Deer vs gardens – Adirondack Explorer

Although numbers are sparse overall in the Adirondacks, deer are gaining ground in populations centers

By Mike Lynch

Tired of the invasions, Jay resident Joe Dumoulin built a 7-foot-tall fence to protect his property in Ausable Acres from deer.

“I was just so pissed at these deer, always beating me,” he said. “So, I finally won, but it was an extensive effort.”

Deer have been visiting the Dumoulins’ property since his family moved there full-time in 1993. Over time, visits increased in frequency, and the animals became more aggressive in eating shrubs and plants, such as rhododendrons.

Dumoulin’s story is common for people who have gardens in the Adirondacks, elsewhere in the state and many parts of the U.S., where deer populations have overlapped with human ones. 

In the village of Saranac Lake, deer roam year-round, munching on sunflowers, devouring pumpkins off porches at Halloween and snacking on birdseed in the winter. They eat just about any ornamental and natural vegetation that isn’t fenced off. 

Saranac Lake resident Gail Brill is one of those people who has grown frustrated, as the ungulates have eaten everything from rhubarb to horseradish on her property. 

“On a regular basis, you can see seven deer walking around the neighborhood,” she said. “They’re not afraid of people at all.”

She fenced off the gardens but the deer managed to get through. She spent hundreds of dollars on repellents, but they offered little success. Now she lets her dog out when deer come around. 

Dan Spada lives outside the village of Tupper Lake next to a 40-acre woodlot. Deer have been visiting since he moved there in 1980. 

“Any kind of shrubbery or plants that you planted in your garden—vegetable plants or ornamentals—you’ve got to do something to protect them, otherwise, the deer will just lay waste to everything,” he said. 

He’s had success with a commercial deer repellent in recent years that has to be reapplied every couple of weeks regularly. 

“Literally you miss the day, and they are there that night,” he said. 

A question of density

These anecdotes about deer thriving in residential areas contradict population data that indicate the animals are still mostly sparse in the region, at least toward the park’s forested interior. 

“The Adirondacks has some of the lowest deer densities in the state,” said DEC wildlife biologist Jim Stickles, who said the DEC doesn’t maintain deer population estimates. 

A 2022 scientific paper, whose authors included DEC wildlife biologists and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) staff, analyzed winter deer populations and distribution in the Adirondack Park.

Based on aerial surveys, they estimated there were about 16,000 deer living in the region and that 90% of the park had densities of less than two deer per square kilometer. But that number increased, sometimes as high as 5.73 per square kilometer in places.

The paper stated some of the highest densities were in the southern and eastern parts of the park. Densities can be more than 10 times greater in other parts of the state. 

Deer harvest totals for the state support Stickles’ assessment. Only 32,642 of the deer killed by hunters or for management purposes in 2022 took place in the northern zone, which contains the Adirondack Park. Statewide 231,961 were taken. 

But Stickles said there are some areas of the park with too many deer, and those tend to be where habitat is good, the winter is more hospitable and hunting is limited. That includes some residential and agricultural areas.

man with deer fence
Joe Dumoulin installed a 7-foot fence to protect his plants from deer at his Jay residence. Photo by Mike Lynch

A hometown connection

Deer have become drawn to residential areas over the years.

There are multiple reasons for that. 

A key factor is that there is an abundance of easily accessible food.

Along with gardens, residential areas have the edge habitat that deer like. Developed areas tend to have open spaces for browsing that meet with nearby forests, where they can retreat from predators. 

“There’s lots for them to browse in early successional stage forests,” said Mark Lesser, an associate professor of environmental science at SUNY Plattsburgh, who has studied the impacts of deer on forests. “Tree seedlings, grasses and shrubs in that open area are really good for browsing.” 

In addition, residents in some places like Old Forge have fed deer, although that has been curtailed since feeding was banned statewide about 20 years ago. Residential areas are also safe grounds because hunting is limited or banned. 

Deer benefit from living in developed areas during the winter, a season that has historically been tough for them. Plowed roads and open areas can be easier to travel than snow-covered forest floors. Climate change may also be playing a role. Historically, deer migrate 10 to 20 miles in the spring and fall, when they are seeking winter habitat to survive. The cold winters and deep snows kept populations low. 

