The 500-acre forest at Lord Creek Farm in Old Lyme, Connecticut, looks beautiful to most visiting hunters, hikers, and horseback riders.  A lush carpet of ferns and low Japanese barberry stretches toward Long Island Sound. No understory obstructs the view through the heavily canopied woods.  On this fine August morning, all’s right with the world—unless you are burdened with knowledge of wildlife ecology, like the two biologists on either side of me.

They are Dr. Scott Williams of the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station and Dr. Anthony DeNicola, president and cofounder of White Buffalo, Inc., a nonprofit company dedicated to recovering native ecosystems by culling overpopulated animals—mostly deer.

To Williams and DeNicola, these woods could scarcely look uglier.  The barberry (an invasive non-native) and ferns are thriving because deer shun them.  The native understory is gone because deer browsed it away. There is no tree regeneration because seedlings are eaten before they’re boot-high.

Many hunters in these parts (and in much of the East and Midwest) expect to take clear, 150-yard shots through woods like these because they’ve never known anything ese.  But where you can do that, something is dreadfully, drastically wrong. That something is too many deer.

LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS

The national mindset that, with wildlife, “more is better” lingers from the early and middle 1900s when more really was better because much of our game had been depleted by market hunting.  However, when wildlife is already at carrying capacity, “more” can be a disaster. Among the countless wild creatures hurt by overabundant deer are the deer themselves. Across wide expanses of their range, whitetails are sickly and scrawny.

Birds suffer as well.  The U.S. Forest Service found that when deer exceed 20 per square mile, cerulean warblers, pewees, indigo buntings, least flycatchers, and yellow-billed cuckoos can no longer survive.  At 38 deer per square mile, phoebes and even robins disappear. (In his eastern project areas, DeNicola routinely deals with 100 deer per square mile.) Ground nesters, including wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, woodcock, ovenbirds, and whippoorwills, can nest successfully in ferns.  But as adults, these birds need thick cover, so they take a huge hit from predators when deer denude the understory.

Overabundant deer hurt humans, too.  Each year, deer-vehicle collisions kill roughly 150 Americans and injure some 10,000 more.  In suburbia, deer cause millions of dollars’ worth of damage to gardens and ornamental shrubs.  Lyme disease (so-called because it was discovered in Lyme, Connecticut—just a few miles east of Lord Creek Farm) is now a pandemic in the East and upper Midwest.  It is transmitted by blacklegged ticks; whose abundance varies directly with the abundance of their deer hosts. In fact, evidence suggests that when deer populations are at natural densities, Lyme disease starts to fizzle out.  In 2014, there were 33,461 cases of Lyme disease reported across the United States—up from about 1,500 in 1986. But the actual number was no doubt far higher because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 90 percent of Lyme disease cases go unreported.

At Lord Creek Farm, where Williams and his team have been eradicating barberry and conducting blacklegged-tick research (and deer density is roughly 50 animals per square mile), about 80 percent of the ticks collected from the vegetation carry the Lyme-disease bacteria.

OUT OF BALANCE

Deer overpopulate because humans have reduced or eliminated their main predators:  wolves and cougars. Coyotes, bears, lynx, and bobcats will take fawns and even adult deer when they get the opportunity, but in most areas that doesn’t happen often enough to make a difference.  In the early 20th century, when eastern forests started to regenerate, deer recovered.  Without wolves and cougars to control their numbers and with deer-friendly landscaping available throughout suburban neighborhoods, deer populations exploded far beyond natural, healthy abundance.

For example, in the 1980s, deer denuded the 2,100-acre Crane Estate—a diverse mix of salt marshes, islands, and undeveloped barrier beaches—30 miles north of Boston.  Vegetation loss was so extreme that dunes were blowing away. The property, owned by the Trustees of Reservations, was supposed to be a wildlife refuge. But about the only wildlife left were deer, with skin stretched over their ribs like canvas over Conestoga wagons.

Editorializing on the debacle, the Boston Globe reported this exchange between Bambi and his skunk pal:

“Why are you sitting?” Flower asked.  “Fawns don’t sit.”

“I’m too weak to stand,” said Bambi.  “I think I’ll just sit here for a few days until I fall over and die.”

And he did.

When the Trustees proposed a public hunt, it was shouted down by neighbors who eventually affected a modest and inadvertent cull of their own by feeding the starving deer cabbages, squashes, and beet greens, thereby giving them fatal cases of gastroenteritis (deer diarrhea).  At this point, the area had the highest incidence of Lyme disease on the planet, and the neighbors—two-thirds of whom were infected—decided that deer hunting wasn’t cruel after all. Hunters then reduced the deer population to a healthy, natural level.

There are many areas around the country where overpopulated deer are endangering public health and destroying native ecosystems, yet residents often oppose effective control.  That’s where Dr. Anthony DeNichola and White Buffalo, Inc., come in.

In the next article I will introduce you to White Buffalo—and what it does.  Not everyone is accepted into White Buffalo. You have to take a test, and most hunters flunk.