By Sally Griffin
It is that time of the year and we are seeing more deer. And I don’t mean reindeer. This is that time of year when deer have moved from higher ground toward our area, seeking more accessible food and shelter. Deer are the largest wild animals that most people will encounter. Colorado is known for their mule deer population. Mule deer are slightly larger and more robust than white-tailed deer. They are named for their larger ears which are said to resemble the ears of the mules used by the early miners.
Deer are regarded as forest creatures, but in fact they prefer the areas where open space and forests meet. The same places preferred by many humans. But they don’t come for the view or the environment, they like to shelter in the forest and find food in the open areas. However, like Canada geese, they can thrive even in heavily populated areas. Bike trails, railways, open space and utility rights-of-way serve as deer highways. Our ornamental shrubs and plants serve as deer dining rooms. If salt is used on highways after snowstorms, it serves as deer seasoning. In other words, deer can thrive in any suburban habitat that we have created.
As an example, we lived for short period of time in large apartment complex in Colorado Springs. It was relatively close to the mountains in an area that was known for its wildlife. But to show how close that wildlife could come, we experienced both a midnight coyote party in the lower parking lot and the birth of a fawn almost on our front doorstep. Luckily, not at the same time. When asked about the doe and her new fawn, the management assured us that this was what she did every year. She had found this was the best way to protect her fawn from partying coyotes and other predators. She clearly did not regard humans as being in the predator category.
Deer, while beautiful, are also voracious. They can destroy plants and trees in our landscapes with overbrowsing. They can cause other problems when they share the same space with humans. They can cause serious safety issues on our roadways. A collision between a deer and a car can have serious repercussions for both the deer and the car’s occupants. Lastly, white-tailed deer, in particular, are often the host of ticks that spread Lyme disease. Deer in Colorado and Wyoming have been found to have chronic wasting disease, which can be transmitted to other animals.
While, nation-wide, the population of white-tailed deer has grown from 500,000 in 1900 to over 2 million today, Colorado’s population of mule deer has diminished. Mule deer range through the mountains and Front Range, while white-tail deer are found mostly in river bottom areas of our state. In a 2016 study for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, by Sarah Reed, a conservation scientist, she found that increasing residential development was the most important factor associated with declining mule deer populations.
In 2017, Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) reported that 7,706 deer where hit by vehicles throughout the state. However, CDOT officials also noted that, usually, only half of deer-related crashes are reported. Many on the Front Range like to see deer in their area. Also, deer hunting has a major impact on Colorado tourism. Consequently, deer in our areas are seen as both negative and positive. Wildlife biologists point out the enormous challenge of managing deer populations in human-dominated environments because of the very wide range of expectations people have concerning deer. Some people feed deer while others want to bring in bow hunters to limit the population.
If you are one of those that want to feed deer in your area, you are on your own. However, you need to know that suburban deer herds can double in size every two years. This means that problems with suburban deer are likely to increase over time. Communities often debate the merits of hunting versus non-lethal means for managing deer.
One method for managing deer in your area is to grow the kind of plants that deer regard as yucky. Common broad-leaved plants in our lawns, flowers and shrubs are treats for deer. However, some plants can serve as repellents. You can also try spraying things like hot sauce on plants in your garden. However, each time it snows, you will need to re-hot sauce your yard. These work by reducing the attractiveness of your yard and making deer look elsewhere.
Probably, less appealing is to use odor-based repellents. This means products that smell like rotten eggs, soap, predator urine, blood meal or other animal parts. These repellents are poured into absorbent cloth bag that is suspended from a tree or pole. However, you may need over 500 of these bags per half-acre of ground. Research shows that odor-based repellents work better than taste-based ones, but that also means humans have to endure the awful smell and need to reapply it on a regular basis, e.g. every time it snows or rains or every five to six weeks.
Another method is fencing. The right kind of fencing can keep deer away from gardens and off dangerous sections of roads. Several fence designs can be used, including both barrier and electric fences. However, low fences seldom work. A high-tensile, woven-wire fence that is eight to 10 feet tall is the most effective. A 90 percent reduction of deer-vehicle accidents was achieved along an 8-mile stretch of I-70 with the installation of an eight-foot deer fence.
Strobes, sirens, water sprays and other devices have been used to frighten deer. These, however, have limited effectiveness and may complicate your relationship with your neighbors. Dogs and invisible fences can be more effective. But this, of course, depends on the type of dog. A German shepherd works better than a toy poodle, for instance. The invisible fence keeps the dog in, not the deer out.
Most experts recommend a combination of several techniques to manage deer numbers. This may mean that our communities, not individuals, may need to decide how many deer they want in their area and how to manage that number.