Adirondack deer populations evolved to retreat to wintering grounds in lower-elevation forests with coniferous trees, which provide cover from snow. 

A 2008 study by SUNY ESF faculty members, including Jeremy Hurst, now a DEC wildlife biologist, found that some deer had abandoned traditional wintering locations in favor of residential areas. The authors speculated deer may have found them while exploring during “relatively mild winters.”

Brian Underwood is a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct faculty member at SUNY ESF. He said there is a growing number of “sedentary” deer in the interior Adirondacks, especially when compared with those that lived there a couple of decades ago. 

“I’d say the vast majority of those (past) deer were migratory,” Underwood said. “I suspect that has changed substantially.” 

A population boom? 

Although the Adirondack herd is growing modestly, except for a few areas, there are several factors that could increase their numbers. 

“I think the deer population will increase simply because the severity of the winter is lessened,” Underwood said. “In general, the overall trend and abundance across the Adirondacks will likely be higher than it ever was.”

Long, cold snowy winters, like the 1969–70 season, can be deer killers. That one cut the region’s herd by 50%, Underwood said.

But there haven’t been similar winters in recent years. 

“These factors that have historically kept your populations in check in areas like the Adirondacks and Catskills are no longer as present or severe,” said DEC wildlife biologist Brendan Quirion during an Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program webinar last October. “We haven’t experienced a severe winter in the Adirondacks for eight or nine years now, and that has also allowed our populations to grow beyond what is historical.”

The Adirondacks also have no apex predators, such as cougars and wolves. DEC relies on hunters to manage deer populations. 

Hunters don’t cull the herd as much as they could, with rules and tradition focused on targeting bucks for their larger size and antlers. Scientists say killing female deer is key to keeping down populations.

Statewide deer harvest numbers show about 232,000 deer were taken in 2022, nearly five times as many as in the 1950s.

However, of those deer killed in 2022, less than half—or 100,700 animals—were females. In the northern zone, hunters killed 22,894 males compared to 9,748 females. 

One reason for the disparity within the park is that state law bans DEC from issuing deer management permits (DMPs) within much of the park. DMPs, to control populations, are for females and bucks with antlers less than three inches long. 

“This is going to be a major problem for us moving forward, especially as climate change and fewer severe winters allow for population growth in the Adirondacks and North Country,” Quirion said. 

The DEC does have authority to modify archery and muzzleloader seasons, when female deer can be taken, within the park. It can cancel, limit or expand such hunts.

The DEC can also issue deer damage permits—allowing deer to be killed outside normal hunting seasons—to individuals or communities or use its deer management assistance program to address localized, property-specific problems.

deer eating leaves
A deer browses on
an eastern white cedar
in Saranac Lake.
Photo by Mike Lynch

Consequences

Deer can have a significant impact on natural systems because of their appetites.

The National Park Service has documented that many of its Eastern parks lack adequate tree regeneration due to decades of browsing by deer. 

In the Adirondacks, that impact isn’t as great overall but deer have devoured vegetation in places. The Lake George watershed, Champlain Valley and town of Keene are areas where Zach Simek, an invasive specialist with The Nature Conservancy, has seen forest understories devoid of vegetation. “There’s visible browse lines and browse impacts,” he said. Those areas, which look like they’ve been cut by a hedge trimmer, can also be seen around many lakes, including Middle Saranac Lake.

When deer eat all or most of the natural vegetation, they create opportunities for more aggressive invasive plants to take hold. In some cases, they leave behind invasives that aren’t palatable to them. Japanese barberry and garlic mustard are two species that scientists have documented deer avoiding. “We often find (garlic mustard) in recreational areas such as trailheads, campgrounds and along the edges of hiking trails, but you can find it in some undisturbed forest understories as well,” said Simek.

Deer can spread invasives by distributing their seeds after feasting on plants such as invasive bittersweet. 

In addition, the 2022 study of winter deer populations noted that herds could eventually overlap with moose and spread diseases to the larger mammals. Deer carry parasites and can spread chronic wasting disease. 

Deer ticks are also known to spread diseases to humans. 

“You’re going to now have a lot of disease propagation, principally Lyme disease and some of the more serious tick-related illnesses, because now people are going to be interacting more with deer, especially in those villages and areas where both people and deer cohabitate,” USGA’s Underwood said.

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