Perhaps more than any other animal, the white-tailed deer needs little introduction. We see deer in our yards, feeding in fields and along the highway, and unfortunately, often hit by cars. Some animal lovers feed them, while gardeners scorn them for browsing prized plants. Fall is the season of the hunt and both the hunters and the deer know it.
Deer have remarkable adaptations to outwit predators—human and others. The placement of their eyes, located more on the sides of their head than in front, allows them to see better in their peripheries. Deer have excellent nighttime vision. A special lining in their eyes doubles the amount of light absorbed by the eye. Deer have outstanding hearing—they can pivot their ears to find the direction from which sounds derive. These sensory adaptations, combined with speed and maneuverability allows deer to outwit most predators.
Today the landscape has been ideally shaped for deer. There is a mix of field and forest, which provides ample food and plenty of cover. Nearly all of the deer’s natural predators have been eliminated. Coyotes occasionally take deer, but not to the level of original wolves and cougars. In residential areas human-hunter access and interest can be limited. Humans have, inadvertently, created and ideal landscape for a plethora of deer.
But this was not always the case. In Kentucky deer were nearly extirpated by 1915 from over-hunting and the loss of forest habitat. The state then protected them until 1946. As economies changed, many farms were abandoned and forests returned. Without the pressure of browsing, forests regenerated vigorously. Much of the forest around Floyds Fork initiated following agricultural abandonment around 1900 at a time when there were very few deer.
A deer population, if it is given plenty of food and not hunted, will double approximately every three years. Thus by 1945 there were about 2000 deer in the state. Once a hunting season was reinstated, and coyotes arrived, the population growth rate slowed but was still high as better habitat developed with emerging forests. In 1997 Kentucky’s deer population numbered 450,000 and in 2004 (seven years later) reached 900,000 animals.
Walking the forests of Floyds Fork reveals this story clearly. Many of the deciduous hardwood forests contain several species of oak, ash, sugar maple, and more. Most of these trees are older than 30 or 40 years. There are very few young trees and seedlings of these forage species in many locations. Regeneration in much of the forest is limited. This lack of regeneration affects forest structure—the way many levels of living and dead plants create a diverse, healthy, and in some sense messy forest. Because of intense browsing pressure by deer there is little structure to the understory of the forest. This affects many species of plants and animals, particularly songbirds of which many require specific understory structure for nesting.
The lack of forest recruitment will affect the future as much as the present. Because of intensive deer browsing, the future forest—the array trees that will replace today’s trees—will be lower in diversity and the composition of species will be dramatically different. Deer are selecting out oaks and ash among others. When today’s mature trees die, they’re gone.
The problem, of course, is not the abundance of deer, but turned the other way, it is the lack of predators. Wolves, cougars, and bears once preyed on deer throughout their range and now no longer exist in Jefferson County. Humans were formerly dependent on hunting, but we have found other ways to produce abundant food. We are still, however, dependent on the forest, for wood, clean air and water, wildlife and plants, and recreation. If we want to ensure a forest in the future we have to figure out how to shrink the population of deer. And if deer are anything like us, and you’ve ever walked up to an empty buffet table, they may appreciate it.