Deerland Author Discusses Environmental Impacts of Overpopulation

  • If you look closely at this image, you can see that in the foreground, deer have browsed the forest down to ferns. On the foreground/left a fence that kept out deer allowed plants to flourish. Photo: Al Cambronne

April 12, 2013

White-tailed deer populations are at their highest in decades, and scientists don’t foresee them decreasing anytime soon. Whether you consider them a sweet symbol of pastoral life or just a big pest, these animals have a strong influence on environmental health.

Al Cambronne, author of the new book Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness spoke with The Allegheny Front's Jennifer Szweda Jordan. He offered several examples of why deer overabundance is a problem, among them the connection between deer, caterpillars, and songbirds.

"Deer like to attack the same trees as caterpillars, for the same reason. Their leaves are more tender and nutritious and delicious than those of many other trees, so deer will eat those first,” Cambronne said. “And if deer eat them when they’re just seedlings or saplings, they won’t grow into tall trees whose leaves will feed caterpillars. Then those caterpillars, in turn, they would have been eaten by birds that live in the canopy. So now those birds are gone.”

Thirty million deer call American forests, suburbs, and city green spaces home—nearly 100 times more than a century ago. It's the newest wave in a population size that has varied drastically throughout history.

“The harvest for millennia for Native Americans was pretty sustainable," Cambronne said. "But then, for a couple hundred years we were killing every deer we could for meat and hides, settlers moved in, market hunters made a living hunting deer.”

There was a turning point around 1900 when legal changes encouraged the repopulation of deer—a move that seems almost unimaginable now.  Market hunting became illegal through the Lacey Act, more regulations restricted hunters, and most natural predators for the deer were removed from North America.  

Cambronne said that in an attempt to bring the deer back from near extinction, we created a perfect world for them, complete with rolling green hills in the suburbs and a supply of leafy greens in urban forests.  Now, we struggle with the issue of controlling these deer populations.

“One thing we can do is encourage hunters to shoot more deer and different deer," Cambronne said. "A lot of deer hunters still have that old thinking that we should only hunt bucks, to kill does just isn’t right somehow—or isn’t manly."

Encouraging hunters to shoot male and female deer, however, can only go so far, he said. Many places with deer overpopulation issues are located in cities and suburbs, where hunting isn't an option.