The Potomac Highlands Watershed School 

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Deer Environmental Forum 2005

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“This was great!  This was the hardest school work that I have done in my whole life.” Autumn 2005 Deer Forum Participant

The last Environmental Forum topic was on the effects of deer overpopulation on our region, and what to do about it.  This forum began on Monday, October 24 and ended on Friday, November 11, 2005. 

Participating Schools



Classes participating

Deb Branson

O'Neal School, Southern Pines, NC

AP Env. Science & regular Env. Science

Sharon Harman

Petersburg High School, Petersburg, WV

Advanced biology

Leigh Jenkins

Berkeley Springs High School, Berkeley Springs, WV

AP Env. Science and Vo-Ag

Bill Moore

Hampshire High School, Romney, Romney, WV

AP Env. Science class & Advanced Env. Science  Pictures of these classes installing deer fence are here.

This Forum will use the following format:

  1. Students read background material on this page, and gather information from additional sources as needed.

  2. Each classroom breaks into three to four groups, with each group representing a stakeholder's point of view (POV): farmer, hunter, forester, the forest, homeowner.

  3. Groups in each class prepare "position papers" representative of their POV.  These papers are handed in to their teacher and sent to CI for posting on the website (either through an on-line form or by e-mail). Due October 28.
    • POVS (1st draft) NOW POSTED (10/30/05) - click on the one you want).  Farmer, hunter, forester, homeowner, the forest, AND, NEW ON 11/2/05,the deer!  We are missing some entries and will post them as soon as they arrive.  Plus, I just had to include the following entry from Hampshire High, on behalf of the forest:

      I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.

      I speak for the trees, ‘cause no tree has a tongue,

      By deer they are eaten, left open to disease,

      Unless they are stopped, they will have no more young.


      The deer they dislike, for trees they outnumber,

      Too many trees made by deer now to slumber,

      They eat many seeds and all acorns that fall.

      How now can trees grow, if they’re eaten when small?


      Now I can tell you that I know ONE way,

      But before you can decide, listen to all that I say.

      Since nature has long kept balance on her own,

      I think it only fitting, that she retain the throne.

      Not by fences, or reseeding, or hunting can she thrive,

      The forest, as always, needs new life to survive,


      Deer they once hunted, with skill like Orion,

      Again nature cries “Wolf! and  Mountain lion!”

      -- A poem by Combs, Huff, & Barry

  4. Interschool POV groups read their peer's postings, refine their position papers, and submit their final positions to the web.  Don't worry if the first POVs are a bit rough.  Now is the time to refine both your language and thinking as you read your peer's responses.  You need to make a clear, well organized statement that briefly lays out the issue as it relates to your stakeholder group, suggest how deer should be managed to protect those interests, and ensure that your position is based on objective facts that you will be able to use in the third week to argue persuasively for the interests of your group. THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS TO PEERS ARE POSTED HERE New POV (11/2)- The Deer. Due by November 4.
  5. Based on each school's final POV position papers, they then seek a consensus position that balances the needs of each POV (weighting them as to relative importance if necessary), propose and support a policy process that can achieve that outcome, and define what they would consider to be an acceptable outcome.  Some helpful thoughts from the moderator are here.
  6. Current: Final positions are being submitted to CI for posting on this site and to a local paper for publishing if desired.  Petersburg's consensus position is here.  Berkeley Springs teams did group papers here.  Hampshire class consensus papers here

There are not a lot of ground rules for this Forum.  All serious entries will be posted as submitted (including typos and grammatical errors).  "Act of God" solutions will not be considered.  In other words, you may not assume that the problem will solve itself.  We are aware that Chronic Wasting Disease has now been found in deer in our area - if you choose to use this or other diseases as a deliberate part of your "solution" that is up to you.  Just keep in mind that what you write will be available for the entire world to read.

Click here to view a short slide show about deer impacts on our forested lands.  (Note: this is a Flash presentation so you need Flash to run it.  It is 1 MB; if you have a dial-up connection it will take a few minutes to download.)

Background Reading

To get things started, CI asked a WV forester and a WV agronomist for their perspective on the effects of deer overpopulation on the health of forests and viability of farming, respectively. 

