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The Southern Oregon Deer Debate

They roam through town in groups of three and four at dusk, or pre-dawn. They hide under bushes at night. They trespass, hopping fences and taking what they want. They’re black-tailed deer, and they’re everywhere.

For residents of just about every town in Southern Oregon, the sight of two or three deer browsing in someone’s yard or languidly crossing a busy street hardly turns a head. In certain “hot spots”--Ashland, Jacksonville, parts of Grant’s Pass and Medford--it goes without saying that if you want a successful garden, you better protect it with a fence.

“Deer come here because even in the dry season, we water, we fertilize, we plant tasty stuff,” says Dr. Michael Parker, Chair of Southern Oregon University’s Biology Department. “We’ve created beautiful habitat for this particular animal.”

In some instances, these peaceful-seeming creatures have grown brazen, intimidating dogs and humans out for their morning strolls. Ashland in particular has been the subject of much debate (and some ridicule) over deer gone not-so-wild.

A perfect storm of conditions spawns ballooning deer populations in a town like Ashland. As development creeps into the hills, land that was once open to hunting becomes a haven. In city limits, leash laws keep dogs in check, and except for the occasional cougar that drops down from the watershed, deer face few, if any predators.

“You see deer with healed broken legs in town,” says Parker. “You never see that in the wild.”

Even if a harsh winter kills many deer, the population can bounce back quickly. With no coyotes or bobcats to prey on them, more fawns survive, and grow up to behead more tulips. But the problem goes beyond munched shrubbery. From a biologist’s perspective, an escalating urban deer population signals a system out of balance. Deer that have lost their innate fear of humans can become aggressive. During the mating season, lovelorn bucks get ornery, and once the fawns come, does will use their sharp hooves to defend them against any perceived threat.

Then there are the vehicle collisions. Between 2001 and 2011, cars killed 250 deer within Ashland city limits. And that number only reflects confirmed deaths.

“Vehicles are killing far more deer than we think,” says Mark Vargas, biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). In 2006 he analyzed data from Jackson County and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). Fifteen hundred deer were hit and killed on county and state highways. That doesn’t include deer killed in cities and towns, or deer that may have survived the initial impact, but stumbled off and died later.

Two diseases that commonly plague deer, adenoviral hemorrhagic disease and hair-loss syndrome, are more prevalent in denser urban populations. Adenovirus spreads via contact with saliva, and causes internal hemorrhaging and mouth lesions. Outbreaks can kill dozens of deer at a time. Hair-loss syndrome, associated with heavy lice infestation, causes hair loss, weight loss, diarrhea and lethargy.

“It doesn’t kill them, but deer can die of exposure if they scratch all their hair off, or get a secondary infection,” says Vargas. Both of these conditions can spread quickly.

Biologists use a term, carrying capacity, to quantify the number of animals a given habitat can support. But there’s also cultural carrying capacity—the number a community will tolerate. That number can be a moving target.

“You have all kinds of mixed emotions in an urban setting,” says Vargas. Where some see a beautiful wild animal, others see an annoying pest. Still others see tasty meat on the hoof.

But how many deer is too many? And what can be done about them?

The Greater Context

Black-tailed deer, a.k.a. Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, are a subspecies of the larger mule deer. They range throughout Western Oregon, including the Cascade and Coast Ranges. Does can live up to 15 years, while bucks generally meet their fate earlier. They’re productive creatures. Does have their first fawns at 18 months old; after that, they usually produce a set of twins every year.

Deer are often called an “edge species.” Adapted to coniferous forests, they take cover in dense canopy to sleep, and move into open areas—clearings created by logging or fire--to browse. Their habits are similar in cities, where they sleep nestled under trees at night, and move on to your rose beds by morning’s light.

Though this may surprise residents of deer-infested towns, the black-tailed deer has been in decline across its range since the late 1970s. A state-wide survey in 1979 estimated the total population at 452,000; the 2004 estimate pegged it at only 320,000. ODFW cites a number of reasons for the decline, loss of habitat and disease chief among them. Vargas says heavy logging in the 20th Century may have artificially increased deer populations.

“We made incredible amounts of deer habitat,” he says. “Then in the 1990s, we started seeing the forests close up.” The Northwest Forest Plan all but halted logging in national forests. After five to ten years, the open patches created by logging started to mature, and no new patches were created. Though logging continued at a clip on private land, timber companies used heavy doses of herbicide to keep understory plants at bay and maximize tree growth. Setting aside the question of whether spraying is a good practice, it makes for less-than-ideal deer habitat.

