Car-deer collisions are unfortunately all too common in upstate New York. I suspect almost every driver in our area can tell about a near-miss or collision they experienced, especially this time of year. While this brings increased business to our wonderfully skilled body shops, it costs all of us with increased insurance rates.
There is another cost that may be going unnoticed in our forests and woodlots. Placing a price tag on it may be difficult, but it should be considered as deer populations continue to rise across New York state.
Other than humans, there are no natural predators to limit deer populations. Studies have shown that over the last few decades, deer populations in many areas of New York have increased to over 25 deer per square mile.
Some communities are now seeking ways to reduce deer populations with a deer management plan. Deer have an impact on both our urban and rural landscapes. They eat valuable landscape plantings, as well as vegetables and fruit trees. They also contribute to the spread of Lyme disease. When left untreated, Lyme disease can have long-term human health implications.
Also, our pets can become infected with Lyme disease and may develop arthritis if left undiagnosed. And they can bring infected ticks into homes, potentially exposing their humans to Lyme disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published studies to determine whether pet owners have an increased risk of Lyme disease have been inconclusive. However, veterinary tick control products may help to reduce the presence of ticks on pets.
New York’s forests are valuable economic and ecological resources, supporting industry and recreation, protecting water quality, and providing critical wildlife habitat. Additionally, fall foliage and wildlife viewing bring numerous visitors to our area. To continue the draw of tourists each year, we need to maintain healthy, diverse forests. Also, there is a robust timber industry in New York state that relies on sustainable timber management. This can only be achieved through the regeneration of high quality, commercially desirable timber tree species.
Deer have a significant impact on our forests’ health and regeneration. A study conducted in 2009 of 700,000 acres of forest concluded that 25 percent of forests were suffering from a complete failure to regenerate. Almost 50 percent were found to be experiencing marginal regeneration, with the majority of the regeneration problems attributed to deer browsing.
According to Cornell University research, when deer graze in forests, they prefer to eat native plants over unpalatable invasive plants. These eating habits result in lower native plant diversity and abundance, allowing non-native plants to increase.
The end result is favorable forest species like maple, oak and cherry failing to regrow in our forests and woodlots. Woodlots that are managed for timber harvest will then provide less income to owners, wildlife will have a more difficult time finding food and, over time, the woodlots and forests will become more susceptible to other invasive species and disease.
The influence of deer on our lives is not just seeing them as wildlife, but perhaps considering them to be nuisance wildlife. Some local communities, including Cayuga Heights in Tompkins County and several eastern Syracuse suburbs, are undertaking local policy changes and associated costs allowing them to actively decrease their deer populations in urban settings.
Certainly, hunters take advantage of deer for food, and this aids in some population control. However, some people feel compelled to feed deer. When deer are fed, they are more likely to survive harsh weather and reproduce, especially when there is ample food available during winter months.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (dec.ny.gov/animals/7197.html), the feeding of deer “causes unnatural concentrations near the food source which can lead to ecological damage, damage to property, and increases the risk of transmission of disease between deer.”
State environmental conservation law prohibits the feeding or enticing deer to feed within 300 feet of a public road and placing salt licks on land that have a deer population. Yet there are some circumstances where deer may be fed; these are agriculture production fields, wildlife food plots, raising domestic livestock and DEC-permitted research or management activities.
New York forests are improving from their poor condition over 100 years ago. If we desire to continue to see improvement to this valuable resource across the state, we need to understand the challenges that face forests and woodlots today and strive to address a workable solution, especially when it comes to managing deer populations.