The Potomac Highlands Watershed School 

Environmental Forum Archives

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

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


"Oh Deer!" Environmental Forum 2008

Monday, October 20 to Friday, November 26, 2008.


Welcome to the "Oh Deer!" Environmental Forum 2008.  For four weeks, beginning on October 20, 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, and 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.



11/30/2008. News Flash: Acorn Watchers Wonder What Happened to Crop

"I'm used to seeing so many acorns around and out in the field, it's something I just didn't believe," he said. "But this is not just not a good year for oaks. It's a zero year. There's zero production. I've never seen anything like this before."   "Once I started paying attention, I couldn't find any acorns anywhere. Not from white oaks, red oaks or black oaks, and this was supposed to be their big year," said Greg Zell, a naturalist at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington. "We're talking zero. Not a single acorn. It's really bizarre."

But, from the comments thread, we have:

This story is nuts. If acorns have disappeared it's because either the squirrels or deer have already eaten them. I live in Fredericksburg, VA on 20 acres of hardwoods, the majority of which are oaks. I'm also surrounded by another 300 acres of hardwoods and I can tell you that there is absolutely no shortage of acorns at least down here; they're everywhere. I also hunt deer and the stomach contents of the deer that I have personally gutted were stuffed with acorns. The likelihood that my little square of Stafford/Fredericksburg, VA somehow escaped this horrible acorn blight that is afflicting the rest of Virginia is HIGHLY unlikely.  This story seems like another global warming scare tactic.

Report from a WV hunter: I've hunted 5 Grant Co. locations at different elevations from Spring Run to base of mountain about 20 miles west and have not seen any acorns. Turkey I killed had no acorns in crop. Landowners on Elk Horn Mtn. report no acorns. Have not talked with a hunter who has found acorns.  [The Post] Article was primarily from the point of view of botanists. I thought a paragraph should have been included on the affect of an  acorn "bust" on wild game, esp. deer, bear, turkey and squirrel.



11/12/08 - The Moderator's Coyote Challenge

Coyotes are becoming more and more common in the East.  Coyotes are known to prey on deer, particularly fawns.  There is some question about their overall impact on the size of the deer herd, but maybe they affect deer behavior like the wolves do in Yellowstone.  Maybe, just maybe, they make deer nervous, keep them on the move, and reduce excessive browsing in our damaged forests.  But agricultural interests worry about coyote predation on livestock.   So, here is a Moderator Challenge to the Farm stakeholders: are you willing to intentionally let the coyote population get larger to find out if the possible benefits to agriculture from a smaller deer herd out weigh the costs to agriculture from livestock predation?  How about bobcats, which mostly prey on deer during periods of heavy snow?



  News Flash! Fatalities on the Rise in Vehicle-Animal Crashes

Fatalities from vehicle crashes with deer, other animals more than double over last 15 years     10/30/2008


Participating Schools


High School



Bill Moore


Environmental Sci.


Rosalea Riley Buffalo Gap Vocational Ag.  VA
Sharon Harman Petersburg Biology WV
Rachel DePriest Greenbrier West Biology WV
Carla Gorman Mountain Vista Environmental Sci. VA
Laura O'Leary North Harford Environmental Sci. MD
Jeff Judd Luray  Vocational Ag. VA
Kelley Carter Luray  Vocational Ag.  VA



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 to the web began on 10/24/08 and is now over.  All schools should have draft POVs posted no later than 11/2/08.  For some tips on writing strong POVs, click here and here  Current POV List.  POV categories:
  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, was on-line beginning 10/25/08 and is now closed.   Thoughtful Questions were posted beginning 10/27/08.   For some tips on writing strong TQs click here.

    • *Moderator Comment.  Several groups are suggesting that there really isn't a problem with deer overpopulation, that there are not enough deer for the hunters.  It is true that there are fewer deer in some areas than past years - but that doesn't mean there are not "enough" deer.  It is all a matter of perspective: enough for what?  Hunters became used to seeing lots of deer, and it was easy to hunt deer when they were everywhere.  One of the challenges for developing management programs that reduce the deer herd to levels that are good for the forest ecosystem and agriculture is that hunters get upset when it starts to work and they see fewer deer and have a chance to shoot fewer deer - and begin to complain loudly to the agencies to change their policies.  Part of your challenge here is to suggest ways to manage that issue.   Remember, this is not just about the hunting. 

