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Managing Virginia's Deer Population: Part 1

There are an estimated 30 million white-tailed deer in this country – 100 times more than a century ago, and in states like Virginia, predators that used to control their populations are gone. 

That leaves humans to manage herds of deer and the Commonwealth is trying to come up with a new plan to do that.

Native Americans  and early settlers depended on deer to supply them with meat and clothing, so there was probably not much objection to hunting them, but in the 20th century,  as many Americans moved to cities, another force shaped our perception of deer – Walt Disney.

Today, millions of people are thrilled to see deer in their parks and neighborhoods, and they’ve disliked  hunters since the day one of them shot Bambi’s mother.  But the truth is that hunting is our main means of controlling deer populations – and scientists say they must be controlled.  

“Deer are good at two things – eating and making more deer," says  Al Cambronne, author of a new book called Deerland.   In it, he points out that deer cause over a million car crashes each year – 50,000 of them here in Virginia.  “People are afraid of grizzly bears, wolves, rattle snakes, but instead we should fear deer, because car crashes make deer the deadliest animal in North America.”

An average of five people die each year in the Commonwealth in collisions with deer, about 500 are injured and insurance companies pay out millions to repair or replace damaged vehicles.  

Nelson LaFon, with Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says the problem is especially bad in well-traveled areas near farms and forests. “Loudon and Fauquier, Henrico, Chesterfield and Albemarle are the top as far as deer-vehicle collisions.”  

In other parts of the state, farmers report big crop losses to hungry deer, and suburban homeowners complain of damage to gardens and landscape.  White tails also pose a risk to other wildlife according to Jack Landers, a Charlottesville author and hunting expert. “It’s not just about us and the deer.  There are other things out there that we need to be worried about.  When you have too many deer in a patch of forest, they eat the understory, and you don’t have the kind of brush that you need there for a lot of native songbirds.”

What’s more, he says, deer will endanger themselves through overpopulation if people are not allowed to shoot them. “It’s a question of the death you see and the death you don’t see.  When you have that kind of density, there’s not enough food to support the deer.  The adult deer don’t starve to death right away.  What happens is the mother gives birth to fawns, and her body will keep her alive, and it will divert nutrition away from the milk, so what happens in the spring time is you have these little fawns starve to death in a brush pile.  Nobody ever sees them.”

And, finally, public health experts warn that deer play a role in spreading Lyme Disease and other tick-borne illnesses.  The job of controlling deer populations falls mainly to the states, but author Al Cambronne says hunters lobby for more animals –and there’s a whole industry standing behind them.
“About 13.7 million Americans went hunting.  Now that’s only 6% of our adult population, but still they spent about 34 billion on their pastime.  So if deer hunting were one company, it would rank about 102 on the Fortune 500, just ahead of 3M, Time Warner or Northrup Grumman.”

He calls it the Deer-Industrial Complex, and he says some politicians disregard wildlife experts’ advice to reduce deer herds -- protecting the interests of hunters and the people who supply them.  In our next report, we’ll look at what’s being done in Virginia to control deer populations, and how the rules might change.  


Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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