"A decade ago, deer were a rare sight on Staten Island. White-tailed deer are thought to have abandoned the island in the late 19th century, pushed by human development to open land in nearby New Jersey. In 2008, the estimated deer population of the 60-square-mile borough of New York City was only 24.
Then the deer came back, swimming across the Arthur Kill and Raritan Bay from New Jersey in search of new habitat. And they reproduced—boy, did they reproduce. An aerial survey of the deer population in 2014 put it at 793. By 2017, the new estimate was between 1,918 and 2,188, an increase of 9,000 percent in just nine years.
To various degrees, towns and cities across the Northeast have been seeing an ongoing resurgence of deer populations in recent decades, as suburbanization patterns deepened and hunting practices faded. If you live anywhere outside of an urban downtown, you’ve probably noticed this trend yourself.
Deer are cute. We’ve all cried watching Bambi. So what’s the problem?Well, there are a few. Hungry deer will eat (or trample) almost anything in a garden, becoming a pest for urban and suburban homeowners. Over-browsing by deer depletes the undergrowth of woodland, threatening birds’ habitat and the regeneration of trees. And when deer wander into the road, the results are not so cute. There are about 1.25 million collisions between cars and deer, elk, and moose annually in the United States, according to the insurer State Farm, and these cause around 150 human fatalities, and countless animal deaths, each year.
They also harbor the insects that carry Lyme Disease, which is on the rise: Reported cases have tripled since the early 1990s, and the true incidence may be 10 times higher, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The black-legged tick that carries Lyme is commonly called the deer tick, and deer are the main reproductive hosts for adult ticks, but ticks do not become infected with Lyme from the deer—that happens earlier in the tick’s life cycle, usually from feeding on white-footed mice. (Scientific opinions on the exact relationship between deer density and Lyme prevalence vary considerably.)
The explosion of deer across the eastern U.S. has prompted some cities and towns to cull them. Ann Arbor, Michigan, recently carried out a combined sharpshooting cull and sterilization of does (who give birth to one to three fawns a year during a life span of up to 10 years, which explains how their numbers increase so fast). Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb, has tried archery culls and sharpshooting hunts, but as of last October, the town was still experiencing a spike in deer-vehicle collisions.
Other municipalities hope local hunters can help. Charlottesville, Virginia, is finalizing a new ordinance that will allow bow-hunting of deer on private land on lots of half an acre and up. Mike Murphy, an assistant city manager, says deer have been a regular topic of discussion among residents for the past several years.
“I think part of that is certainly about ornamental damage—people who are concerned about their yard or garden,” Murphy says. “Part of it is folks concerned about ticks and public health, and whether there’s a relationship to having deer in their yard. And of course there is some documentation that we were having increased collisions with deer, a traffic safety issue.”