  • Consulting Forester David Warner (  Dave's comments are excerpted below; his complete text is here.

        As a forester, I probably have a somewhat different perspective on the deer population than, say, hunters or other nature enthusiasts. I see the impact of a high deer population on the forest vegetation, especially in the understory layers where they have the highest and most immediate impact. The dense vegetation layer, presence of tree seedlings, forbs, shrubs, and wildflowers, even the accumulation of fallen leaves that forms much of the litter layer on the forest floor, has largely disappeared over the past 25 years. I have watched the natural condition continue to deteriorate until now wildflowers are a rare sight and browse lines, only seen before in areas of extreme concentration such as in Canaan Valley State Park, have become present almost everywhere in Hampshire, Mineral, Hardy, and to some extent Morgan counties.

         I used to see oak and other tree seedlings surviving under the forest canopy virtually everywhere. In the last five years I can only remember seeing a few scattered oak seedlings in maybe a couple of places in Hampshire County. I have not seen trillium or most other once-common wildflowers for years, except in a few small, isolated places in Hampshire County. Areas that were timbered heavily 20 years ago or more have a good stand of young oak established. Many places cut within the past 10 year or so, have virtually no regeneration, largely due to the out-of-control deer population that consumes everything in reach.

         I’ve taken trips into Pennsylvania and seen areas the Pennsylvania  Department of Natural Resources thinks has an extremely high deer population. Contrasted to what I see every day, they don’t even begin to have a deer problem. The PA DNR is building protective deer exclusion fences at the rate of about 5-6,000 acres per year. Inside these fences they have ample tree seedlings and wildflowers that have apparently popped up from dormant seed lying latent in the soil. Outside of the protected areas there are still some scattered oaks and other tree seedlings and occasionally a few wildflowers. In this part of WV the situation has persisted so long I worry about the return of many of our native wildflowers. We don’t know the dormant seed viability for most of these species.

         Other wildlife also depends upon this same habitat. Wildlife is directly dependant upon the vegetation of the area and the habitat management. As this habitat continues to be degraded, it cuts into its capacity to support native species, and is probably part of the reason we are seeing such an increase in exotic invasive plants.

  • 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 smorgasboard in the garden and landscaped yards.

What do we mean by overabundant?  Well, using WV Division of Natural Resources buck kill numbers, the white-tail population in the Cacapon’s Lost River watershed was estimated at 11,854, or about 67 per square mile back in 1998.  What does that number mean?  The Bureau of Forestry in Pennsylvania has this to say: "White-tailed deer populations in excess of 20 per square mile are common in many areas of state forest land and such populations are largely responsible for the lack of woody and herbaceous regeneration. Deer exclusion fence studies have documented that deer populations of 16 per square mile or less allow regeneration of woody and herbaceous species to occur, thus preserving the species diversity present in the forest when normal bureau harvesting activities occur."   Here's the link.

You can learn about the ecosystem impacts of overabundant deer and the challenges of controlling them here and here.  (Note: the first link is to Audubon Pennsylvania's major report entitled Managing White-tailed Deer in Forest Habitat From an Ecosystem Perspective;  I suggest you start with the Executive Summary to this report.)  This clip on top Pennsylvania wildlife biologist Gary Alt will provide a sense of the challenges.  Mr. Alt is now a former PA DNR employee - he quit because they wouldn't aggressively face the deer problem and is now working independently with other groups trying to address overpopulation. 

Research at West Virginia University found that deer foraging threatens the survival of ginseng, a medicinal plant that lives on our forest floor and generates more than $2 million in income annually for harvesters.  The original research paper is here.  When the lead researcher involved in that project was interviewed on National Public Radio about their results, he made the startling statement that we need to restore major predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, to protect our forests from overgrazing by deer.  Why would he be willing to go on national radio and say something so controversial?  You can find some clues here.  This story was covered by all the major media, including National Geographic.

The economic impacts of overabundant deer are staggering.  This is a very good overview.  Use this link for an excellent piece on the impacts of deer on agriculture in New Jersey. 

