White-tailed deer are a threat to millions of forest acres

“White-tailed deer overabundance is a threat to millions of acres of forest land in the Northeastern United States.” That first sentence in a report from the U.S. Forest Service really grabbed my attention. And as I read the report, I was even more astonished.

White-tailed Deer in Northeastern Forests: Understand and Assessing Impacts, was prepared by Thomas J. Rawinski and tells a tale of massive destruction by deer in the northeastern United States. Deer have been particularly devastating to forests in Pennsylvania. “Now, because of deer, many forests are disintegrating” notes the report.

The report is designed to help us understand the impacts of deer on forests and plants, including lots of information on how to detect deer damage. It’s really a very interesting report, even if you think you know a lot about deer. I was encouraged to read that “White-tailed deer and forests can coexist in a healthy balance.”

I learned that the U.S. deer population has “skyrocketed in recent decades to reach an estimated 30 million animals.” Wow!

At high populations, deer “degrade nearly every square foot of understory vegetation. Suffering the consequences of their own overbrowsing, whitetails become undernourished, undersized, and more susceptible to winter die-off.”

A Pennsylvania study found that deer begin to have serious negative impacts on forest vegetation when density is 20 deer per square mile.

It was noted that “most of northern New England would fall into low-impact categories.” I guess there is some good news in Maine’s low population of deer, at least for our forests, if not for our outdoor economy.

The report notes that “the minimum home range for a whitetail is about 200 acres and the maximum can approach 1,000 acres.” That surprised me because the deer in my neighborhood roam freely on much more than 200 acres.

In the report’s final section, titled “Mitigating Negative Impacts,” I read the following: “With harvests approaching record levels in many States, deer hunters are enjoying unprecedented success.” Maine is certainly not one of those states!

The final section also reports: “By traditional measures, wildlife managers should be delighted. And yet, the bounty of venison and recreational hunting opportunities all too often come at a cost – a cost to native ecosystems, a cost borne by woodlot owners, and a cost understood by people old enough to remember when tick-borne diseases were unknown, when crops could grow without fencing, and when deer-vehicle collisions were rare. Segments of society enjoy benefits of deer aplenty while other segments are left to pay the associated costs.”

“In much of the country, the challenge today is returning deer densities to ecosystem-friendly levels,” concluded the report, giving us a final quote from Stephen Horsley that is troubling: “It doesn’t matter what forest values you want to preserve or enhance – whether deer hunting, animal rights, timber, recreation, or ecological integrity – deer are having dramatic, negative effects on all the values that everyone holds dear.”

You can read this interesting report here.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.