Deer Impact on Forest Regeneration

If you are new to the Hideout, or if you have been a resident throughout the years, you will notice that numerous White-Tailed Deer utilize our community. While deer can be visually appealing to watch as they cross the road or lounge around in your front yard, the reality is that they cause much damage to our forest ecosystem as well as damage to your property.

Looking back at our state’s history, White-Tailed Deer populations rose from an estimated 2-3 deer per square mile in 1900 to about 10-15 per square mile for the better part of the 20th century. These low numbers of deer provided ideal conditions for understory seedling and sapling growth to occur after large deforestation events, which ultimately lead to a rise in deer populations.

A lack of natural predators, a plethora of food resources, development of rural areas, and a traditional hunting approach of only harvesting antlered deer (bucks) have led to unstable deer numbers in todays society.  

When there are more deer than there are food resources available, the biodiversity of the forest understory and seedling/shrub zone are unable to regenerate due to heavy browsing pressure. This in turn has an impact on other forms of life that are dependent on a healthy understory such as songbirds, native or rare species sensitive to deer browse, increased competition of invasive plants forming dense mats, and overall, an imbalance or lack of diverse species. 

Forests that host an overabundance of deer suffer overtime as seedlings and shrubs are depleted and young tender shoots are eaten, stunting or eliminating the growth of trees and plants. While some species of plant life are more preferred by deer than others, almost anything is fair game to be eaten when a deer’s energy reserves are low enough.

This is especially the case during harsh winters where food resources are scarce and deer will resort to consuming less palatable foods such as Rhododendrons or tree bark. When this happens, its usually an indication of starvation type behaviors. It’s important to note that 1 deer can consume up to 5-9 pounds of food a day, which mostly consists of buds, twigs, and leaves as well as a tree’s fruit (acorns, nuts, etc.). 

Image courtesy of Green Leaf Consulting Services, LLC.

Ideally, for a forest to fully regenerate, there would be 10 or less deer per square mile. The Pennsylvania Game Commission, and most forest ecologists and managers, have identified that a deer population of 20 deer per square mile or less can be sustainably supported within hardwood forests, which is also the number of deer per square mile that The Hideout is seeking to achieve.

Residents have expressed concerns regarding ticks and the threat of Lyme Disease. Homeowner landscaping consisting of invasive plants, such as Japanese Barberry, has created ideal habitat for ticks to concentrate and possibly transmit this human health concern. Members have been encouraged to learn about ticks and Lyme disease through educational sessions and brochures offered by Hideout Management.
 

 Image courtesy of  https://tickencounter.org/tick_identification/deer_tick

Many residents have complained over the years of the impact that deer have had on their ornamental plantings and landscape vegetation. Non-lethal techniques to deter deer from browsing on homeowner plantings were utilized but resulted in little success due to high deer densities and their lack of fear towards humans. Numerous motor-vehicles incidents have also occurred between humans and deer over the years, posing serious risk to property damage of vehicles and accidental harm to the deer that was often non-lethal, resulting in sick or injured deer.

In January 2015, an initial meeting to explore how to best approach the overabundance of deer utilizing The Hideout took place with state political representatives, PA Game Commission staff, Hideout POA management, and legal counsel. As a result of that meeting and the discussions that took place, it was determined that a Deer Management Program be implemented at The Hideout, resulting in our organizations first ever cull in the Spring of 2015.

Prior to the cull, it was determined that there were 144.8 deer per square mile utilizing the community. Keep in mind the recommended number of deer per square mile in the state of Pennsylvania is 20 per square mile for a hardwood forest to sustain a healthy deer herd.

For future culling efforts to occur at The Hideout, POA management sent an open survey to 4,051 members of the community in 2016. Of the completed and returned surveys. 59 were disqualified due to member delinquency on dues, envelopes being not filled out properly, wrong envelopes used, and/or surveys not placed in an envelope. 39 surveys were returned to sender from the Post Office. The results revealed:

518 members voted in support of a Deer Management Program which includes a cull.

453 members voted not in support of a Deer Management Program which includes a cull.

To help promote forest regeneration within The Hideout, the deer population has been actively managed through the process of occasional deer culls since 2015. Each Fall, shortly after the 2-week regular firearms season, staff from the USDA APHIS Wildlife Services conduct two nights of survey activities in which they collect and record the total number of deer observed along an established survey route, and the deer’s distance from the observer’s location. The collected data over the two nights is utilized in a formula in conjunction with the total square miles of possible habitat for the deer to use on the property, and the preferred number of deer we wish to see per square mile. The figure generated provides the total number of deer recommended for removal that following spring.

When it comes to a cull event taking place or not each spring, usually in intervals between February and March, The Hideouts Board of Directors review the prior fall’s deer density results and overall recommendations put forth by the PA Game Commission, USDA APHIS Wildlife Services, and The Hideouts Environmental Manager. A vote is then taken and a cull is either approved or not.