Southern Oregon’s black-tailed deer population is in better shape than in the rest of the state, thanks in part to strict county land-use codes that protect winter range. In the 1980s, the state charged Oregon counties to protect winter range as part of Goal 5: Protecting natural resources, scenic and historic resources and open spaces. For example, in Jackson County, new parcels on land classified as “Sensitive Winter Range” can’t be smaller than 160 acres, and houses must be clustered near roads.

Vargas has been using cameras to track the deer’s movements in and out of the Rogue Valley for 17 years. Although all black-tailed deer are migratory, Southern Oregon deer cover more ground than deer in other parts of the state. In summer they linger in higher elevations where they have their fawns; in winter they move into the valleys, logging 30 miles or more each year.

In contrast, although bucks sometimes move in and out of city limits during the breeding season, most deer that stake claims in urban areas tend to stay put. And why shouldn’t they? These year-round residents have access to food, water and cover—the three components of good habitat. Couple that with an absence of predators, town deer literally have it made in the shade.

Counting Bambi

In Ashland, deer frequently stop traffic and make headlines in the local paper. Though there are no hard numbers to back it up, residents complain the problem has escalated in recent years. Things reached a crisis point in the summer of 2010, when a doe crashed through the window of Nimbus, a high-end clothing store located downtown. That incident, along with several cougar encounters, prompted the formation of an ad-hoc Wildlife Committee to address urban wildlife issues.

This all-volunteer group included Ashland Mayor John Stromberg and City Councilperson Carol Voison, along with Dr. Parker and retired SOU professor Dr. Frank Lang. Parker helped set up a lecture series and panel discussions on urban wildlife, which were broadcast on public television. The last of these focused on deer.

“People were polarizing,” he says. “We had people that wanted to have an open season to cull the deer, and others who said we love the deer. The one thing absent was information.”

He advised not making any decisions until people understood the nature and extent of the problem. Mayor Stromberg and Councilperson Voison jumped on the idea, and suggested involving the community by taking a “citizen science” approach. And so the Ashland Deer Census was born.

Parker set to work designing a protocol to survey Ashland’s deer population. He divided the town into seven segments based on natural breaks—streets and water drainages—and created routes within each one. All transects were to be walked at once, to minimize the possibility of double-counting.

The first census took place in the fall of 2011. Over 100 volunteers participated, walking assigned transects during the thirty-minute period just after daybreak.

“There was a real cross-section of volunteers,” says Parker, including people on both sides of the issue, Parker’s students and members of the SOU Biology Club. Volunteers reported the location of every deer they saw. They were clustered in predictable places: near stream drainages, at the edges of town, at the interface between neighborhoods and the Ashland Watershed, and near Lithia and North Mountain Parks. Extrapolating the data, Parker and his students came up with a total population estimate of around 300.

Parker had scheduled the first spring census for May of 2012, but an impassioned email debate between the feed ’em and shoot ‘em factions blew up when the Ashland Daily Tidings reported the story. Riled residents threatened to sabotage the survey, so Parker cancelled it. The census has taken place each fall and spring since, but with reduced media coverage and fewer volunteers.

Just Ask Nicely…

The big question, of course, is what to do with the data. Assuming there’s consensus that the deer population in Ashland exceeds both natural and cultural carrying capacity, then what?

When it comes to driving numbers down, or mitigating the damage deer cause, there are only a handful of strategies available, many of them too expensive to implement on a large scale. People living outside of city limits have more options, especially on larger acreages. Landowners can host hunters, or apply for kill permits to protect agricultural crops. Cities can apply for kill permits, too, but they’re beholden to citizens. Some communities have made it clear they will not tolerate killing, or only allow it as a last resort if an animal is a persistent threat. That leaves non-lethal strategies: fencing and deterrents, hazing (scaring deer away), trapping and relocating, and birth control.

Believe it or not, some people deliberately feed deer. (At one time, recall both Parker and Lang, The Grange Co-op even sold “deer chow.”) One noteworthy accomplishment of Ashland’s all-volunteer Wildlife Committee was to champion AMC 9.08.280, known informally as the Wildlife Feeding Ban. Under this new city ordinance, which Lang and Parker essentially co-wrote, people who knowingly distribute, provide or store food to attract wildlife--deer, bears, cougars, coyotes, wolves and wild turkeys--face heavy fines.

“People have come back to us and said, this ordinance is marvelous because we can finally say to these people, you absolutely can’t do this,” says Parker. Of course, an ordinance such as this only works if violators are sniffed out (and reported), and doesn’t address involuntary feeding—rotting apples, tender roses and other delicacies  inadvertently offered in unfenced yards.

Deterrents work, but must be applied faithfully (for those in the market, Vargas recommends Liquid Fence.) Actual fences work, too, but some cities restrict fence height for aesthetic reasons. In 2012, in response to rising complaints about deer, the City of Ashland raised the maximum allowable fence height to eight feet. Since then, the number and variety of fences around town has multiplied almost as quickly as fawns in summer.

