The Nation's Pulse

It’s a Jungle Out There

Our deer problem and yours -- and the mountain lion's.

By 6.14.11

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BETHEL, Conn. -- In the early hours of Saturday, June 11, 2011, a motorist driving an SUV along Route 15 in Milford, Connecticut, struck and killed a mountain lion. That's right. A mountain lion. In Connecticut. This event occurred a little more than a week after a moose was sighted ambling through my little of town Bethel. If anyone wants to know where the wild things are, they're in suburban and rural and even urban Connecticut.

Let me give you a few examples of what I've witnessed in my own backyard. One afternoon while on the phone with my Dad I saw a coyote sprint out of the woods and nail a fat groundhog that was waddling across the grass. Several times I've witnessed a hawk pounce on a chipmunk or a deer mouse. One night I was awoken by the awful screams of fawn being torn apart by a pack of coyotes.

I have my own personal herd of deer that live in the forested back acre of my property, a place they share with coyotes and red foxes. The deer have become so used to the sight and smell of humans that I can be working at one end of the yard while the herd continues to graze at the other end. Deer are lovely. Fawns are adorable. Did you know that typically does give birth to twin fawns? Until I moved here, me neither.

Yet deer have become a serious problem in Connecticut. According to the Wildlife Division of the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the population of white-tailed deer in Connecticut is "overabundant." That's an understatement. A single square mile can support 10 to 12 deer, yet throughout the state typically the numbers are much higher—60, 70, even 90 deer per square mile. Erring on the side of caution with 60 per square mile, that works out to 290,700 deer statewide. Such numbers are not only a problem for deer that are competing with each other for food, they present serious problems for the deer's human neighbors.

Deer spread the tick-borne Lyme disease to humans: since 1996, 29,000 cases have been diagnosed in Connecticut. On average, deer require a daily diet of 5 to 10 pounds of forage, so they treat our gardens like open-air salad bars, which is extremely expensive for gardeners. The town of Fairfield estimates that on average deer do $17 million worth of damage every year to public and private plantings in the community. Yes, there are deer resistant plants, but if deer have decided to eat something, they will. A landscaper told me that he had planted 50 lily of the valley plants in a client's garden. Lily of valley is said to be poisonous to deer, and so a safe plant. By the next morning deer had eaten them all. And the lawn was not littered with deer corpses.

In their quest for food the deer are clearing out native-born woodland plants and wildflowers, including such rare species as the lady's slipper orchid. This groundcover is home to various species of birds and small mammals. Once their habitat is gone, they leave and the ecology of the woodlands begins to go out of whack.

The trouble is, the deer no longer have natural predators such as wolves or mountain lions to keep their population in check. According to Connecticut lore, in 1743, 25-year-old Israel Putnam killed the last wolf in Connecticut. There is no comparable story for the mountain lions, although that situation appears to be self-correcting. Nonetheless, at present the deer's only enemy (aside from hunters) is a speeding automobile. On average, 18,000 deer are killed along Connecticut roadways annually. Repairs for a deer-and-car collision costs on average $1,600; there are no figures for the cost in medical expenses for injured drivers and passengers.

The primary reason for the boom in wildlife in Connecticut is the expansion of forests in the state. Today, 60 percent of the state is forest. Compare that with the state in 1900, when forests covered between 20 and 30 percent of Connecticut. The 20th century saw a trend of families moving off their farms. Once the fields and pastures were no longer being worked by man, Nature moved in. Later, part of this newly wooded land was cleared for housing, but enough of it remained to make an ideal habitat for deer. Cover in the woods; plenty to eat in the humans' gardens; and no predators.

What to do? Giving deer birth control vaccines has been a failure. Trap and relocation programs can cost up to $3,000 per deer. Even if the state had the spare cash (which, Lord knows, we do not), all the other states are suffering the same deer problem, and they don't want ours. Some towns have hired sharpshooters to reduce deer populations, which invariably brings howls of protest from the local Bambi/anthropomorphic coalition. It doesn't matter that the deer population is out of control, or that the deer spread Lyme disease, or that the venison is donated to the local food pantry, for some Americans, cuteness will always triumph over reason. I've invited a friend's son, an experienced bow hunter, to come to my house, open a dining room window, and pull up chair -- he'll be able to bag a herd without stepping outside the house.

So it comes down to this: given the lack of four legged predators in the state, we two-legged types will have to step in. I know it sounds harsh, but the problem is our responsibility -- until we see a serious boost in Connecticut's population of mountain lions.

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About the Author
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of "Our Sunday Visitor’s Patron Saints," and of the forthcoming "St. Peter’s Bones: How the Relics of the First Pope Were Lost and Found, and Then Lost and Found Again."