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Land & Environmental

While on her routine jog down the bike path, photographer Kathleen Galarza spotted an all-too common sight on Corry Street: a herd of at least 15 dear grazing and frolicking in a front yard. As several naturalists told the News recently, the growing deer population in Yellow Springs and throughout Ohio poses a number of detrimental threats to regional biomes and human safety. (Photo by Kathleen Galarza)

Local, state deer population mounts

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They’re the bane of any backyard gardener, a perennial hazard for early-morning drivers and still, for some, a serene sight of small-town nature, up close and personal.

They’re Odocoileus virginanus, or white-tailed deer, a commonly spotted resident of Yellow Springs and a regional animal population that continues to grow beyond human control, according to recent ecological surveys and studies.

Yellow Springs resident and professor of biological sciences at Wright State University Don Cipollini told the News last week that there are currently around 800,000 deer in the state.

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“There is absolutely a deer problem in this area, and really in much of Ohio,” Cipollini said. “Deer densities that can be supported by an ecosystem are usually in the range of 10–15 deer per square mile, depending on the availability of food and cover.”

Those factors are flush in a municipality like Yellow Springs where the hunting of animals or fowl is expressly prohibited by law, and where, as Cipollini noted, there is abundant food and young-rearing “safe spaces” in local croplands and backyards.

“Although we have some predators capable of taking young deer, like coyotes, they cannot keep up with the reproductive potential of deer,” he said.

In lieu of those natural predators, hunters have continued to do their part in statewide deer control. Ohio’s 18-week 2023–2024 hunting season ended last week with a total of 213,928 hunted deer reported, according to data released by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, or ODNR. That number accounts for all antlered and antlerless whitetails killed by archery, gun and muzzleloader hunters.

It’s the highest count since 2012–2013 when 218,910 deer were tagged, but down from a record peak of 261,210 in 2009–2010. In Greene County alone, 895 deer were killed during this year’s season.

Despite those efforts from hunters, Cipollini said, “The primary predator of deer around here is a car, seriously.”

To Cipollini’s point, the Ohio State Highway Patrol reported last November that nearly 105,000 deer-related crashes have been recorded since 2018. While 95% of deer-related crashes resulted in property damage, 34 crashes resulted in fatal injuries to motorists. Approximately 50% of these crashes occurred in October, November and December.

Drivers on rural roads aren’t the only beings threatened by an overabundance of deer. Glen Helen Executive Director Nick Boutis wrote to the News last week to say that the ecological damage is in full bloom in the nature preserve.

“I see herds of four to eight deer almost daily,” Boutis said, and added that, at the time of his writing, he could see several deer outside his office in the Glen’s Vernet Ecological Center.

“Deer are definitely a factor in the explosion of invasive stiltgrass in the preserve, probably by transporting seeds in their hooves,” he said. “They preferentially eat native plants, which makes it easier for invasive plants to take over. An example: They love native trillium, but don’t like invasive garlic mustard.”

Both Cipollini and Boutis brought up how the Glen’s oak tree saplings are under siege by grazing deer.

“While oaks are still abundant as large canopy trees in the Glen, there are not enough young trees in line to replace them,” Cipollini said. “Oaks have seen their heyday.”

It’s this indiscriminate grazing on herbaceous plants and native saplings that creates a local ecology bereft of biodiversity — one Cipollini described as a “plant community in both natural areas and backyards that is strongly shaped by deer preferences.”

Nevertheless, Boutis and his land management team remain vigilant. Around 80 oak saplings throughout the Glen are enclosed by deer-deterring cages.

But just how big a problem are deer in the Glen? 

In March 2018, Boutis, then-Land Manager Ben Silliman and other Glen Helen staffers conducted a survey of the 1,147-acre nature preserve to estimate the population density of white-tail deer.

On a frosty morning without obstructive foliage, and using a fixed-wing, unmanned aerial aircraft equipped with an infrared thermal camera, the survey accounted for 194 deer within the preserve. However, a report on the survey states that the estimate is conservative; owing to several factors that limited the scope of the study, there might have been closer to 400 deer in the Glen that day.

Even with that discrepancy, the report, authored by Silliman and which appeared in an issue of the “In the Glen” magazine, states: “We can see that population level is way, way out of equilibrium, with 194 deer compared to the 14 that may have been present on this landscape during pre-settlement conditions.”

Another risk factor associated with the growing deer population that both Boutis and Cipollini noted was the increase in parasitic ticks.

“Deer are hosts for deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease,” Cipollini said. “Increases in the abundance and presence of deer near people places these things in closer contact with people, thereby increasing health risks.”

With Cipollini and Boutis in agreement that a reduction in the deer population is crucial to the health and diversity of our local biome, what should be done?

Cipollini said controlled hunts, culling programs and introducing deer birth control may be the best opinions. All of these, Cipollini said, should mostly target female deer in order to be most effective. However, as ODNR’s data indicates, most Ohio hunters seem to prefer male deer. Of the nearly 214,000 deer hunted in the most recent season, less than half were female.

“The question we haven’t answered yet is which strategy would be best,” Boutis said of the Glen’s efforts to reduce deer numbers. “There are lethal strategies, such as public hunting or managed sharpshooting of antlerless deer. Those have obvious downsides. Birth control can also be an option, but it’s expensive, temporary and hard to administer.”

Nevertheless, both Cipollini and Boutis said there are some efforts local residents and gardeners can enact on their own properties to help with the problem.

“Plant things that deer don’t like — such as daffodils instead of hostas or tulips, for example — or use scent, taste, sound or water-based repellents,” Boutis suggested.

Cipollini added: “Discourage them from visiting your backyard if at all possible, and discourage them from becoming too tame in general. But given that, they will still visit; adaptation includes fencing or otherwise protecting special areas and plants.”

Longtime resident and nature writer Bill Felker told the News that his local band of deer are quite the nuisance for his garden.

“Since they eat tulips, I have to spray about every two days to keep them away,” Felker said. “They also eat my tomato plants. I would like to see them gone. I suspect they could be trapped and relocated or eliminated — but Bambi-lovers might not appreciate that.”

Another local horticulturist and farmer, Rose Pelzl, said she has to protect her elderberry cuttings while they’re still small, though the deer tend to avoid them as they grow. Still, she’s worried about the safety of her future pumpkin patch, and like Felker, wants to see more villagewide efforts to reduce the overabundance of deer.

“I would like to see a cull of deer in the village, especially if the meat could be distributed in the community,” Pelzl said.

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2 Responses to “Local, state deer population mounts”

  1. Mich says:

    Look here you morons I don’t care how many deer are in the state of Ohio or the United States wildlife was here long before men so deal with it

  2. Don Hubschman says:

    To keep the fauna from eating my flora I either employ repellant or plant different flora; killing the fauna has never been on my radar as a mitigation technique. For the record, neither tulips nor tomatoes are native to this region. Culling deer to protect them seems bizarre to me.

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