Riverwoods Preservation Council

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White Tailed Deer
 Living with Deer

 March - April, 2006

(photo courtesy of Ho Min Lim)

Determining how to live with deer has been one of the more controversial issues in Riverwoods. Although no one can dispute their grace or beauty, deer can present a number of problems, including traffic accidents and very significant pressure on the plant life of our area. While some contend that the deer population has exploded in recent years, others say the diminution of their natural environment, caused by more and larger homes, vast lawns and habitat consuming amenities has created the problem. Most environmental experts believe that an overpopulation of deer exists in much of the Midwest and Northeastern United States. The debate has centered around two issues: (1) the seriousness of the overpopulation; and (2) the appropriate manner of addressing the overpopulation. Those who contend overpopulation is a serious problem cite as evidence supporting their view extensive damage to vegetation by over-browsing; auto accidents, transmission of deer-tick borne Lyme Disease to humans and pets, and deer deaths due to accidents and starvation.

Where once there was plenty of open space for them, deer now are damaging both the woodlands ands our gardens in order to survive. In addition, having long ago exterminated the large predators, such as bobcats and wolves, which would have controlled herd numbers, we are left with no natural alternatives for achieving a healthy balance. (Although coyotes may take down a few fawns or sick or injured deer, these occurrences do not significantly reduce deer numbers.)

When normal food sources cannot sustain the deer population, they search elsewhere. Starving deer will eat almost any vegetation, including evergreens, many woodlands plants and even tree bark. Most vulnerable are the young trees, which are necessary for woodlands regeneration. This damage to woodland vegetation can have significant effects. If the deer consume the woodlands more rapidly than they are regenerated, there is a steady reduction in the size, quality and diversity of the woodlands. Deterioration of the woodlands has many side effects, including destruction of animal habitats, such as reduced nesting places and food sources for birds. Reduction in bird populations results in an increase in undesirable insect populations. Some animals, such as mice, can adapt better than others to changes in habitat. Those populations may increase while the diversity of the animal population decreases.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District monitors the deer population, primarily through use of aerial surveys in the winter when the deer can be observed. Although controversial, sharpshooters occasionally have been hired to cull a herd. Other control efforts, none completely successful, have included trapping and transporting deer to distant forest preserves; contraception, surgical sterilization; fencing; netting; and use of various deer repellant materials around vegetation. Trapping and sterilization result in high mortality rates because of trauma. Most contraceptive drugs are difficult to administer, partly because two injections separated by several days are required. A newer method recently tested in Highland Park may be more promising. Fencing and netting are highly effective for the protected areas, but they are impractical for large areas, are frequently unsightly and, perhaps most significantly, divert deer to ever-smaller unprotected browsing areas where even greater damage occurs. Deer repellants, while effective, require frequent reapplication. In addition, deer quickly become adapted to the repellants.

Based on annual population surveys conducted at Ryerson Woods, even with culling, the 5-year deer count average remains close to 30 per square mile, rather than the 15 per square mile many consider appropriate for woodland health. Some see “the deer issue” as a simple debate between “animal lovers” and “tree huggers”, and believe that animals should take priority. Others contend that protecting woodland vegetation is essential to creating a balanced ecosystem that ensures survival of all the plant and animal species native to this area. Clearly, the goal of living in harmony with nature demands that this problem receive thoughtful attention and debate aimed at achieving optimal solutions.

Without taking a position this issue,
here are some suggestions to help you find your comfort zone in living with our deer

  • Deer vs. auto is a contest with no winners. The presence of deer in our Village is one very good reason for obeying speed limits. Be especially watchful at dawn, dusk and during the fall mating season. Where you see one deer, there is usually another…and another. Be patient.
  • Chemical Barriers – There are numerous deer repellants on the market. Some work by scent, some coat the plant material with a bitter flavor. Most products are sprayed on and need to be re-applied periodically, especially after rains, snow or new growth. Brands you might find easily at your local garden center are Ropel, Bobbex, Hinder, Liquid Fence and Shotgun. Many landscaping companies will include spraying preparations such as these in your monthly maintenance. If you prefer to make your own, try:
       2 eggs
       1 cup water
       Hot sauce
    Blend in blender on high speed. Put in gallon bottle. Fill with tap water.
    Spray as needed at least every 2 weeks.
  • Other favored techniques include sprinkling highly scented soap shavings, dried blood, human hair, or predator urine on and around vulnerable plants. None of these will be 100% effective, but varying your method and product will boost your success rate. Also keep in mind that starting your repellants early in the year will prevent the animals from discovering or making a habit of enjoying what you are growing.
  • Plant Selection
    When landscaping or gardening, it helps to choose plants “not favored by deer” rather than delicacies such as roses or geraniums or yews. These less palatable plants are often fuzzy or strongly scented, or toxic, such as lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina), catmint (Nepeta mussinii) , and monkshood (Aconitum napelllus). Lists of such plants are readily available. Start with the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is always a good resource. The RRA’s Plant Committee does its best to offer an assortment of these plants and shrubs in their yearly sale. Be sure to give them a try. But, keep in mind that sometimes the deer haven’t read the list and occasionally a deer will try your bloom before realizing he/she doesn’t like it.
  • Physical Barriers
    These are quite effective but can be costly and some fence materials are foreign to the open space ambience of Riverwoods. In addition, physically barriers may simply direct the animals to your neighbors’ unfenced properties or to the forest preserves. Regardless of fencing material, and although deer are said to jump as high as eight feet, they will usually avoid a much lower barrier if they cannot see where they will land. Since the Riverwoods ordinance limits fence heights, try to design one that uses brush and plantings to obscure the landing area.

Should you come across an injured or dead deer, call the Riverwoods Police Department, which will advise you based on the location of the animal and the circumstances. Hunting is not permitted in Riverwoods so if you observe evidence of it, notify authorities.

© Riverwoods Preservation Council- - Page last updated: December 2009