DEER HUNTING AND DEER CONTROL: AN IMPORTANT RIDDLE
March 2, 2022
While the large U.S. deer population (primarily of white tailed deer) provides satisfaction for hunters, it has a sharp downside. Indeed, almost anywhere one looks (highways, farms, forests, suburbs, gardens, and even hospitals) the deer control picture is unacceptable. In terms of car crashes and crop reduction alone the deer damage bill comes to something like $3 billion a year. And that’s not counting forest degradation, devastation of yards and gardens, and the health costs and human suffering associated with deer-related Lyme disease, a fast-rising dark star of the medical world that has become the country’s most prevalent vector-borne public health scourge.
Deer Fences and Deer Control
My company, McGregor Fence, sells barrier deer fences. Hence, I would be delighted if deer fences could solve the white tailed deer problem. But of course they can’t. All they can do is protect certain stretches of highway and particular farms, orchards, vineyards, yards, and gardens while shifting the problem elsewhere. And the same is true of other local deer control measures – electric fences, noisemakers, repellents, and the like. What we really need is not so much these things as measures that will sharply reduce the national deer herd’s size or shift it into places where hunters can enjoy it while keeping it away from farms, roads, and cities.
White Tailed Deer and Other Deer Population Trends
That may not be so hard as one might think. True, in precolonial days, say around 1500, the white-tailed deer population was huge, probably around 30 million. But as guns got better and hunting intensified the deer population fell. By 1900 it was down to limited numbers of deer in a few areas, and white-tailed deer, at least in the U.S., were in danger of extinction. At that point deer re-introductions (many paid for by hunters), state regulations that restricted hunting, and other measures caused the white-tailed deer population to first recover and then soar, until today it’s back to around its precolonial level of roughly 30 million deer.
Deer Control Obstacles
Well then, why not simply reverse the process, loosen the hunting restrictions, and let the white tailed deer and other deer populations fall to reasonable levels? It turns out there are several reasons. First there’s the hunting lobby. It’s not just the hunters. It’s also the people who supply them – gun makers and sellers, makers of hunting gear, resorts catering to hunters, etc., all of which have come to constitute an industry with annual sales estimated at around $28 billion. That industry (not to mention the much smaller group of companies like McGregor Fence that sell deer exclusion gear) constitute a significant political force that should not be taken lightly.
Second, hunting is not regulated by the Federal Government but by the states. Hence, the rules responsible for the present situation are a patchwork of state statutes. Changing this patchwork in a coherent and meaningful way is at best a complex task.
Finally, for obvious reasons, people are generally prohibited from shooting deer in suburbs and settled places. This means that deer cannot be dealt with in such places simply by de-regulating hunting. Instead, the deer must be caught or sterilized by people who are qualified to do it – a process that costs money and can be quite expensive.
Questions and Answers
How to deal with white tailed deer and others under these circumstances poses a major riddle. In the short term, the best answer for individual farmers, homeowners, gardeners, and highway authorities is to erect fences (such as those sold by my company) or adopt other measures to keep deer away from specific areas. In the long term, the goal should be to reduce the deer population to a reasonable size and direct it away from places where it makes trouble. It’s probably not wise (as at least one state has found) to take drastic measures sufficient to rouse the hunting lobby, because of the resulting backlash. It’s probably better to work with the hunting lobby on measures that stand a chance of removing deer from sensitive areas while keeping hunters at least marginally happy.
Research on Deer Control
In this vein, the methods currently available for capturing or sterilizing deer (trapping them or injecting them with a sterilizing drug) seem too demanding of money and trained people to be practical on a large scale. This presents (or should present) a golden opportunity for research on other measures. For example, might it be possible to develop sterilizing baits attractive to deer that don’t harm other animals? And similarly, on the social side, might it be possible for policymakers to develop region-specific hunting and other rules that reduce or eliminate the deer population in those places where it is doing the most harm? We currently lack answers to these questions; but we can reasonably hope that those seeking to pursue research or engage in socially worthwhile activities will increasingly come to regard such questions as tempting targets deserving serious attention.
Jonathan Leonard, Manager
McGregor Fence Company LLC
Ramakrishnan U. Non-lethal Methods of Controlling Deer Population Growth. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, 2002.
Rutberg A. Fact Sheet: PZP Immunocontraception for Deer. Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. August 2012
VerCauteren KC. The Deer Boom: Discussions on Population Growth and Range Expansion of the White Tailed Deer. USDA Wildlife Services – Staff Publications. August 2003.
VerCauteren KC, Davis A, and Pepin K. Phase 2 Wildlife Management – Addressing Invasive and Overabundant Wildlife: The White Tailed Deer Continuum and Invasive Wild Pig Example. Proceedings of the 17th Wildlife Damage Management Conference, pp. 23-26, 2017.
Webb, G. Kent. Searching the Internet to Estimate Deer Population Trends in the U.S., California, and Connecticut. Issues in Information Systems, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 163-173, 2018.
Wikipedia. Deer Management. Last edited December 1, 2020.