Trimming the Herd

Every day, sometimes many times in the day, we answer the phone and immediately hear the question: "Why don't you do something about the deer herd?"

Some people ask that question believing there aren't enough deer. They want to know what's being done to increase deer numbers. Others believe there are too many deer and want to know what the Conservation Department is doing to reduce deer numbers. This perfectly illustrates the challenge of modern-day deer management. We're constantly trying to find a balance between one person's "too many" and the next person's "not enough." To complicate the matter, those two people might even be neighbors.

Although Missouri is currently home to nearly a million deer, the biological carrying capacity, the number of deer that the habitat can support, has not yet been reached. However, the cultural carrying capacity, or the number of deer that people will tolerate, has generally been reached, and in some areas, exceeded.

The Department of Conservation periodically asks two important groups of Missourians their opinion regarding deer numbers. A survey conducted in 2000 revealed that 88 percent of landowners who generate some income from their property "enjoy" having deer present on their land. Although 43 percent thought there are "more" deer now than five years ago, 65 percent said the number of deer was "about right" or "too few." Twenty-eight percent of those landowners believed there were "too many" deer, but only 8 percent classified deer as a "nuisance."

As you might expect, Missouri's 425,000 firearms deer hunters have somewhat different opinions. A 2002 season survey revealed that 85 percent of firearms deer hunters thought the number of deer to be "about right" or "too few." And although 21 percent believed there are "more" deer now than five years ago, only 9 percent believed there were "too many."

Regardless of your opinion, there is no question that deer numbers can sometimes be above desired levels in some areas.

What are the possible consequence of too many deer? Overbrowsing of forests can virtually eliminate desirable understory plants and prevent their regeneration, resulting in long-term changes in forest composition. Damage to agricultural crops, fruit orchards, commercial nurseries, and Christmas tree farms can mean significant financial losses for the owners. Residents in urban and suburban areas can experience damage to vegetable and flower gardens, and expensive ornamental plants. And one seemingly universal concern is the incidence of deer-vehicle accidents.