Deer overpopulation impacting eastern forests in multiple ways

By: Mike Marsh

The deer population in the eastern United States is starting to take its toll on the healthy balance of forest ecosystems. No vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on the ecosystem than the white-tailed deer. According to the Nature Conservancy, many state deer populations are continuing to rise well beyond historical norms. So where is all the harm in a large population of deer? The problem starts with what the deer are grazing on.

Deer feeding on preferential plant species has changed the composition and structure of forests. The Nature Conservancy states that in their opinion, there is no greater threat to forests than overpopulation of deer. They also say that only invasive exotic insects and disease have been comparable in magnitude to the issues forests are facing when there are too many deer.

Here is a map released by Quality Deer Management Association in 2008 depicting whitetail deer density in the United States. The northern part of the West Virginia area has one of the higher whitetail deer densities.

*The legend for the map is as follows: (Deer per square mile)*

  • White = Rare, absent, or urban area with unknown populations.
  • Green = Less than 15
  • Yellow = 15 to 30
  • Tan or Brown = 30 to 45
  • Dark Brown = Greater than 45

The Nature Conservancy also says that cutting down the impact of deer’s plant diet is a key forest restoration strategy and in future it will become necessary in order to help maintain functioning forests in a climate that is already showing signs of warming. It is eye-opening to learn that overpopulation of deer actually has a more of a negative impact on forest ecosystems than the potential consequences of global warming.

Since deer management cannot be regulated at the federal level, the states have the right set their own regulations regarding wildlife. West Virginia specially has made efforts to reform these regulations because of the impact the deer population was having on the states timber production.

According to a report on the negative impacts of high deer population, published by the Office of Legislative Auditor in Charleston, West Virginia, the Division of Natural Resources has pursued a strategy increasing the hunting and fishing opportunities in West Virginia. The state of West Virginia has purchased land specifically dedicated to hunting and have also changed game management polices and increased deer population in the forests.

This is an issue for the state, and the report sees the DNR’s policy of further increasing the states deer population as not being in the best interest for the citizens of West Virginia.

The report claims that scientific research has determined that deer in populations over 20 deer per square mile harm forests saplings due to “over browsing”. The result of this is that these highly concentrated areas with deer are not seeing any regeneration of hardwood forests. Too many deer means negative effects on the state’s wood product industry, farm industry, and the ecological health of West Virginia’s ecosystem. The effects on timber production is the biggest concern for West Virginia because of the amount of money it generates for the economy.

The report says that the economic impact of hunting and fishing in West Virginia is around $200 million dollars annually, which is a fraction of what the wood products industry generates. The timber from West Virginia is worth $1.3 billion annually to the states economy.  They claim that increasing the deer population may have a short term positive economic impact on West Virginia, but in the long term, the growing deer population will dramatically harm West Virginia’s ecosystem balance and the forest economy.

The amount of deer hunted in West Virginia has substantially grown each year. This table gives on idea of the rate at which deer have been harvested, but this still isn’t having much of an impact on slowing the of overpopulation of deer.

In places where deer density exceeds 20 per square mile, plant species such as sugar maple, white ash, tallow poplar, hemlock, pin cherry, oak, and aspen are eliminated from the ecosystem, and with high deer populations continuing to exist in these areas, there is a very slow regeneration of these commercial plant species. West Virginia’s economy is experiencing significant economic losses due to this fact. When an industry generates as much $1.3 billion annually, it is easy to see the concern that state environmentalists and economists have on the relationship between deer population and the declining timber revenue.

The question raised with all of the information in this report is how, or will, the state will come up with an ethical way to reduce the deer population. Simply encouraging more hunting is not going to be a solution that can fix this problem, and the idea of killing of any wildlife animal species in large numbers will have further ramifications on the ecosystem and the entire food chain. The timber industry may need to take a wait and see approach for now to determine whether or not this excess deer population problem will ever be fixed.





3 thoughts on “Deer overpopulation impacting eastern forests in multiple ways

  1. I like that you brought this up, because it is definitely a problem in West Virginia, and many other rural areas on the east coast. I’m from Virginia, and it is definitely a big problem there, especially in my home county. I slightly disagree with you when you say more hunting won’t help fix the problem. Virginia is in the process enacting a solutions similar to this. I understand where you say the idea of killing more animals could also produce a negative effect on the ecosystem as well. I’m not suggesting that we should allow people to go out on massive killing sprees and obliterate the white-tail deer population, but rather come up with some slight changes to the policies on hunting seasons and amount of tags allowed to fill (for people that don’t hunt, this just means the amount of deer you kill in a season. Currently, hunting season for deer is usually in the fall and part of the winter in most states on the east coast. Lawmakers in Virginia have proposed that we extend the hunting season to be a little longer, or make another (shorter) hunting season during parts of the spring or summer. This would allow for us to decrease the population (with out completely demolishing it), and with having two hunting season per year, allow us to manage that population and keep it at a consistent range. I don’t know but about West Virginia, but I’m sure it’s the same, but in Virginia we have a brig problem with deer running out into the middle of the road and causing car accidents to occur. This solution would also help decrease those from occurring.


  2. I really like this post. I think there are a lot of animal species that could be covered for West Virginia. I plan to write about turkey season this coming week and how there has always been some controversy about having two seasons, and then not having two seasons.
    I never really knew we had so many deer until I read a story on it a few years ago. Then I became much more aware of the deer around my area. I think of all the deer I see hit along side the interstate and still can’t believe we are overrun by them. In the past they have allowed hunters to get extra deer, or they have opened up extra hunts. Good post!


  3. I noticed the deer overpopulation in West Virginia when I first moved to Morgantown. I was surprised to see deer walking in the streets at night without being scared of humans. Allowing hunters to get extra deer would help solving this problem, especially that there are a lot of people who like to hunt in West Virginia.


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