The deer won again this year

Published 6:37 pm Tuesday, March 22, 2016

    The deer have won again this year at the Edwards home as they have in residential neighborhoods throughout the county. In our case, giant azaleas, which only a few years ago exploded in pink and red every spring, are now sparse.

    These giant decades-old bushes have been browsed by the neighborhood deer herd until you can see all the way through them. And the only visible buds are at the top of the tallest, out of Bambi’s reach, no doubt. The explosion of pink will be a fizzle again this year.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

    Whitetail deer are the nation’s most populous large mammals. It has been estimated that something more than a half million deer were in Virginia when the first English colonist arrived. Today, nearly double that number inhabit far fewer available acres of woodland in the state.

    Historians and anthropologists have concluded that the Powhatan Confederation, which controlled the shores of the lower Chesapeake Bay, had reduced the herd by the time the English arrived. In fact, they may have a better job of controlling the deer population than we do today based on the animals’ population growth. Native Americans used everything the deer had to offer, including whitetail hides, which covered lodges and were even collected as a sign of wealth.

    After the arrival of the English, with an appetite for land as well as meat, and the guns to win both, the whitetail population in Virginia plummeted, and by the early 20th century, was seriously depleted. By 1925, it is estimated that there were only about 25,000 deer in Virginia.

    The whitetail remains a sign of wealth — particularly to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The department relies on hunting licenses for much of its revenue. And that’s just the tip of the revenue stream. Deer hunting is estimated to have an economic impact of about $500 million across the state. And therein has laid the reason that the whitetail herd in Virginia has been allowed to expand to destructive levels.

    That’s beginning to change. During the past couple of decades, enlightened state game experts — no doubt encouraged by furious homeowners, farmers and others who regularly suffer loss to a bloated deer herd — have begun taking a more nuanced look at the deer herd.

    Deer Management Plans that have been enacted since the 1990s have attempted to increase herd size where it seems desirable, but curb it where the herd has become destructive. The latest Virginia Deer Management Plan, adopted last year, calls for reducing the herd in Isle of Wight County, and that is a welcome development. Only a few years ago, the county was declared to have a deer population that could actually be allowed to expand a bit.

    To the good people of Moonefield, Red Point and everywhere that often scrawny, undersized deer scramble for a bit of nourishment in your yards, this management program is not a panacea. You will need to overcome any squeamishness related to seeing Bambi blown away if you expect to ever have yard plants or a garden again.

    Of course, nature could take care of the problem by introducing one of a number of diseases into the herd, and as it continues to struggle for habitat sufficient to its numbers, that’s an ever more likely prospect.

    In my view, it’s better to thin the herd than have starving deer drop dead in the backyard from some debilitating disease.

    In the end, it is entirely possible to have cute little deer to watch in the evening and still not have them completely control your neighborhood environment. But it will take unified efforts by neighbors cooperating with a more enlightened Game Department to make it happen.