The Potomac Highlands Watershed School
Oh Deer! Environmental Forum
Agronomist William Grafton
West Virginia University
Many people feel deer have reached biological, ethical, and economic carrying capacities in virtually all of West Virginia. The biological carrying capacity occurs when births equal deaths, and the population reaches the maximum number of animals that the environment can support. Before the deer population reaches the biological and ethical carrying capacities, it will have gone beyond the economic (societal) carrying capacity. This is the point at which deer become an economic liability: causing highway accidents, destroying crops and orchards, damaging gardens and ornamentals, etc. West Virginia's deer herd has not reached the biological carrying capacity, yet. There are still hayfields, suburban ornamentals, flowers and landscaping grass and plants, as well as, recent cutover forests to support a larger deer herd. However, overpopulation already has caused negative impacts on forest vegetation, tree regeneration and forest wildlife as a whole. The deer population has exceeded the ecological carrying capacity, which is the level where deer do not adversely affect associated forest species such as ruffed grouse, rabbits, and ground dwelling songbirds.
Farmers are incensed that deer are managed at high levels that can be the difference between profit and bankruptcy. They have complained loudly and often about damage to crops and the spread of disease from deer to livestock. Surveys during the 1980s indicated deer damage costs to West Virginia's agriculture was about $35 million annually. No surveys have been made recently to update these figures. Primary damages have occurred to orchards, alfalfa, and corn. However, specialty crops such as berries, grapes, pumpkins, etc. are also severely damaged. Many farmers state that deer damage has forced them to quit farming or to switch to crops of lesser value but more resistant to deer herbivory. Most switches are to grass, hay, and pasture and away from corn, alfalfa, and truck crops.
It is difficult to place dollar values on deer damage, but the fact remains that a mature deer eats 5-7 pound of plants or fruits per day. When this food comes from agricultural crops, farmers often face a critical situation. Severe damage occurs when deer browse young plants of apple, alfalfa, grape, and corn (especially as the silk stage). These damaged young plants can never reach full economic value despite the already heavy economic investment in seed/seedlings, fertilizer, ground preparation, etc.
Gardening was once a way of life in West Virginia. Deer that formerly lived in the forest have adapted to humans and their pets. They now readily show up in for the smorgasbord in the garden and landscaped yards.