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Deer Threaten More than Our Gardens

Updated: Feb 12

By: Katy Flammia

Until recently I assumed the deer were a nuisance to our gardens and shrubs, limiting what we can grow unfenced. The more serious threat is happening over time to our woods.  

New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, particularly in the areas of human disturbances, are experiencing an overpopulation of deer.  Maybe you have noticed?  This is due to the discontinuity of forest which have been cleared for farms, orchards, lawns, and development which dramatically increase forest edge. This is the perfect habitat for deer.  

Deer like to hide in the forest during the day and then munch on the salad bar we’ve created for them just outside the forest edge in the mornings and evenings.  The abundance of edge habitat and the fact that most of the deer’s natural predators have been removed have resulted in their overpopulation.  

A healthy deer population is perhaps 10 deer per square mile, and parts of Columbia County have more than 300 deer per square mile. Without wolves and mountain lions, the sole predator of deer in our area at this point is human.  This may not be surprising if you drive the Taconic Parkway, cars kill more deer than hunters.  

What look like forests to us, in and around Claverack, are actually rings of “forest edge”, areas that support many more deer than large contiguous forested areas.

In winter, when our gardens are brown, the overpopulated deer herds browse the sapling twigs and understory in our wooded areas.  They avoid the invasives such as multiflora rose, buckthorn, autumn olive, etc.  If you look closely, many of the woods around us have only adult trees and understory invasives.  We are losing a lot of our native understory, the young trees that in future generations should replace old, diseased, wind or fire-damaged trees.  

Our forests may look green and tall, but they are no longer healthy.  Part of the ecosystem’s natural web is missing, and we are seeing a reduction and possible collapse of plants and animals connected to this web. If you’re observant, you can count the losses.  We have lost 3 billion birds since the 70’s because of habitat loss. 

Scientists, as well as citizens, are working on this.  Rhienstrom Hill Audubon Sanctuary is a great place to see experiments with deer exclosures and observe what grows naturally if free from deer browsing. The six acres of their exclosures are already growing dense new forests.  

A great source of information is the podcast Native Plants, Healthy Planet hosted by two employees of Pinelands Native Plant Nursery in NJ.  Two of their most popular episodes were about deer, with biology professor Dr. Jay Kelly and with Kip Adams, Director of Conservation of the Quality Deer Management Association.  

Left to their own devices, most ecosystems find a balance that supports the health and wellbeing of all the organisms in the system.  We have forests that are severely out of balance. As there are no plans to introduce wolves to Columbia County any time soon, it’s up to us to try to manage the deer explosion.

We are planning our own small exclosure experiment on our property in Claverack.  While the materials to make the exclosures are not inexpensive, they are much less expensive than planting and protecting the same number of trees that the exclosure will generate on its own.  

Hunting is also an important option when thinking about managing deer populations.  The podcast guests discuss forest management from the perspective of keeping healthy deer population.  Hunting and wildlife protection are often seen as opposing viewpoints, but the decline in hunting is also contributing to the overpopulation of deer.  

Here is an interesting website that explains the benefits of hunting and what can be done to solve several problems at once.

There is misinformation on both sides of this issue.  Hunters sometimes think controlling populations of deer reduces their huntable stock and anti-hunters think it’s inhumane or harmful to the deer.  Both are incorrect. Left unchecked, the overpopulation of deer leads to their own demise as well as the decimation of a web of other species through overpopulation.  Humane policies protect the balance of an ecosystem, not just one species. 


We need to relearn what our healthy forests look like. We should see trees of varying sizes, understory shrubs, fallen trees, and seasonal delicate woodland flowers. The podcast host stated that if you throw a tennis ball in a healthy forest, you shouldn't be able to see where it lands.

This forest looks tidy, but it’s not healthy – there’s no healthy understory.  We have to think about what the future of our forests will be, managing them and the wildlife so that they continue to sustain us all for generations to come. 

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