About now you probably think we hate deer.  We don't.  They are beautiful animals that play an essential role in our ecosystem, and provide pleasure of many kinds to many people.  The problem is ours.  The New York Times published an editorial on March 30, 2005 that really said it very well:

"Deer are simply heeding the biological imperative to go forth and multiply. With no natural predators, and the suburbs a year-round salad bar, they have slipped out of their ecological niche - and it's our fault, not theirs. The deer did not ask human beings to create the kind of predator-free suburban landscapes in which they now thrive. But the mountain lion, gray wolf and bobcat are not about to return, and the houses and highways are staying put. People, therefore, must own up to their place in a compromised food chain, and assume the responsibility for managing it well.

Unfortunately, deer contradict our innate assumption that only ugly creatures can be vermin. As the recent release of the "Bambi" DVD reminds us, they seem miscast as villains. But wise conservation means looking at the environment as a whole - from the smallest wildflower on forest floor to the biggest brown-eyed herbivore. The whole system - not just the prettiest mammals - needs protection."

WV Division of Natural Resources offers suggestions for controlling agricultural damage from deer here, discusses deer management to protect habitat here, and fundamentals of deer management and estimating deer populations here.  Penn State has a nice and short piece on a deer control experiment here.  Pennsylvania is leading the way in using fencing to help regenerate forests; read about that here and then see if you can find more information about deer fencing on the web.

Read about a WV demonstration project that is planting trees along the South Branch of the Potomac and Cacapon rivers here and then click here for early results.

 Last year, a number of students noted that the deer population seemed to be getting smaller over the last couple of years.  The following graph showing data on the buck harvest since 1995 would support that observation -- but it also indicates that the size of the deer harvest fell sharply in 1998 then climbed rapidly in the following several years.  If it is in fact getting smaller now, what could cause that change?  WVDNR has said that wildlife biologists had predicted an increase for 2004, but that larger than expected harvest declines may have been caused by the record antlerless deer harvest in 2002, the decline might be due to several years of poor acorn production, or bad weather in the first three days of the season may have kept people out of the woods (Moorefield Examiner, Dec 18, 2004).  The last several winters may also have reduced the number of fawns carried to term, or caused increased over-winter  mortality in the deer herd.  Whatever the cause - is this a trend?  A cyclic variation?  Or something else?  WVDNR uses the buck harvest to estimate the total deer population; to learn more about how DNR does it, click  here.  Try using their formula to estimate the deer population per square mile in your county for the years in the graph at left. 

Finally, something "off the wall" to think about from CI's Neil Gillies.  Many residents of the Potomac Highlands have noticed changes in the behavior of local streams; they seem to dry up more rapidly, and rise and fall much more quickly, than they used to.  Some people assume that the streams dry up quickly because we are using too much groundwater.  Others assume that streams have become so "flashy" due to rapid development in the area.  Development and excess groundwater use can certainly cause these kinds of changes, but a recent study of water resources in Hardy County concluded that we are barely tapping the available groundwater.  And, while the region is certainly developing very rapidly, the amount of developed land with impervious surfaces is still quite small.  Our landscape remains mostly forested.  What else is happening across our landscape that could be causing these changes (remember, the evidence for these changes are based on personal, not scientific, observations)?         

     Forester David Warner noted (above) that the accumulation of fallen leaves that forms much of the litter layer on the forest floor "has largely disappeared over the past 25 years."  This could be due to more leaves blowing off the hillsides due to sparse understory vegetation - caused by excessive browsing by deer.  Or due to lower overall production of leaves - due to fewer plants caused by overgrazing by deer.  Mr. Warner has also heard theories and spoken to those who claim they have seen deer eating dry leaves.  Regardless of the reason, the role that a thick bed of decaying forest leaves plays in in slowing runoff, storing moisture, and cycling nutrients may be diminished – leading to drier hillsides, more runoff, and less infiltration - which could lead to less groundwater recharge, drought stressed forests, and flashier streams that dry up easily.  What do you think?  Is it possible that too many deer could have an impact on regional hydrology?  Are there other examples of animals changing the hydrology of a region?  Some well designed science experiments would be needed to separate truth from all this conjecture (are the streams really drier and flashier, are there really fewer leaves, etc.) - but science always begins with a question.