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Experts: Pa.'s deer population is out of control

The most dangerous wild animal in Pennsylvania has caused 60 deaths and nearly 4,400 serious injuries during the last seven years; it also carries an often debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

Deer graze in Valley Forge National Park recently. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Deer graze in Valley Forge National Park recently. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

The most dangerous wild animal in Pennsylvania has caused 60 deaths and nearly 4,400 serious injuries during the last seven years; it also carries an often debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.

The same menacing creature is ruining crops, destroying valuable timber, stripping the woods of seedlings, changing the very nature of forests, killing nursery stock, and ravaging the lawns, gardens and golf courses of suburban Pennsylvania.

It's not the bobcat, the black bear, wild boar, or rattlesnake. It's Odocoileus virginianus. The white-tailed deer. The Official State Animal. Bambi.

Wildlife experts and other scientists say Pennsylvania's deer population is out of control.

Not only are deer starving by the thousands, they're laying waste to forest ecosystems.

There may be as many as 1.5 million whitetails roaming not just the forests of northern counties, but also places like Fairmount Park, Valley Forge National Historical Park, and the grounds of Graterford Prison.

In New Jersey, there is an overpopulation of deer in suburban areas, but it's not as bad as in Pennsylvania.

In the history of American wildlife, which is marked by terrible excesses against the buffalo and the eagle, the white-tailed deer is a notable success story. Though they were nearly extinct in Pennsylvania and the rest of the United States in 1900, there are more deer here today than there were when European colonization began.

Much of this is due to the "sacred doe syndrome" - the idea that the best way to ensure a plentiful deer herd is not to hunt female deer. This idea still runs strong among Pennsylvania sportsmen, who have been known to obtain doe-hunting permits and burn them so no one else can use them.

But in 2002 the Pennsylvania Game Commission decided a new approach was needed to bring the deer population into balance with nature. The agency adopted rules designed to increase the number of does killed by hunters. The strategy was called "quality deer management," and while some hunters embrace it, it is violently opposed by others.

This battle has come to be known as "Deer Wars" - and the stakes are enormous for Pennsylvania's economy, highway safety, forests, other wildlife, and the deer themselves.

State Farm Insurance says there are only two other states, West Virginia and Michigan, where drivers are more likely to hit deer. The average property-damage cost of deer-vehicle collisions, which rises every year, is now about $3,000. Last year's carnage in Pennsylvania was five human deaths and 677 serious injuries in about 2,900 accidents.

As a deer-slayer in Pennsylvania, the motor vehicle is second only to the rifle. There are about 40,000 documented deer highway deaths in Pennsylvania every year, but these do not account for animals that are fatally wounded and die elsewhere. Bob Frye, author of the definitive 2006 book Deer Wars: Science, Tradition and the Battle Over Managing Whitetails in Pennsylvania, says the annual carnage may reach 100,000. Hunters, by comparison, take about 300,000 a year.

New Jersey reports there are about 6,000 car-deer crashes a year involving 350 to 400 injuries. There have been no deaths since 2006. The figures for the first half of 2009 are 2,934 crashes, 130 injuries.

With no predators left other than man, deer can multiply beyond Malthus' wildest dreams. Does reach sexual maturity in one year and can produce twins and triplets. In a single year, each ravenous deer can consume one ton of "browse" - leaves, twigs, seedlings, and shoots that are critical to forest regeneration.

Foresters warn that Pennsylvania's mature woodlands are fast approaching the end of their life cycles and are in dire straits. A U.S. Forest Service inventory indicates that half of the harvested trees in Pennsylvania are not being regenerated.

Walter Carson, a University of Pittsburgh biologist who has been studying the impact of uncontrolled deer populations, says deer have collapsed the diversity of Pennsylvania's forests. "The only surviving plants are shade-tolerant and are either unpalatable to deer or able to regrow quickly after browsing," he says. "It's a real tragedy that continues even though the science is no longer in question."

Increasingly, Pennsylvania woodlands are being taken over by plants unappetizing to deer. Carson's research shows that the hay-scented fern, which once covered only 3 percent of the forest floor, now takes up one third of the forested area of Pennsylvania.

In addition to habitat damage, the state Agriculture Department says deer are causing $90 million a year in crop losses and $73 million annually in destroyed commercial timber. The average Pennsylvania nursery suffers $20,000 in deer damage per year.

Deer also carry the ticks that transmit Lyme disease, an infectious affliction that causes headache, fever, fatigue, and depression and, if untreated, can lead to more severe problems and even death.

According to the Pinchot Institute for Conservation in Washington, Pennsylvania is ahead of most other states in dealing with the problem and "one of the few states with a written deer-management plan that includes goals related to habitat and health of deer, and actual measures of vegetation to inform deer-management decisions."

Nevertheless, as the agency responsible for controlling the size of the deer herd, the game commission finds itself under fire from two sides.

A group of hunters under the banner Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania has filed a suit in Commonwealth Court seeking to block all doe hunting, claiming the commission has mishandled the deer-management program.

The organization argues that the commission has used faulty data in allocating doe licenses and has diminished the deer herd to dangerously low levels. The group claims the major reason for forest destruction is acid rain from power plants, not an excess of deer.

The game commission released figures this week showing that hunters killed 308,000 deer during the 2009-10 season, the least since 1986-87. Stephen Mohr, president of the United Sportsmen and a former commission member, said the figures prove the deer-management program is "so fatally flawed it's just not going to be acceptable any longer."

Not all sportsmen agree. Jim Seitz, a veteran hunter and former president of the Pennsylvania Deer Association, says the Unified Sportsmen speak for a minority of Pennsylvania hunters. "These guys want to walk 50 yards into the woods on opening day, shoot the first deer they see, and walk back out. That's not real hunting."

The game commission also finds itself the target of strong criticism from the scientific community, which claims the agency is doing too little to reduce the deer herd.

Perhaps the most common complaint is that the agency is politically incapable of independent wildlife management because it receives most of its funding from fees for hunting licenses. The critics recommend that general taxes be diverted to the commission and that nonhunters be named members of the agency.

"The Pennsylvania Game Commission is dysfunctional," says Pitt's Carson. "I think they understand the serious deleterious consequences of too many deer to biodiversity, but they refuse to stand up against a vocal group of hunters."