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Members of the Cervidae family, deer are ruminant animals – meaning they are hooved and digest their food through a process of rumination on regurgitated cud; and possessing antlers, rather than horns. Indigenous to most of the world, some of the more than 30 species of deer can be found on every continent.
Throughout human history in North America, white-tailed deer and mule deer have been closely tied with human land use, economic activities, and cultural values. Unlike many other wildlife species, deer thrive in human-managed landscapes, and their populations have fluctuated with changing human practices. The tendency of deer to live near human settlements stems from their preference for a fine-grained mosaic of fields and forest, which provides an ideal combination of abundant food and ready access to shelter. Today, a variety of constituencies disagree sharply over how to manage growing numbers of deer.
Aboriginal North Americans across the continent considered deer an important resource for their meat, their versatile skins, and in many cases for other body parts that could serve as tools. Many groups, for example the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region and the Navajo of the Southwest, expressed the importance of this game species through prayers recited upon killing a deer. Native American groups in the northeast and Great Lakes regions understood the deer’s ecological preference for patchy landscapes; they burned areas of forest to create an edge habitat and encourage game.
The activities of Europeans upon their arrival in North America in some ways favored deer, but in other ways reduced their numbers. Though the eradication of predators eliminated one ecological control on deer, human hunting pressure increased; in the colonial period both Native Americans and Euro-Americans overexploited deer, particularly for their skins. In the 19th century, venison assumed an important place in the American diet as market hunters kept pressure on deer populations. Also, agriculture and timber extraction left little forest and therefore little edge habitat for deer near human settlements. Increasingly restrictive hunting laws throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries helped deer populations recover.
Human communities today provide deer with ideal food sources by planting gardens, ornamental trees and shrubs, and agricultural crops. Typical suburban landscapes offer the mix of forest and field that deer prefer, and to a much greater extent than did burning by Native American communities. Deer populations have grown throughout the 20th century, reaching numbers and densities that many see as problematic. State conservation agencies have loosened hunting rules as a management strategy, but to limited effect. Farmers consider deer pests because of the toll that they take on fruit, vegetable, and ornamental crops; deer also damage gardens and landscaping in residential areas. Car crashes with deer cause injury, death, and increasing insurance costs. Deer ticks have increased with deer numbers, and human communities living near these populations have been exposed to Lyme disease, a poorly understood but debilitating illness. High deer populations and population densities are also associated with starvation during winter and chronic wasting disease (CWD). Deer alter vegetation communities through overbrowsing, and this has had cascading effects on other wild species such as songbirds.
In many U.S. regions, however, the cultural and economic significance of deer makes it politically difficult to enact wildlife management policies to reduce their populations. For hunters, deer are the center of important recreational activities as well as cultural identity. Hunters are often suspicious of official estimates of deer numbers, accusing wildlife officials of exaggerating populations; many choose to limit their own takes in order to ensure future abundance of deer. Deer are worth billions of dollars to the communities that bring in out-of-town hunters. Meanwhile, management agencies have also proposed culling campaigns, but concerned citizens and animal rights organizations have protested publicly funded killing of deer. Relocation and sterilization are costly and rarely effective.
- Richard Nelson, Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America (Vintage, 1997);
- Thomas P. Rooney and Donald Waller, “Direct and Indirect Effects of Deer on Forest Ecosystems,” Forest Ecology and Management (v.181, 2003).