“The people who benefit most from the new ordinance are the fence-builders,” quips Lang, but he also admits fences have changed deer’s movements and distribution—no doubt putting more pressure on yards without them.

If fencing only shifts deer around, and the wildlife feeding ban depends on enforcement, why not simply relocate deer to the wild? Vargas, who regularly fields calls from people wanting ODFW to move deer, says it’s a “bad idea.”

“Animals have incredible homing instincts,” he says. “If [a deer] doesn’t come back it’s because it’s been eaten by a predator or shot by a hunter or run over by a car.” Studies reveal that about half of relocated deer dies from stress related to moving them. Moving deer also potentially spreads diseases. And it’s expensive. One deer management guide estimates the cost of relocation at between $400 to $3000 per animal. Contraception is also expensive and impractical, except perhaps in areas with discrete boundaries. That leaves the more controversial, lethal methods of control: hunting and/or hiring sharp-shooters to cull populations.

A Black and White Issue

Most states east of the Rockies have been grappling with an overabundance of white-tailed deer. After reaching all-time lows in the 1990s, white-tailed deer populations have been exploding, and number over 15 million today. (Some estimates put that number closer to 30 million.) Biologists agree that densities of 10 to 20 animals per square mile are acceptable. In areas with severe deer problems, densities exceed 60. A combination of factors—an absence of predators, “safe” zones where hunting isn’t allowed, declining numbers of hunters and the creation of prime urban habitat like parks--has fueled the explosion.

In some places, over-browsing threatens native plants, and reduced understory vegetation means fewer nesting places for songbirds. As hosts for parasites like ticks, white-tails are also partly to blame for the spread of Lyme’s disease. And deer-vehicle collisions cause injuries, loss of life and millions of dollars in damage every year.

Wildlife agencies have been using hunting as a management tool since the early 1900s. But in the last few decades, many communities have turned to “urban hunts,” usually archery hunts, to drive down densities of white-tailed deer. In a typical pattern, one pioneering town will institute a hunt; after a few years, others in the region follow suit. Towns in one plagued Connecticut county formed the Fairfield County Deer Alliance, to collaborate on strategies and share information.

Though regulations vary, most archery hunts follow a similar template. Towns designate certain public-owned parcels for hunting; in addition, private landowners can grant hunters access to their property. Hunts are held for a discrete, usually short, time period, and the excess venison is often donated to food banks. Hunters must only kill does, or must kill x number of does before they can shoot a buck. They construct platforms from which to shoot, which lowers the likelihood of a stray arrow hitting an unintended target. Hunters must also take a safety training prior to the hunt, acquire permits for specific parcels, and seek permission from adjacent landowners to track their quarry across property lines.

Though more and more towns are adopting them, there is some debate as to whether urban hunts actually put a dent in populations. Some towns with extreme deer problems employ sharp-shooters to quickly reduce numbers, and follow the initial cull with annual hunts. Sharpshooters are professionals who set up bait stations to attract deer. Once the deer become acclimated, the sharpshooters use nets or pens to trap them, then shoot them as quickly and humanely as possible. Usually the meat goes to food banks and homeless shelters.

Last year sharpshooters took to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where deer densities have soared to over 70 per square mile, and this year a major culling program is slated to begin on Long Island, which, if implemented will eventually “remove” 3,000 animals. But not without controversy: in early 2014 hunters and animal rights activists joined forces in an unsuccessful attempt to block the plan with a lawsuit.

These culling efforts are akin to calling an exterminator, says Parker. “It’s not savory at all, and has nothing in common with sport hunting.” But cities with escalating deer-vehicle impacts and rates of Lyme’s Disease are faced with hard choices.

A Dramatic Approach

With more and more communities accepting hunting as the key to managing their urban deer populations, is it just a matter of time before bow-hunters share Lithia Park with drum circles? For now, answers range from Not necessarily to No way. Councilperson Voisin vehemently denies that the deer census represents the first step to a hunt. Vargas says that while the concept of an archery hunt may sound more sporting than the alternatives, the reality is hard to imagine, especially in a town like Ashland.

“When you shoot something with a bow and arrow, let’s face it—the animal bleeds to death, and it takes anywhere from a minute to an hour,” he says. “Do you want a deer that’s bleeding to death running through town?” Parker is also skeptical, and believes the number of deer that would have to be killed to impact the population is simply too high.

“If you start hunting them intensively in one area, they just move somewhere else,” he says, citing urban hunts of mule deer in other parts of the West. Besides, he adds, the Ashland watershed will just feed more deer into town. For a hunt to be effective, it would have to happen every year.

