White-tailed deer a growing problem in Delaware

Oh, Deer, we have a problem

Much like that weird uncle no one wants to talk about, Delaware has a serious problem that, no matter how you cut it, is a problem only getting bigger. The white-tailed deer.

Now I’m sure there are those who’ll gasp at why this discussion is taking place, but don’t be fooled as to how it will impact each of you individually whether you’re a hunter, a farmer, a home owner, or just Grandma in her 98 Oldsmobile.

First and foremost, the deer is a prey animal. As such, it is gene driven to reproduce at a rate to avoid extinction from its predators. Not unlike the gray squirrel of your parks and communities, the deer are survivors and highly adaptable.

In the rural areas of Delaware, which were prevalent in the pre-2000s, they went quietly about their business of eating and breeding. When cornfields and woodlots started growing houses instead, the whitetail simply assimilated. When maple tips were replaced by camelias, they simply altered their food sources. Certainly no HOA would allow mad hunters to shoot up their neighborhoods to end the sudden scourge and as a result, more little Bambis appeared.

Only after they lost shrubbery, flowers, plants from their decks and patios, small garden plots and even a vehicle or two did they come to the realization that “something must be done”.

The most vocal of petitioners were the farmers, America’s bread and butter. Burgeoning herds were destroying their livelihoods.

The Delaware Farm Bureau and the auto insurers began to address their issues to the governor. The governor, in turn, tasked his agriculture and natural resources people for answers and remedies. What they found and few are willing to admit, like the Pogo cartoon, We have met the enemy and he is us.” So just who are these culprits?

DNREC/FW? No, not the current administration, though they would certainly have shortcomings, but it’s those positions in the 1960s-70s who were most responsible. They catered to American’s desire to see the idyllic settings of Bambi recreated. Though initially a law, it later became hidden under the ethics of a shooter stooping so low as to shoot a doe deer. That mindset, though antiquated and extremely remote to wildlife biologists and conservationists, still festers in the minds of many hunters.

Animal rights activists? I’m really not sure of the impact of this group. Certainly, playing to the politically correct groupies of today, the mindset of eliminating hunting completely is to ignore the prey/predator axiom and the American Plan for Wildlife Conservation. They play on the morals of hunters and non-hunters with the silly axiom that deer deserve a day of rest.

HOAs / homeowners? To some degree. Everyone loves a fawn, but just like that Christmas puppy, by fall it will become a big dog. I’ve heard some brag about hand feeding deer off their back porch. Certainly big bird feeders filled with corn and sunflower seeds is going to attract deer. Placing mounds of mulch and pine straw around shrubbery encourages bedding during cooler seasons and the choice of shrubbery that is deer -friendly doesn’t help.

Such animals become human tolerant and then create an even bigger danger. Aside from vehicle collisions, physical dangers prevail during the annual rut or mating season. Male deer become extremely aggressive and can inflict injury or even death if confronted. During birthing season, does are extremely dangerous to people or pets who they sense as a danger.

Farmers? Though confronting the victim as the problem, it must be tempered with accepting the responsibility of managing one’s particular situation. At a recent Wildlife Advisory Council Meeting, F&W Director, Dave Saveikis, bravely stood up to challenges about what his office was doing. He stated that along with the Agriculture Department, they had established a three-tier program especially for farmers.

There is a “deer damage” permit to increase the take of deer during hunting seasons, there is the “severe deer damage” permits which would lengthen the seasons for the harvest of deer, and there is the “extreme deer damage” permit, which would allow farmers who’ve met their quotas and still experience issues to shoot deer during the summer months. All that is required is for the farmer to present the department with a deer management plan which would be evaluated by biologists and to implement the plan.

Farmers need to insist that hunters do their job or face being replaced by someone who will. They also need to accept responsibility. If you refuse to allow hunting to the proper degree, the problem is exacerbated. .

Hunters? Though I can hear the collective gasp, hunters are their own worst enemies when it comes to responsible deer management. Chip West, the state chair of QDMA and I during a recent conversation discussed educating the hunters. We just can’t stay ahead with today’s hunters.

It really wasn’t that long ago that just seeing a deer track was exciting. But they will brag about seeing a dozen deer browsing the farmers soybeans but refusing to shoot one because they were “waiting for a big buck to step out”. They also refuse to shoot does during the late seasons because “I’d be killing three deer if I did.” (Deer gestation is about 210 days (give or take) and when you shoot a doe in November or December, she’s likely to have unborn fawns.

If you shoot one in September or October, she’s certainly capable of having two fawns. So the old status quo of not shooting does prevails. Hunter conservationists recognize their responsibilities and for assuring that the farmers who host them are cared for. If they refuse, they should be rejected from the privilege and replaced with someone who does.

Delaware has a long and proud tradition of agribusiness and for the short-term future at least, that will hopefully prevail in educating people that everyone lives downstream. Despise it, love it, and not caring either way doesn’t address the problem that will only grow bigger. Deer, on average eat seven pounds of forage per day/per deer. In a year, that’s almost one-and-a-half tons of food.

Deer recruitment (that’s deer that actually survive until they’re self sufficient during their first hunting season) in Delaware is about one. That means that every doe has at least one of her usual two fawns live to adulthood. With traditional math, that means that without some type of intervention, deer double their herd size each year. Once the herd reaches the carrying capacity (the available food needed for the deer to survive), nature usually intervenes.

We already experience epizootic hemorrhagic disease and chronic wasting disease is on our doorsteps. For those of you who may think hunting is so cruel, you need to see how horrible nature is in correcting the issue. Deer are also vectors of parasites that carry deadly human disease. Though Lyme disease carried by the miniscule deer tick is the more noted, we now have evidence that the common brown (dog) tick can and has infected people with the deadly Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Ehrlichiosis, Bourbon disease, and Powassan virus, Anaplasmosis, Babesiosis, tularemia and Borrelia diseases may be less newsworthy but are just as deadly. Non-hunters are hardly exempt from contracting these diseases.

For far too long we’ve taken nature for granted while destroying elements that kept it in balance. We are now the caretakers and must assume the role.

George Roof

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