Blue Ridge Naturalist: Suburban Deer Culls May Be Unnecessary This Year


© Marlene A. Condon

A Yucca plant in the author’s yard shows the bite marks of starving deer. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)
A Yucca plant in the author’s yard shows the bite marks of starving deer. (Photo credit: Marlene A. Condon)

This spring I’ve been seeing lots of articles about how deer culling has become common in urban and suburban areas of Virginia. Many of the residents in these neighborhoods had grown tired of the overpopulated herds eating their way through yards for many years, and they wanted relief.

However, culling remains a controversial issue. Some citizens don’t always agree that it’s necessary in their neighborhoods, and some of them object to the manner in which the deer are killed.

Bow hunting is usually the method employed because it can be done quietly and unobtrusively, as well as perhaps more safely. Unfortunately, sometimes a deer that’s been hit by an arrow can make it to a neighbor’s yard before it dies, and many people are not happy with seeing a hurt or dead animal on their property.

But this year culling may not be necessary, and I’m hoping folks will consider taking a “wait-and-see” attitude instead of just moving forward with plans to bring hunters into their areas. Following the harsh winter of 2013-2014, deer numbers plummeted.

The 2014-2015 kill for the entire state of Virginia was down 22 percent from the previous year and down 18 percent from the last 10-year average. The kill east of the Blue Ridge was down a whopping 24 percent, while on the west side it fell 16 percent.

These results didn’t surprise me, because I’d seen that the deer were starving by the end of winter in 2014. In my yard, the poor things were trying to survive by eating plants that they’d never before touched—and some of the plants were not in their most nutritious state.

For example, in the fall of 2013 we’d trimmed some large branches from one of my Chinese Photinias that are about 25 feet tall. I always put such woody trimmings into brush piles around my yard. These branches had been placed on top of a pile south of the house.

Photinia is an evergreen shrub that holds most of its leathery leaves all winter. In almost 30 years of living in my house, I’d never seen a deer try to eat fresh Photinia leaves, never mind dried ones that’d been sitting on a brush pile for months. Yet the deer visited that south brush pile for several days to feed upon those wretched-looking leaves. It was obvious these animals were desperate.

One late-winter day I watched out the window as a doe and her fawn from the previous year fed upon bamboo leaves! And when spring arrived, I found that the deer had completely denuded my blue hollies. It was apparent that they were eating any leaf they could find that was green.

But perhaps the most obvious sign that deer were having a very difficult time surviving was that they were also eating Yucca filamentosa leaves. Known as Common Yucca, Spanish Bayonet, or by a host of other common names, this native plant consists of sword-shaped, evergreen leaves that are so fibrous that they were used by American Indians to make cordage (ropes).

The leaves are not easy to tear so I imagine they are therefore rather difficult to chew and digest, which would explain why I’d never before seen them eaten by deer.

Female deer mate in fall, carry their developing young throughout the winter, and give birth in spring to early summer. Older does usually give birth to twins, but they can also carry triplets to term.

Pregnancy in any organism requires a large expenditure of energy by the mother, and that energy comes from the food she eats. With pregnant does starving by the end of winter in 2014—especially those carrying more than one fawn—I had no doubt that many would lose their babies well before the little animals could develop fully enough to survive. Indeed, although a doe usually gives birth in my yard every year, none did so in 2014.

In addition to the dearth of fawns last summer, there was also a dearth of adult deer. It was apparent that many must have succumbed to one of the harshest winters I can recall living through in Virginia.

Game department biologists have suggested three reasons for the decrease in the number of deer killed by hunters:

First, they say it was in part due to the DGIF’s management effort over the past five to ten years to stabilize or reduce deer numbers by increasing the female deer kill. However, management efforts would produce a gradual reduction, not a sudden one as occurred in 2014.

Second, the agency points to hemorrhagic disease which was found in 28 counties in eastern Virginia in 2014. Yet this explanation fails to provide a reason for the decrease in the western part of the state.

And third, they suggest the scarcity of deer last fall was the result of a bountiful mast crop (fruits of trees). There were so many acorns that deer could find food throughout forests instead of using food plots planted for wildlife, naturally overgrown fields, or harvested farm plots. But this explanation suggests that hunters and their hounds would be too lazy to search out the animals!

No, the actual reason hunters harvested fewer deer in the fall of 2014 was because there really were fewer deer to hunt. A number of adults had died due to the harsh conditions, and perhaps most females that survived were unable to carry their young to term. If a malnourished female did manage to give birth, her fawn would have been born underweight and in a weakened state, and thus prone to an early death.

Thus I suggest you save your money by skipping the culls this year, especially if they are a contentious issue in your community. Here’s a fine opportunity for neighbors to get along instead of arguing about whether to kill, or not to kill, the deer.


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