to be cost-effective, killing deer remains the method of choice, wildlife managers say This is causing its own controversy in suburbs across the US. For every homeowner with deer-stripped shrubs, there are others who oppose hunting.
Often, the result is a stalemate, says Bryon Shissler, a natural-resource-management consultant in Fort Hill, Pa. "It's not palatable to most citizens to see deer being killed," he says.
Some communities have begun to move forward, however. In Minnesota, at least 25 communities have set up deer-control programs, says Mr. McAninch. To avoid guns going off in their neighborhoods, some groups have turned to bow hunters, who last year held six hunts in suburban parks and wooded areas. The practice is controversial, but it is far cheaper than the $175 to $300 per deer to bait, shoot, and remove the animals.