|by Charles Smith
Most residents in the Northern Virginia area understand the need to change human land use practices to stop or minimize habitat destruction and preserve good examples of our native plant communities. An increasing number of people also support combating the spread of non-native invasive species to include problem plant species and insects such as gypsy moth, which can strip tree foliage and cause their death.
These two conservation priorities remain tremendously important, but there is a critical need to add another: controlling populations of white-tailed deer.
Humans arrived in North America over 13,000 years ago. Once our species arrived, we, not wolves and mountain lions, gradually became the top predator controlling populations of large herbivores.
Many of those species eventually went extinct. The white-tailed deer nearly joined their ranks by about 1900, with very few deer left in the state.
In the mid-20th century, Virginia joined many other states in reintroducing white-tailed deer to supplement the few deer left and increase numbers for sport hunting.
From the 1950s through the 1980s two things happened that greatly contributed to the increase in the number of deer. First land use shifted away from agriculture toward suburban and urban uses.
Contrary to commonly held beliefs, suburban landscapes do not take away deer habitat - they create it.
Deer are adaptive animals. Suburban development creates preferred edge habitat for deer, and human landscapes provide high concentrations of edible plants close to the ground where the deer can get to them. You can grow more deer in suburbia than you can in a purely forested landscape.
The second major factor is that few people hunt. Deer are a prey species that requires predation to control their populations. Without predation they can double their numbers in as little as one year. With almost no hunting pressure in suburban areas and declining hunting pressure in rural areas, deer numbers have skyrocketed state-wide. Keep reading...