The Growing Deer Debate – Captured on Halloween

First, Some Clarification

You may have missed the Catskill Forest Association’s – The Growing Deer Debate – on October 31st at the Margaretville Central School, but the conversation continues. First off, I would like to clarify some misunderstanding about the deer debate. The conference spoke mostly about the impacts from deer (and humans), not exclusively their overabundance. In many portions of the Catskills, deer numbers have already peaked; some areas peaked decades ago. Hunters in particular are aware of how few deer there seems to be, especially after “taking the gun for a walk” all day through the mature forests of the Catskill Forest Preserve. Older growth forests – as found in Slide & Big Indian Wilderness Areas – simply don’t support the deer numbers encountered in Orange County; there isn’t enough sunlight penetrating that mature forest canopy to grow palatable food on the forest floor. In other words, less sunlight equals fewer plants, which equals fewer deer. But does that necessarily mean fewer deer impacts? No!

Fewer deer can continue to browse the few plants that do manage to grow on the forest floor. Deer numbers ranging as few as 1 to 7 per square mile can still manage to create barren deerscapes leaving behind only plants they don’t like to eat; think fern, beech, striped maple, Japanese barberry, etc. Deer prefer sugar maple, red oak, ginseng, spring flowers (i.e. trillium), and more. Areas that are not browsed out seem to be where deer visit the least: above 2500 feet in elevation, north facing, etc.

Therefore, the conference was more about striking a balance. We can have more deer in the Catskills. Let me repeat that; we can have more deer in the Catskills. After all we used to, especially in the 1970s and 80s when all that young stuff grew up after the dairy farms were abandoned. However, when there isn’t enough food for these hungry herbivores in the surrounding wilderness areas and woodlots, deer will come literally knocking at your door. We are not spreading into their territory. They (the deer) are simply forest expats or refugees now looking for something to eat; and the younger growth surrounding your house along with the green grass growing over the leach field is better than dumpster diving on beech whips. So what to do? Manage the food source (forest) better? Reduce deer numbers in areas that can’t be managed? Both? How do we do (or not do) all that? That’s the debate.

The Speakers

Jim Sterba – Author of Nature Wars – kicked off the debate by focusing our attention on “sprawl man.” Sprawl man lives in suburban areas and has created some really good habitat for deer. But, according to Sterba, sprawl man has become far too “denatured.” He not only doesn’t hunt, he sees the deer as pets. That’s fine until deer numbers soar and give sprawl man Lyme’s disease, crashes into his new Ford Mustang, or eats all his hostas. Sterba then spoke extensively about how municipalities, animal rights group, conservationists, hunters, and others, battle to help mitigate these conflicts. That’s when the fun really begins!

Tom Rawinski – USDA Forest Service Botanist – spoke about how deer imbalance can create “slum- like” conditions in the forest. Tom had plenty of evidence and data about how deer impact plant species composition and in turn impact associated wildlife species. Ground nesting songbirds, ruffed grouse, and rabbits are just a few species that have been harmed by overbrowsing. In other words, deer browsing can have a domino effect in the forest; where will that ruffed grouse hide when most of the vegetation has been nibbled away from the ground to about 5 feet?

Edward Stringham – an Economist Professor from Trinity College – spoke about Free Market Environmentalism and The Tragedy of the Commons. According to Stringham, when resources are owned publicly (deer, oceans, buffalo, etc.) they are more vulnerable to abuse since there is less protection compared to when they are privately owned. In other words, individuals such as hunters are benefitting from a publicly owned resource, but the impacts or costs are mostly being shared by private landowners; irregardless of whether or not they hunt. In other instances, some interest groups may want to see more deer or even be indifferent to controlling deer, but are not paying the cost of over-browsing that comes with it. According to Stringham, private property rights of land and animals serves as a more efficient way to make sure benefits and costs are shared more fairly and natural resources are less negatively impacted.

David Drake – Professor of Wildlife Ecology & Extension Wildlife Specialist: University of Wisconsin – spoke about legalizing the sale of venison as an incentive to reduce deer numbers in areas that have too many deer. Drake coauthored The Wildlife Society Bulletin: Regulated Commercial Harvest to Manage Overabundant White-Tailed Deer: An Idea to Consider? Currently, selling deer meat is illegal and over 85% of deer meat sold in the US is imported from New Zealand. In areas where recreational hunting is failing to reduce deer numbers – mainly suburban areas – hunters need more incentives to harvest more deer. In other words, most hunters hunt until they fill their freezer or run out of time. Legalizing the sale of venison may serve as one more “tool in the toolbox” or market solution to help compensate hunters and/or landowners in managing deer. The legal sale of moose meat has been performed in Sweden for many years; a country abundant in moose.

Ruben Cantu – Certified Wildlife Biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife (retired) – spoke chiefly about habitat and private land. Deer are experts in feeding and breeding. Feeding and breeding mostly occurs on a private landowner’s property. Therefore, we need to encourage landowners to manage their habitat so impacts from deer can be reduced. Currently, many state wildlife agencies manage deer in a vacuum without considering where deer eat and live – on private land. The white-tailed deer’s largest stakeholder is the private landowner, and they need to be compensated or at least involved more in the process of deer management. He spoke about the exceptional health of Texas’s deer herd in a state that is 97% privately-owned. How’d they do that? Ruben says by working with landowners and mainly by ranchers making ends meet by selling hunting leases when cows aren’t bringing in adequate beef prices. By keeping ranches economically viable, these gatekeepers are able to keep their lands from being parcelized into housing developments; offering a social benefit via a variety of ecological services (other than deer and deer hunting) when the land remains whole.

The Growing Deer Debate Conference received over 70 participants that sat and listened to presenters from 9AM to 4PM; that’s a long day to hear about deer! Who knew there was so much to talk about? Obviously there is.


  • Majority in attendance were landowners
  • More non-hunters than hunters
  • Majority believed that deer are impacting forests
  • Majority believe deer herd is healthy
  • Majority believe deer population should be reduced
  • Split between there being adequate habitat for deer
  • Every person but one was in favor of regulated commercial deer harvest

Catskill Forest Association did receive funds from the Watershed Agricultural Council to video and edit the event for future viewing, programming, and discussion. So, if you’d like to watch for yourself, a video is in the works. Stay tuned.