“Is there a way to use hunting and culling in localized areas to ease the impact of deer in the urban environment? Maybe. But it would have to be very carefully thought out, and involve an open discussion in this city.”

Ashland being a theater town, it’s no surprise some have turned to the arts to explore the issue. Ashland resident Karen Nollenberger calls deer an “awful, beautiful pest,” and her neighborhood—the area around High Street, just northwest of Lithia Park—Deer Alley. Several of her neighbors have erected fences to protect their gardens, and formed an informal network, calling each other when deer are on the move, especially aggressive mamas with fawns.

In 2011, she and her neighbors decided to use Ashland’s Fourth of July Parade to raise awareness about the deer problem—and vent a little frustration. The theme of the parade was “Vounteers: the Heart of Ashland.” After some brainstorming, Nollenberger and co. became the Volun-deers, and recruited neighbors and friends to craft deer costumes, come up with clever signage and aliases, and practice their dance moves.

“We had signs on both sides,” says Nollenberger, aka Jane Doe. On the big day, 44 deer and one cougar paraded through downtown, bearing signs that read “Fear the Deer,” “Cheer the Deer,” and “Who’s Watching Your Garden?” and handing out flowers as a mock mea culpa. The Volun-deers won the coveted Best Neighborhood Entry award that year.

After the parade, other organizations called to tap the group, says Kim Whalley, or “Deerdre.” Sixteen Volun-deers took the stage for the Daedalus Project, and they crashed the Halloween Parade with their interpretation of #Occupy Ashland. But the one thing they refused to do was take a stand on either side of the debate.

“That’s what was so fun about playing these characters,” says Whalley. “People wanted us to say yay or nay, and we wouldn’t do it.” 

Many of the Volun-deers participate in Ashland’s deer census, and understand the problem all too well. Nollenberger says she and her neighbors have used a range of tactics to convince the animals their neighborhood is not a deer-friendly place.

“We yell and we chase, but they realize we’re not a danger to them,” she says. “They learn. You have to match wits with them.” She’s seen deer browse amid sprinkler spray, and prancing bucks shrug off tossed Frisbees. She’s even witnessed deer crawl under fences. Still, neither she nor Whalley advocate a hunt, even if they don’t necessarily have a better idea.

“We recognize the issue, even if we don’t have a solution,” says Whalley. “We can at least start a conversation.”

Predators R Us?

Our relationship to wild animals is a complicated, often passionate topic. Like it or not, humans rank alongside cougars as one of the black-tailed deer’s top predators. But as more people crowd into cities, fewer people view themselves as such, preferring instead to see themselves as friends to wildlife. Nationwide, hunting is on the decline, especially among young people. Agencies worry that there won’t be enough hunters coming up the ranks to replace the older ones. Oregon is no exception, although Vargas says the state has been more successful than others at recruiting young hunters. After so many years, he has adopted a philosophical attitude toward urban deer issues.

“I get calls about deer from Ashland, Jacksonville, Eagle Point, Grant’s Pass--most people want something done for them,” he says. “Well, we are doing something; we’re giving advice.” He doesn’t see the problem changing in any of these communities as they grow. So he takes every opportunity to pound the message home: Build fences. Chase deer away. And whatever you do, don’t feed them. “People have kind hearts. But when you’re nice to wild animals, and they get used to you and come closer, that’s when problems happen.”

He and Parker agree that Nature will have the “last bat.” If humans won’t cull the population to something closer to natural levels, disease likely will. Until and unless that happens, many towns will just have to live with their deer. In those cases, education is the most powerful weapon. Voison believes going into neighborhoods and talking with people one-on-one works, but says the Wildlife Committee—which is not sanctioned or sponsored by the City of Ashland--is limited in what it can do.

“We know [education] works,” she says. “We’ve tried it. We don’t have the resources, but the City does.” She and Parker both express frustration that the City of Ashland hasn’t done more to address the issue, and believes only public outcry will prompt action.

Meanwhile, the deer census will continue. Last fall’s counts were down, but there were also fewer volunteers covering transects. Another one is scheduled for April of this year. Parker plans to keep coordinating the survey; in fact, he and Voison recently recruited a new crop of volunteers after visiting a “hot spot”—an Ashland neighborhood popular with the ungulate crowd.

“It’s been an interesting and gratifying project, because so many people want to contribute,” says Parker, adding that the Ashland is one of the few places in the country with a monitoring program. “You have to stick with it. After five years, people start taking notice.”

Juliet Grable writes about green building, watersheds, and other issues affecting natural and human communities. (Not that humans aren't natural, of course.) She lives in the Southern Cascades with her partner Brint and cat Henri.


ODFW www.dfw.state.or.us