Dear EarthTalk: Our community is talking of culling local deer herd numbers. Frankly I think it's the people who are overpopulated, crowding out every last inch of habitat. What happens when we finally do develop everything? Pow! There goes the last doe?--Anne Williamson, State College, PA
It's hard to believe that deer, those innocuous enough vegetarian browsers that occasionally tromp through our backyards, are considered the scourge of many a suburban neighborhood across the continent. Prior to white settlement of the "New World," tens of millions of deer blanketed the continent, but their population density was kept in check by free-roaming natural predators such as bears, wolves and mountain lions.
The white man's rifle took out the deer's chief predators and did a number on deer populations as well; venison was a staple meat on the ever expanding frontier. Biologists estimate that there were only a half million white-tailed deer left in the U.S. in the early 1900s due to unregulated hunting. At that point many states jumped in and began to regulate hunting to try to conserve fast dwindling resources. The new rules set limits on when hunters could kill deer and banned hunting females altogether.
In the meantime, many of the one-time farms in the eastern U.S. began reverting back to forests, creating a habitat patchwork that in some areas was ideal for deer. The ensuing rebound of white-tailed deer populations--over 20 million roam the U.S. today--is viewed as one of the nation's greatest conservation success stories, especially since it occurred long before the dawn of the modern environmental movement.
But there is a dark side to all this "success." Too many deer can cause problems for humans, other wildlife, and even for the deer themselves, who must compete for dwindling forage sources. "Complaints from residents are often that the deer are eating things that they have planted," reports the Missouri...