Non-Lethal Deer Management Options:

Non-lethal deer management techniques generally fall within three common categories: Exclusion, Deterrents, and Repellants. Other than 10-foot-high fencing, non-lethal techniques have provided limited results because of high deer densities and due to desensitization of humans. While properly installed and maintained fencing may help, its often cost prohibitive for large areas such as The Hideout given its 2,700-acre footprint. The Hideouts Protective Covenants, Item B under “General Application – Lots” addresses Fences, stating that all property lines must be kept free and open, and no fences, hedges, or walls shall be constructed except as permitted by the Committee.

Deer deterrents can consist of lights, sounds, or movement to frighten deer away from areas where damage is occurring. Deer often become accustomed to these occurrences, reducing their effectiveness.

Deer repellants consist of sprays or scent to discourage deer from consuming treated plants or entering into certain areas, but often require repeat applications and lose effectiveness in certain weather conditions and temperatures.

Capturing and relocating deer to another location is an illegal practice in Pennsylvania. The PA Game Commission does not recognize this method for localized deer population reduction and prohibits trap and transfer of deer to prevent the spread of disease. This option, even if legal, would be expensive and relocated deer can suffer greater than 50% mortality.

Fertility control tests and studies have yielded limited effectiveness. This approach has reduced applicability, especially for large populations of free-range deer. Implementation of such a program would be far more costly than that of lethal control methods, and herd reductions would still be necessary to reduce damage as fertility control does not directly reduce deer numbers. Sterilized deer would still cause damage to the forest understory and deer to vehicle collisions, significantly limiting any sort of progress within a community’s deer management plan.

The PA Game Commission offers a rigorous permit process in place for fertility control of white-tailed deer. However, the PA Game Commission considers all methods of fertility control (contraception and surgical sterilization) as experimental and as a research project. Results should not be expected in the short term, and it could take up to 10 years to see any real benefit. Clear goals, objectives, measures, and anticipated outcomes would need to be outlined in the proposal for fertility control to be considered. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is unaware of any fertility control that has been shown to have acceptable results (to a community) over the long-term in an open population setting (deer move, plus the infertile deer can still cause property damage or be hit by cars, and often no population impact is observed even in closed systems for a decade).

Additional Deer Management Plan Information:

The Hideout takes an integrated approach within its Deer Management efforts, with a particular focus on reducing damage to forest regeneration, property, and human health and safety. This involves having forestry professionals conduct periodic forest health assessments, comparing yearly trends in negative deer interactions encountered with the membership, and reviewing trends of Lyme Disease prevalence contributed by black legged (deer) ticks throughout Wayne County, PA. Deer management programs, once implemented, require long-term maintenance of the herd size in order to achieve the programs goals. 

Historically, The Hideout’s deer density reports have always indicated a number of deer per square mile well in excess of the State recommended threshold. As a result of data collection and voting events, culling efforts have occurred here at The Hideout in the Spring of 2015, 2018, 2019, and 2020. It is important to note that all meat from deer removed from The Hideout is donated to qualified food banks in Wayne and/or Pike County for needy families, often in conjunction with Hunters Sharing the Harvest. 

Historical data per density survey and culling event:

Spring 2015: 144.8 deer per square mile. 300 deer recommended to be removed; 300 approved by Board of Directors to be removed; 269 were professionally removed. 7,000lbs of venison donated to Wayne County Food Banks.

Spring 2016: 55.4 deer per square mile. 142 deer recommended to be removed. No professional removal services approved by Board of Directors.

Spring 2017: 67.6 deer per square mile. 100 deer recommended to be removed. No professional removal services approved by Board of Directors.

Spring 2018: 112 deer per square mile. 150 deer recommended to be removed; 85 approved by Board of Directors to be removed; 79 were professionally removed. 2,354lbs of venison donated to Wayne County Food Banks.

Spring 2019: 41.2 deer per square mile. 83 deer recommended to be removed; 83 approved by Board of Directors to be removed; 83 were professionally removed. 2,060lbs of venison donated to Wayne County Food Banks.

Spring 2020: 68.4 deer per square mile. 100 deer recommended to be removed; 100 approved by Board of Directors to be removed; 100 were professionally removed. 3,630lbs of venison donated to Wayne County Food Banks.

Spring 2021: 35.5 deer per square mile. 60 deer recommended to be removed; 60 approved by Board of Directors to be removed; 47 were professionally removed. 1,644lbs of venison donated to Wayne County Food Banks.

A strict “No Feeding of Wildlife” ordinance has been in place with The Hideout since December 2015. Homeowners that are found to be intentionally feeding deer are subject to a $1,000 fine and disciplinary action.


Deer Management Educational Resources:

Lyme Disease Article
A Guide to Deer Management
Deer Resistant Plants
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) on Pennsylvania Game Commision
CWD News Article Clipping 2019
2009-2018 PA Game Commission Deer Management Plan
DCNR Deer Population Info
USDA Deer Fact Sheet
Wildlife Damage Fact Sheet
Please Don’t Feed The Deer Brochure
The Impact of Deer on Woodland Biodiversity