Suburban Habitats, Ecological Impacts, and Management Tools
White-tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus, are beautiful native animals that adapt readily to human landscapes. Once in decline, Virginia's deer herd reached its lowest point during the early 1900s. Since being re-introduced mid-20th Century, White-tailed Deer populations have grown in proportion to Virginia's growing suburban landscape.
Suburban development creates preferred edge habitat; our backyards and open space areas provide high concentrations of edible plants close to the ground where the deer can get to them.
After human land disturbance, over-browsing by too many White-tailed Deer represents a significant threat to our native flora and habitats.
Beginning in the 1970s, researchers began to document the impacts that excessive deer browse can have on natural areas. By removing all native plants in the understory, deer eliminate the food and habitat for most forest birds as well as many other animal species. Research from the USDA Forest Service and Cornell University verifies that the effects of deer browse can alter our forests for centuries.
Major predators, such as bobcats, mountain lions, and wolves no longer live in Northern Virginia. Without predators, White-tailed Deer can double their numbers in as little as one year. As a result, populations have sky-rocketed and hungry White-tailed Deer are stripping our forest ecosystems bare. They are removing native plants and with them the habitat and food resources for thousands of insect species and dozens of small animals, including 75% of birds that live in forests.
When you combine the extensive ecological impacts of over-abundant deer with deer vehicle collisions, connections to the prevalence of Lyme disease, and extensive economic damage, the extent is significant.
In January 2015, Prince William Supervisors approved revisions to the County's Ordinance, changing the distance for hunting with bows and arrows from 100 yards to 100 feet from regularly occupied structures.
This change allows the County, homeowner associations, and others to use hunting with bows and arrows as a tool for managing White-tail Deer. Developing and implementing a plan is the next step.
Because Prince William has little County-owned parkland, less than 4,000 acres, support from homeowner associations and others is needed to successfully manage White-tailed Deer over-populations.
It is time for residents and local government to join with the USDA Forest Service, Virginia Natural Heritage Program, and others in supporting and implementing efforts to reduce and manage the number of white-tailed deer in order to protect our native plant species, the communities in which they live and the animal species they support.
Act locally, it makes a difference. Some County parkland, such as Dove's Landing and Silver Lake, show signs of deer damage - sparse understory and many invasive plants - and are good candidates for managed hunting.
If you're part of a homeowners association, you don't have to wait for government. Explore opportunities with local organizations, the VA Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries, and others working to improve natural areas close to home.