Cute ... and dangerous: suburban deer hazards are real - Salish Current
May 30, 2024
Cute … and dangerous: suburban deer hazards are real
Karen Sullivan

Too much of a good thing — including spotted fawns — can mean trouble. (Einar Storsul on Unsplash)

May 30, 2024
Cute … and dangerous: suburban deer hazards are real
Karen Sullivan


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

This article was first published in Rainshadow Journal on May 15, 2024, and is republished here with permission.

Commentary: Port Townsend deer numbers have boomed. What’s it like where you live?

In spring, female deer give birth and anxiously protect their fawns. That gives rise to stories like this: A friend walking her small dog near the post office last week was closely followed for two blocks by a doe that did not respond to the air horn my friend carried for this purpose. The doe aggressively followed her until she ended up in the middle of the road seeking help from traffic, where finally a woman driving a van stopped and offered her a ride home.

A few years ago, a deer knocked down another friend and attacked her Chihuahua mix with its hooves, fatally injuring it. In autumn, bucks can pose a goring threat. I got chased into a church parking lot by a six-point buck who then ran back to the middle of Cherry Street and clashed with an eight-pointer, nearly causing an accident. A lot of residents have similar stories because Port Townsend has an absurdly large deer population that’s not afraid of humans.

Back in 2016, volunteers counted 230 deer in a half-hour survey that did not cover the entire city. Since then, deer numbers have grown. The mayor himself recently counted 49 deer in a 1.5-mile loop walk near his Port Townsend home, and posted his own video of being menaced by an aggressive deer.

Prey animals often seek protection from predators in human-built environments. In Anchorage, Alaska, where I used to live, a wildlife survey conducted after three residents were attacked by brown (grizzly) bears showed that there was even more wildlife than anyone had guessed: 250–300 black bears, 60-plus brown bears, four wolf packs and 1,700 moose lived in or around the city. While we don’t have so many predators, it’s worth remembering that abundant prey can attract them.

Human health issues arise with deer overpopulation. Ungulates are vectors of tick-borne illnesses, and the abundance and distribution of ticks are correlated with deer densities. While tick-borne diseases are relatively rare in Washington state, warming temperatures from climate change are expanding their range. Deer ticks are most active when temperatures are above 45˚F, and they thrive in areas with at least 85% humidity. While west of the Cascades sees very few Lyme cases, climate change and large deer populations are causing concern among health authorities about future increases in tick-borne diseases. 

In an extreme example of disease surge, the State of Maine, with its abnormally large moose population, leads the nation in Lyme disease, with 109.9 reported cases per 100,000 persons in 2021 — a 35% increase from the previous year. That’s more than 10 times the national average, and is considered to be a fraction of the actual number of unreported cases. Adult moose are dying from anemia caused by massive infestations of ticks. That’s not unusual; in 2022, 90% of Maine’s moose calves were killed over the winter by ticks. Biologists counted 47,000 ticks on one calf, and have counted up to 100,000 ticks per adult moose. Each tick can lay up to 2,000 eggs. 

In this region it’s not so much about ticks as it is safety. Bucks and does are capable of aggression and serious injury. On Vancouver Island’s Saanich Peninsula, reports have documented deer “following in hot pursuit” of people walking dogs, and entering yards repeatedly to attack dogs. A news story with a video of a doe attacking a dog in a Saanich neighborhood ought to inform anyone how dangerous these normally quiet, passive, avoidant animals can become.

People love seeing wildlife, and those who feed deer have good intentions. But it’s for a lot of good reasons that wildlife professionals discourage feeding, other than small birds at feeders. It’s often prohibited by agencies, and in 2019, Port Townsend changed its Nuisance Code to prohibit it.

People who feed deer may not realize that they are contributing to public health and safety risks, including attacks by habituated deer, and to an artificially and unsustainably high population. A resident who for years lived next door to what could only be described as a feeding station observed most does having twins or triplets. Triplets are generally produced only in the most excellent conditions. 

Feeding deer, especially young ones, can cause them to lose foraging skills, depend on humans for food, and become habituated. It can create nutrition imbalances. It can also spread disease and incite excessive competition or aggression between animals. During a bad winter, a high deer population could be subjected to a die-off.

Studies show five to 10 people are killed annually in the U.S. by aggressive deer, with many more injured. Regardless of sympathetic “deer were here first” arguments, densely populated residential areas with large deer populations are an invitation to more serious trouble.

By Karen Sullivan

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