The Potomac Highlands Watershed School 

High School Environmental Forum


The Potomac Highlands Watershed School's Environmental Forum provides a setting for students and teachers to explore regionally important environmental issues in depth.  Students work both as a class and with other students across the internet to understand problems and to seek solutions that are broadly acceptable to their communities. 

Current eForum is here

All past eForums are archived here. CI's highlights from past eForums are here

"Oh Deer!" Environmental Forum 2007

Monday, October 22 to Friday, November 16, 2007.


Students in 13 classes from 6 schools in 3 states challenged one another to find solutions to the many problems caused by deer overpopulation.


Welcome to the "Oh Deer!" Environmental Forum 2007.  For four weeks, beginning on October 22, you will join classmates and students from other schools in exploring the environmental and societal problems caused by deer overpopulation, and seeking solutions that might really fix the problem and that your community could find acceptable.  You will learn about:

  • The range of problems that can be caused by an ecosystem out of balance, with a lot of links to other websites, but starting with a couple of essays from natural resource professionals.  Think of them as your own native guides.

  • Some methods suggested by state agencies and universities to control the problem,

  • The politics of seeking solutions acceptable to our diverse community.

Participating Schools:

Teacher State School Course Taught
William Moore WV Hampshire High School Environmental Science
Laura O'Leary MD North Harford High School Environmental Science
Susan  Lowery MD Clear Spring Vocational Agriculture
Susan Settle VA Rappahannock High School Environmental Science
Sharon Harman WV Petersburg High School Biology
Rosalea Riley VA Buffalo Gap High School Vocational Agriculture
Arthur Halterman WV East Hardy High School Other


The "Oh Deer! Forum will use the following format:

  1. Students read background material on this page, and gather information from additional sources on the internet as needed.  Don't be shy about surfing the web to learn more.  The links below should be enough to get you started.

  2. Each class breaks into three to four stakeholder groups, with each group representing a stakeholder's point of view (POV), for example: farmer, hunter, forester, the forest, homeowner, insurance company, others.  (To learn about Stakeholders, try this link .)

  3. Groups in each class prepare "position papers" representative of their stakeholder's 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 email).  POV posting will begin the evening of 10/26/07 and will continue on a daily basis from that time forward.    POV's can be submitted at any time beginning October 24.   All schools should have draft POVs posted no later than 11/2/07.  For some tips on writing strong POVs, click here and here  POVs posted:
    • farmers (12)
    • hunters (12)
    • homeowners (8)
    • forest (4)
    • forester  (5)
    • insurance (5)
    • other (14)
    • New (11/5/07) - click here for a summary of all POVs that have been posted (updated daily).
    • New (11/7/07, updated 11/11-07) - Moderator comments:
      • You are all doing a wonderful job, and we enjoy reading your work.  
      • Always try to think through the "what happens next" of your proposals.  For example, if your solution is to control the deer herd with more hunting, how will the hunters respond when the deer herd starts to thin out and it is harder for them to find a deer when they are hunting?  You can read about what did happen in Pennsylvania.  After all, too many deer might seem like an easy problem to solve, but no one has successfully solved it yet.  Can you?
      • It is not enough to propose something, you need to provide references that support your approach if you expect your peers to take you seriously.  For example, a number of "Other Stakeholders" suggest the use of birth control for deer to reduce the population size. This has been tried and was discussed in links below.  It may sound like a good idea, but does it actually work? If yes, cite references that describe the results. If not, read why not and challenge the POV with facts as opposed to beliefs.
      • A few POVs suggest there is not really a deer problem, but do not cite any references in support of their position.  To the Moderator (who is struggling to control deer damage in riverside tree plantings), it would seem that these POVs could be challenged respectfully but forcefully.  
      • Is everyone aware that, many years ago, our eastern deer population was nearly driven to extinction due to market hunting?  A quick Google search will find plenty of references on that.  Would controlled hunting for the restaurant and home market be a useful tool for controlling deer?  Could it actually be controlled?
      • One last thing to consider is who should be making policy about deer management?  Who does it now in your area?  Do they take the concerns of other interest group into account?
  4. After Position Papers are posted to the web, participants check out their peers’ work in other classes and other schools, ask questions across the web, learn more about the science and issues,  and refine positions.

    • The "Thoughtful Questions" page, where students can ask questions of each other and the moderator, will be on-line beginning 10/29/07.   Thoughtful Questions will be posted, after review, beginning 10/29/07.  TQs now posted for hunters, farmers, insurance and others.   For some tips on writing strong TQs click here.

  5. Final Consensus Plans that balance the needs of all stakeholder groups are negotiated in each classroom and posted to the web on, or after, November 16, 2007 11/18/07 -  Consensus Plans now being posted - Rappahannock High School was first across the line, next is North Harford High, then Clear Spring.  


    Some tips on forming a consensus are here.  Note: In order to preserve your formatting, it is best to submit your final consensus papers to Cacapon Institute as a Word document via email instead of using a form. 

    The strongest Oh Deer! Consensus Plans will be logical, will lay out your reasoning, including the pluses and minuses of your plan, and will include literature citations supporting your decisions.

    •    If you want to see how a consensus process can self-destruct, try reading this essay by Ted Williams of Audubon Magazine titled "Living with Wolves.  Link   Can you do better?

What is a Stakeholder POV?

A stakeholder is a person or a group with an interest in the success of an organization, project, or government action.  (To learn more about Stakeholders, try this link .)  Stakeholders in the Bay cleanup include homeowners, municipalities, fishermen, and farmers, among others.  Each of these groups will be affected by the measures that will be taken to fix the Bay, and each wants a “seat at the table” when options are discussed or decisions are made.  Every stakeholder group has interests that are unique to them, and every stakeholder group wants to be heard.  Your first job will be to write a persuasive “Point of View” statement for your stakeholder group that describes why you are important, how the Bay’s problems (or related problems) affect you, how the possible solutions affect you personally and maybe affect your livelihood, and what solutions and approaches your group would prefer.  New- For some tips on writing strong POVs, click here and here.  You will have two "bites at this apple."  During the second week each group should really try to build a strong case for their group's position - based on facts, not just belief.  Think about these questions:

  • Will the solutions “cost” you in any demonstrable way?  What do you have to give up?

  • Will the solutions benefit you directly?

  • What could be done that would make your group more willing to participate?

  • How could the solutions be structured so your group would prosper as a result?

  • What would happen if you were so harmed by the process that you disappeared?

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 and native guide 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 and native guide 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.

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.    Here's an article from Audubon Magazine, "Public Menace", about the challenges of controlling deer in Pennsylvania that tells the Alt story in detail.  Highly recommended!

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 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.

Updated 10/27/07.  Cacapon Institute is a member of the West Virginia Potomac Tributary Strategy Implementation Team (WVPTS).   Our challenge is to promote land management practices in West Virginia that protect our local rivers and also the Chesapeake Bay.  One of the most important things that landowners can do is grow "buffers" along the edges of streams on their land.   Buffers consist of unmowed grasses or forests that filter pollutants before they can reach the stream.  Some of our WVPTS projects are Riparian Forest Demonstration Projects, where we planted trees along the South Branch of the Potomac and Cacapon rivers and are monitoring the results.  Click here for a project overview, and then click here for first year results and here for second year results.  As you see, deer are an overwhelming problem.  Cacapon Institute now conducting an experiment to see if we can increase the success of the plantings.  Thousands of miles of these riparian buffers are being planted throughout the Bay watershed - what matters is not that the trees are planted, but that they actually grow into riverside forests.   

 In 2005, 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.