  5. Final Consensus Plans that balance the needs of all stakeholder groups are negotiated in each classroom.  They will be posted to the web on, or after, November 16, 2008 .   Five Consensus Plans posted. 

    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.  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.

Background Reading

To help you visualize the problem, 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.)

 Here is an excellent overview of the deer/human story in the East, as told by Maryland DNR.  The article at the link ends like this:

"Effective deer management aims for a deer population level that will allow our environment to be healthy and to strike an acceptable balance between people and deer. It's a complex challenge that requires balancing biological and social demands."

That is as good a description as any of your challenge in the Oh Deer! eForum, because deer management has rarely achieved the balancing act described above - and the deer population is out of control in many areas.

How abundant are white-tailed deer?  Over abundant deer are a problem for forests, for agriculture, in the country, and even in towns.   In general, populations greater than 15 -20 per square mile can cause problems.  You will learn more about deer density issues further below.  But first, take a look at this interactive map of the "deer density per square mile" for the entire United States.  See is you can find how many deer there are in the area where you live.  In general, where are deer densities less than 15 per square mile?  Greater than 15?  Greater than 45?  The numbers can get quite high.  For example, using WV Division of Natural Resources buck kill numbers, the white-tail population in the West Virginia's Lost River watershed was estimated at about 67 per square mile in 1998. 

During the 2005 Oh Deer! eForum, a number of WV students mentioned that the deer population seemed to be getting smaller.  The graph showing data on the buck harvest in select WV counties since 1995 would support their observation.  

What could cause that change?  WVDNR wildlife biologists had predicted an increase for 2004, but larger than expected harvest declines may have been caused by the record antlerless deer harvest in 2002.  The decline might be also have been 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).  Severe winters may 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 WV DNR does it, click  here.  Try using the web to find the number of bucks harvested and the total area in square miles of in your county, and then use WVDNR's formula to estimate the total deer population per square mile in your county.  We did it in the above graph, and you can to. 

Virginia Deer Kill, 1947to 2007

Mt. Vista Governors School


*Here is a graph done by the The Truffula Farmers and Barbaloot Hunters of Mountain Vista Governors School.  You can read their POV on the Farmer's page.


What problems are caused by deer overpopulation?  Over abundant deer cause problems for forests, farmers, homeowners, watersheds, and the deer themselves.

Forest problems.   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 to the full report.  New - click here to view a very clear, visual presentation about deer impacts on forest health (highly recommended).

Consulting Forester and Native Guide David Warner describes the changes he has personally observed in West Virginia forests, due to excessive deer population, over the past 25 years.  You can learn much more 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;  we suggest you start with the Executive Summary to this report.)

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.

Farm Problems.  Agronomist and Native Guide William Grafton (West Virginia University) describes how deer impact the viability of farming in West Virginia.  Use this link for an excellent piece on the impacts of deer on agriculture in New Jersey.  The economic impacts of overabundant deer are staggering.  This is a very good overview. 

Deer have many impacts in suburbia.  This link provides a fine overview of the problems and a number of possible solutions.  It's easy to find more information on this topic using Google.   Try it.

Deer as a Watershed Problem.  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 un-mowed 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 is conducting an experiment, successful so far, 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.   New. Cacapon Institute Director and Native Guide Neil Gillies describes how forest changes caused by deer may impact water quantity.  

Deer Control.  Before the colonization  of the Eastern United States by Europeans, natural deer predators like wolves and mountain lions were abundant.  They interacted with the deer population to maintain a healthy ecosystem.  To get a sense for what that means, here is a repeat of the link about wolf restoration in Yellowstone National Park.  

In the absence of  predators, control of the deer population is left to human actions both intentional (like hunting) and accidental (car-deer interactions), as well as disease.  This clip about 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!

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.  Maryland Sportsmen make the case for hunting as an effective control here.

Deer problems in suburbia were mentioned above.  The challenges of deer control in developed areas are complicated by the presence of large numbers of people.  This link, repeated from above, provides an overview of possible solutions for suburbia, such as  contraception, fences, sharpshooters, and repellants.

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."