White-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is one of the most obvious of the conservation area’s mammals — obvious through both direct sightings and by the effects of their presence in the area.  Prior the the arrival of Europeans to North America, there were an estimated 8-to-20 deer per square mile in favorable habitats.  Eventually, through over-hunting and loss of habitat, this number was brought down to virtually zero over much of the eastern U.S.  Deer sightings became rare enough that they were cause for headlines in local newspapers. Through reforestation, reintroduction, and hunting limits, deer populations bounced back to present estimates of 20-to-40 deer per square mile in forested areas and over 160 deer per square mile in some mixed agricultural and forested areas.

White-tailed deer each consume about a half-ton of vegetation per year, and being native North Americans, they naturally prefer the native plants and trees that they evolved with. This causes the less-palatable plants, mainly introduced non-native plants, to become the predominant plant species in our old fields and forest understories. It also prevents many of our most important trees from ever reaching maturity. The overall result is devastating  for the forestry industry, for other wildlife, and ultimately for the deer themselves.

Experiments have shown that too few deer per-acre can also be a problem.  Without them, some of our native vegetation can become invasive and lower the area’s diversity. So deer elimination should not be the goal, but deer population control is necessary to maintain healthy natural areas.