UVALDE – Drought and urban growth continue to contribute to increasing human-deer conflict throughout the state, according to wildlife researchers and specialists.
But while the interaction can be a nuisance and even pose potential hazards, experts say there are ways to help limit contact.
“Drought conditions have forced a lot of deer out of their normal habitat and comfort zone into green spaces we humans have created for ourselves,” said Jim Gallagher, Texas AgriLife Extension Service wildlife specialist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde. "Conversely, communities have been expanding into formerly wild or undeveloped areas, also increasing the possibility of contact."
While “aggressive” attacks by deer rarely occur, threats to human life or financial loss continue as a result of deer-vehicle collisions and damage to crops or ornamental plants.
"Human-wildlife conflict occurs throughout the state, but people only tend to hear about it when it affects a significant number of people in a larger metropolitan area,” Gallagher said.
Some of the more notable incidents in recent years have occurred in the residential areas of Lakeway and Horseshoe Bay near Austin, Hollywood Park near San Antonio, and Sun City in the Georgetown area.
“More recently, we’ve seen increased deer-human conflict occurring in the Walden area of Conroe and residential areas around Lake Livingston,” said Dr. Clark Adams, a professor in the wildlife and fisheries sciences department of Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“Although it’s a general and reductionist way of putting it, wherever there is outward human expansion, particularly in metropolitan areas of Texas, it’s inevitable that people will encounter white-tail deer,” Adams said.
Interactions between humans and deer have become much more prevalent in the Texas Hill Country, noted Dr. Susan Cooper, a Texas AgriLife Research scientist at the Uvalde center.Cooper has led several research projects aimed at understanding deer in their natural habitat and as part of the human-wildlife dynamic. Her research has included work on the supplemental feeding of deer, how deer interact with the landscape and improving deer management on rangeland. Most recently, she completed a general survey of increasing deer-human interaction in the Texas Hill Country.
The Hill Country is home to about 1.5 million white-tailed deer, and they are overabundant from both a human or biological perspective, she said. In addition, about a half-million people have moved into the Hill Country in the last six years.
Deer are attracted to residential areas because they provide safety from natural predators and hunters, and the irrigated and fertilized landscaping provides an abundant, accessible, high-quality food source.
“But the tolerance for deer and other wildlife tends to be inversely proportional to the amount of damage or inconvenience they cause,” she said. “This seems to be true even in areas where people move to be closer to nature or where there’s a good amount of eco-tourism. It’s one thing to watch deer, but quite another when they start eating your plants or cause you to have a car accident.”
Deer-vehicle accidents cause more than $1 billion in damage annually, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Institute data also shows 3 of 4 vehicle-wildlife accidents involve deer.
Additionally, the annual cost of ornamental landscape plants damaged by deer throughout the U.S. is estimated at more than $250 million.
“If deer don’t have sufficient food or water in their normal habitat or have too much competition, roadsides and residential areas can be an attractive alternative,” Cooper said.
Cooper and Gallagher said deer damage prevention and control methods range from exclusion, “cultural” methods, frightening and repellents to trapping, contraception and shooting.
Exclusion refers to keeping deer away by using a fence or individual wire or plastic protectors for trees, plants or shrubs deer are known to eat.
Cultural methods include planting deer-resistant trees and shrubs, and harvesting crops early to reduce exposure to deer and other wildlife.
Air horns, gas exploders and pyrotechnics are sometimes used to frighten deer. There are also a number of commercially available repellents that work through smell or direct application to plants or bushes.
“Where deer populations need to be reduced, public sentiment usually favors some type of non-lethal control,” Cooper said. “But immunocontraception is currently in the experimental phase and is not yet legally approved, plus it’s difficult and expensive. And many deer die within a year after being trapped and relocated.”
Though community-wide efforts are generally the most effective solution to human-wildlife issues, people are often divided in their opinions on how to manage deer, said Kevin Schwausch, big game program specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
“TPWD provides technical assistance to people in suburban areas who have deer issues and provides guidance,” he said. “But it’s best if people in affected communities work together and form a committee to make sure they’re going in the same direction before taking deer management actions.”
Schwausch said although it seems obvious, one of the first and most useful steps people in suburban communities can take to reduce deer activity is not to feed them.
Gallagher noted that while some deterrents may work at first, their effectiveness may not be consistent, especially if the deer become very hungry.
“Putting up fencing, keeping a dog outside and placing iron or plastic guards around expensive ornamental plants, trees or bushes are among the most effective non-lethal means,” he said. “Of course, it would be best to put up fencing before the deer find out what kind of a ‘buffet’ your landscape provides for them.”
Cooper said even if deer numbers are reduced, follow-up management is needed to ensure their population will not increase as their food supply increases.
More information on deer damage prevention and control can be found at http://www.extension.org/pages/Deer_Damage_Management .
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site has additional information. Call the department at 800-792-1112 for technical assistance with suburban and overabundant deer.