Note to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: There are too many deer.
And I say this as a softie who loves watching them wander in my yard and who has evolved gardening practices that focus on "deer-resistant" species and a philosophical outlook that accommodates inevitable damage.
We've watched the deer and tossed them dried corn and old apples (yes I know feeding the wildlife is frowned upon) since we moved into this recent expansion of our smallish town that is really part of the exurbia of Baltimore. Each spring we enjoy the mixed blessings of baby Bambis and chewed shrubs. And each year, since 2005, the number of deer seemed to grow as singletons become less common than twins, and triplets not uncommon.
We have also studied them as a group. This year, in particular, the deer seem to be departing from what authorities call their "natural" behavior: They are becoming placid to the point of friendly, and the social unit now seems to include the fine young fellow I call "Baby Buck" who travels with a doe, "Sissy." Adolescent males are generally booted from the family unit in the fall of their first year; they may hang with each other but not with does and fawns. Baby Buck is not observing the rules at all — and none of the does, including the alpha female "Queen Bee," seems disturbed about that.
I walk in the cool of early morning. A few days ago as I headed out the door, there, staring at me, were three fawns looking for all the world like Rodin's "Shades" — as interpreted by Walt Disney. I might as well have clanged the chow-time triangle because they collectively belted down the hill into my back yard. I counted them: seven, no eight, wow, nine! When I emerged from the basement with a bag of apples, they were in expectant array. I took another count: 10 — four does, five fawns and Baby Buck. Not present were "Gimpy Doe" (whose front left fetlock is horribly swollen) and her twins. It is entirely possible that the herd in fact numbers 13.
I sat quite close to where the gang was milling about; they seemed unconcerned. Baby Buck moved close to me, then closer still. Finally he was perhaps four feet away. I examined his antlers, saw how the left was much larger than the right. I looked at the places where his summer coat chestnut red was shedding out to winter walnut. His eyes were dark, his nose sort of pebbled in texture and wet. And he was drooling, little threads of slobber dropping to the ground as he contemplated the apple in my hand. We stayed that way for perhaps five or six minutes until he drifted off toward the woods.
My point is this. While I myself do not want to hunt, to personally take down any living creature, it is clearly necessary that the herds — not just mine but all the herds — be culled. There is recognition of this fact in Maryland on a state level; the document, Maryland White-tailed Deer Plan, 2009-2018, is interesting reading. It includes, among other things, a careful analysis of the impact of deer populations, in positive and negative ways, on the economic and environmental health of the state.
The plan itemizes what I already know to be true: that the deer are contributing to the decline of the Chesapeake by destroying the grasses and shrubs that hold the soil and hold back the runoff. They are devastating new generations of deciduous and evergreen trees that must replace the old and so reducing the mature growth that helps clean our air. The loss of plants disrupts the entire ecosystem from bugs to birds and small mammals, as their habitat shrinks. Then there are the inevitable collisions of deer and motor vehicles, a situation that becomes particularly dire in the fall during rut. Both humans and deer suffer and die.
I continue to enjoy my herd but always at the back of my mind is a sense of the wrongness in their numbers and their diminishing concern for the threat I and every other human ought to pose.
It isn't a happy thought — but we need to do something.
Ellen B. Cutler is a writer and art historian based in Aberdeen. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is http://www.ellenbcutler.com.To respond to this commentary, send an email to email@example.com. Please include your name and contact information.