FRONT ROYAL, Va. - In Posey Hollow, tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains, William J. McShea was inspecting a forest primeval - 10 acres of oaks, wild yam vines, seedlings and shrubs that made an ideal home for nesting songbirds and scurrying small mammals.
But he had to look through an 8-foot deer fence to see it. Where he stood, the forest was trimmed from eye level to earth as if by an army of obsessive landscapers. Mature trees stood unharmed, but oak seedlings were nipped in the bud. The only things thriving were Japanese barberry and other non-native flora - plants that deer cannot digest.
Over the last decade, from the Rockies to New England and the Deep South, rural and suburban communities have been beset by white-tailed deer gnawing shrubbery and crops, spreading disease and causing hundreds of thousands of auto wrecks.
But the deer problem has proved even more profound, biologists say. Fast-multiplying herds are altering the ecology of forests, stripping them of native vegetation and eliminating niches for other wildlife.
Varmints of old were mainly predators, McShea said, but this is now the age of the marauding herbivore.
"I don't want to paint deer as Eastern devils," said McShea, a wildlife biologist associated with the National Zoo in Washington, "but this is indicative of what happens when an ecosystem is out of whack." The damage is worse than anyone expected, he and other scientists say.
In the West, mule deer and blacktailed deer sometimes cause problems, but it is mainly in the more densely suburbanized East and Midwest where whitetails are causing the most trouble for people and ecosystems.
Research like that under way here, where several deer-free plots have been studied for more than a decade, have shown how deer can profoundly change forests.
In Wisconsin, deer have prevented restoration of native white cedar, whose seedlings they eagerly seek out. In Minnesota, hemlocks are nibbled away before they can grow. Near New Haven, Conn., one forest biologist has found foot-high cedars that turned out to be 12 years old but were as stunted as a carefully pruned bonsai.
The damage "drives me to my knees," said Gary L. Alt, a wildlife biologist and lifelong hunter on the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
"We've got to balance deer with habitat," Alt said. "If we don't, everything will be lost. The deer population will not be healthy and scores of other species will suffer."
Except in a few favorable situations, sharpshooting, trapping, birth-control darts, repellents and other tactics are not having a big impact, he and other experts say.
Expanded hunting, considered by many experts to be the best hope of controlling numbers, has its limits as well. For example, most hunters, and most states' hunting regulations, still favor shooting bucks, even though the best way to control populations is to kill females.
Some states are changing regulations in ways that could cut deer numbers, but hunters are resisting. Others are expanding seasons and the number of deer a hunter can kill, but federal wildlife officials note that hunters are a graying population, with fewer each year to make a dent. In any case, controlled hunts staged in suburbs often run up against strident opposition from animal welfare groups.
Faced with ever-rising deer numbers and few solutions, some biologists are advising people to focus more on changing their own behavior and attitudes than on hoping for a sudden answer to the deer problem.
"People should finally get used to having deer around and adjust to that," said Allen T. Rutberg, a senior research scientist with the Humane Society of the United States and a professor at the Tufts University veterinary school. "They're going to be a fact of life, like drought and storms."
Drawn to suburbs
People long ago wiped out the wolves and other predators that kept deer populations in check. Then suburbanization created a browser's paradise: a vast patchwork of well-watered, fertilizer-fattened plantings to feed on and vest-pocket forests to hide in, with hunters banished to more distant woods.
"Deer are an edge species," McShea said, "and the world is one big edge now."
Deer pose problems because they are both loved and loathed - Bambi to children and Godzilla to gardeners.
Web sites devoted to deer are as diverse as deer-off.com and whitetailsunlimited.org.
Deer generate more than $10 billion a year in revenue related to wildlife watching and hunting, federal wildlife officials say. But they spread Lyme disease and livestock ailments. They are struck by cars, trucks and motorcycles more than 1 million times a year, with the accidents killing more than 100 people annually and causing more than $1 billion in damage.
The human toll makes deer deadlier than sharks, alligators, bears and rattlesnakes combined.