Deer Kills: A Bad Idea — for Animals, Ecosystems, and People

By David Cantor

Human beings do not have total control over all other species despite our species’ huge impacts. The dramatically increased presence of white-tailed deer throughout the East Coast and elsewhere in the last couple of decades is mainly due to the transformation of the landscape brought about by our species — suburban sprawl in particular. Altering the landscape brings about countless changes, some of them conspicuous, some of them at a microscopic level, some to our liking, some not. To reverse unwanted changes, we must again change the landscape.

Deer kills are essentially the same as deer hunting administered for many decades by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and other state wildlife agencies. Broadly speaking, hunting and suburban deer kills operate the same way:

(1) Destroy sections of forest, providing abundant new low-growing vegetation – deer food.

(2) Kill enough deer so that the population is noticeably smaller immediately afterwards but few enough so that surviving deer produce an overall increase in the local population.

(3) Same as (2) the following year and for years to come as long as other factors remain the same.

The increase in the deer population after a sizeable kill that does not amount to an extermination is a response to the new landscape with more food per animal than the old landscape with more deer. That is why some places in the Philadelphia area where deer “management” consists of killing deer have had deer kills every year far beyond a decade.

The part of the landscape known as “edge” – forest edges or clearings – is where sunlight provides the most low-growing vegetation. That is where deer obtain most of their food. Edge may consist of backyards, gardens, golf courses, roadways, or Game Commission clearcuts – wherever the forest that used to stretch from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River is interrupted. Edge is deer food regardless of human intentions.

As Dr. Thomas Eveland said in his presentation Why Killing Deer Makes Poor Park Management, in Philadelphia on June 15, 1998, “A quick surge in a deer population can occur if hunting is implemented where it hasn’t been before. In any event, if hunting is started, it’ll have to continue.” As Dr. Allen T. Rutberg wrote in “The Science of Deer Management: An Animal Welfare Perspective,” “The most visible weakness in the assertion that hunting is necessary to control deer populations is that it has largely failed to do so over the last two decades. … Just because deer are being killed doesn’t mean that deer populations are being controlled.”

How should problems associated with deer be solved, then? The main thing is to recognize each of the typical complaints – Lyme disease, the eating of vegetation, and car-deer collisions – as human-caused problems that must be solved through changes in human practices. Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc. (RPA) is glad to provide details of the approaches briefly outlined here. Many items in the attached reading list give details. RPA believes one consideration in important choices like home purchasing and car driving should always be what animals are likely to be encountered and whether one is prepared to co-exist humanely with them.

The American Lyme Disease Foundation does not recommend killing deer to prevent Lyme disease, and in some locations where all deer were removed, incidence of the disease did not diminish. Useful short-term approaches include avoiding walking through brush when outdoors and to check for the very small ticks that spread Lyme disease after time outdoors.

Car-deer collisions depend on how much and how fast human beings drive. They peak during hunting and mating seasons. Special signs and patrolling can help. Roadside reflectors that cause deer not to enter roadways when cars are approaching between dusk and dawn are highly effective if installed and maintained properly. See or phone 309-794-9800.

Fencing can keep deer away from vegetation people wish to protect, over large or small areas. Vendors with expert staff include Benner’s Gardens – 800-753-4660 /; Master Gardening – 301-694-1238 /; and Wildlife Control Technology – 800-235-0262 / It also helps to plant species deer do not prefer to eat.

Large-scale, long-term solutions to which we all can contribute will be the most effective, the most humane, and the best for people and ecosystems. Developing a genuine ecological perspective rather that of the last few centuries based on convenience, domination, manipulation, exploitation, and short-term private gain will help bring about the changes that are needed for human beings to live in peace with white-tailed deer and other wildlife as well as with each other.

Solutions must include restoring forest to the extent possible, including where no deer currently exist.

Changes that will help: minimizing needless farming such as intensive feed-crop production for animals not needed for the human diet; curtailing and reversing suburban sprawl, which contributes to economic problems, air and water pollution, the breakdown of families and communities, and significant urban problems from loss of the tax base; and ending construction of new roads. The New Urbanism is on the right track.

In terms of individual American homes, trees are the only plantings that appreciate in value. Learning to emphasize native tree species rather than water-, fuel-, and time-wasting non-native grass lawns can help restore forest where houses and other structures already exist. Eventually, whether houses remain or not, trees will form forest canopies that will slow or prevent the growth of huge deer-food supplies. As Virginia Scott Jenkins writes in her book The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, “A new landscape is a cultural creation, and it remains to be seen whether the environmental movement in this country can enlist as potent a group of supporters and teachers for the twenty-first century as the lawn industry, the Garden Club of America, the U.S. Golf Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture did during the twentieth century.”

David Cantor is founder of Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc.

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