It's happened to many drivers and might have happened to you, too. You're on a dark, suburban road, when all of a sudden something leaps out directly in front of you. Before you have a chance to think, you slam on the brakes and find yourself face-to-face with a wide-eyed, startled deer.
As your heart races, you can't help asking yourself, "What if there was a car right behind me? What if the road was icy and I skidded into oncoming traffic? What if I hit the deer and it came flying through the windshield?"
Sadly, hundreds of people die every year in deer-related car accidents. In fact, the number of fatal crashes with deer and other animals has more than doubled in the past 15 years -- in fact, there were 223 fatalities in 2007 [source: Bruce]. According to statistics from State Farm insurance, an estimated 1.5 million vehicles collide with deer every year in the United States, causing $1.1 billion in property damage [source: CNN Money].
One of the most amazing statistics is that deer-car accidents increase in frequency during the last three months of the year. In Charlottesville, Va., for example, there were 81 deer-related accidents from January to September 2008. In 2007, there were 93 accidents during the months of October, November and December alone [source: Shenk].
Some people think that the increase in car accidents is directly related to the start of hunting season. The logic is that hunters scare deer out of their natural habitats and onto the roads. The real reason for so many accidents has much more to do with mating season -- not hunting season -- and a dangerous overpopulation of deer in many suburban areas.
Even when pursued by a hunter or other predator, a deer will rarely leave its home territory [source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources]. In the late fall, however, deer begin straying far from their homes in search of potential mates. This seasonal wandering instinct is what causes deer to cross paths more frequently with humans.
Exacerbating the problem is that deer populations in many suburban areas are out of control. Deer thrive in suburban developments, where they can feed heartily on rich plants and flowers and seek cover in small patches of forest. Other than humans, few predators exist in the suburbs, allowing deer numbers to boom.
Many deer hunters believe that they are performing a valuable service by thinning unrestrained deer populations. But is that really true? Does conventional deer hunting reduce overall deer populations and lead to fewer deer-car accidents? We'll explore that issue in the next section.
Hunting as Population Control
The truth is that conventional deer hunting, also known as trophy hunting, doesn't lower the total deer population. This is because the goal of the trophy hunter is to kill mature male deer, or bucks (with large antlers), not female deer, or does. A single buck can breed with many does, as many as 20 in pen conditions [source: Bradley]. This means that even if you kill two or three bucks from the same breeding territory, the remaining bucks will pick up the slack.
Also, in many states it's illegal to shoot younger males -- also capable of breeding -- so the harvesting of mature bucks doesn't make a significant dent in the total deer population.
In fact, it can be argued that the selective harvesting of bucks can actually lead to increases in the overall number of deer [source: Alcorn]. Here's the logic: When breeding deer in a farm setting, the male/female ratio at birth is 1:1. That means that in a wild setting, where bucks and does experience the same natural pressures -- food scarcity, disease, non-human predators -- the ratio of male to female should also remain a relatively constant 1:1.
The targeted hunting of bucks throws off that ratio, creating situations where the estimated buck-to-doe ratio in the wild can get as high as 1:8 [source: Alcorn]. This skewed male/female ratio is important when winter arrives and food supplies in much of the country become scarce. Every year, a certain percentage of a deer herd will succumb to the winter die-off. It's nature's way of weeding out the weaker animals and maintaining a sustainable population [source: Richey].
If a herd enters the winter die-off with a male/female ratio of 1:1, then you'd expect it to emerge with the ratio more or less intact. The same is true for a herd with a ratio of 1:8. Let's say there's only enough food in the herd's territory to support 450 deer. In the 1:1 herd, 225 does and 225 bucks would live through the winter. In the 1:8 example, 400 does and only 50 bucks would survive.
When June rolls around, let's say the 1:1 herd produces an average of 1.4 fawns per doe (67 percent of mature does have twins), creating 315 new fawns [source: Bradley]. In the 1:8 herd, 1.4 fawns per doe will create a whopping 560 new fawns. In other words: fewer bucks means more females will produce more babies.
If trophy hunting isn't the most effective way to control deer population and reduce deer-car accidents, then what is? Keep reading to find out.
Effective Methods for Controlling Population and Reducing Accidents
While conventional hunting is ineffective for controlling deer populations and reducing deer-car accidents, that isn't true for all types of hunting. Harvesting bucks won't lower the number of fawns that are born in the spring, but hunters can effectively keep the population down by targeting does [source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources].
Many state fish and game departments have implemented what are called quality deer management programs to reestablish a healthy male-to-female ratio within wild deer herds [source: Delaware Wild Lands]. As part of these programs, buck hunting is severely restricted in many areas, and special "antlerless" hunts have been created to harvest female deer.
In the suburbs, where deer have become an annoyance as well as deadly threats to drivers, special bowhunts, sharpshooter hunts and other managed hunts have been authorized to take down female deer without putting the neighborhood at risk from stray gunfire. The state of Maryland claims that lethal car-deer accidents have declined by more than half in Montgomery County since the implementation of managed deer hunts [source: Maryland Department of Natural Resources].
Animal rights advocates argue that there are effective alternatives to "lethal deer management" [source: Humane Society USA]. Land management is a good place to start. The very nature of suburbs makes them prime real estate for deer. Deer thrive on an unnaturally abundant diet of plants, flowers and grasses that are not available in the wild.
If people want to keep deer off their lawns and out of their streets, then they can start by landscaping with plants that deer don't like and designing suburban developments with more trees and less lawns [source: In Defense of Animals].
Another non-lethal method, which has been used with some success, is injecting does with a temporary contraceptive called porcine zona pellucida (PZP). In a PZP trial by the National Institute of Standards and Technology from 1997 to 2000, they were able to cut the number of annual births by 72 percent [source: NIST]. In a suburban experiment, the contraceptive was used in New York's Fire Island National Seashore to reduce an intrusive deer population by 60 percent [Source: Kirkpatrick]. Given time, perhaps scientists will be able to refine these methods and develop other ways to keep deer safely away from the roadways.
For even more information on hunting, wild animals and the great outdoors, follow the great links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Top 5 Tips for Safe Hunting
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- How Wolf Hunting Works
- How Predator Hunting Works
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- How Hunting Preserves Work
- How Bow Hunting Works
- How Internet Hunting Works
- How Food Plots Work
- What is still hunting?
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More Great Links
- Alcorn, Jeremy. Vegan Vanguard. "Hunting as a Method of Population Control"http://www.veganvanguard.com/positions/hunting_population_control.html
- Bradley, Darrin. IMB Monster Bucks. "What is the Whitetail Deer?"http://www.imbmonsterbucks.com/info.php?id=49
- Bruce, Becky. "Accidents involving animals increasingly fatal to humans." Oct. 31, 2008. (Dec. 11, 2008).http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=4671612
- CNN Money. "Worst 10 states for auto-deer collisions." Nov. 4, 2005.http://money.cnn.com/2005/11/04/news/newsmakers/deer/index.htm
- Delaware Wild Lands. "Deer Management"http://www.delawarewildlands.org/deer.htm
- Hotton, L. Dennis. Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Deer Hunting: An Effective Management Tool." 2004.http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/deerhuntastool.asp
- The Humane Society of the United States. "HSUS Awards $1000 to Metroparks Deer Preservation Council." December 6, 2002.http://www.hsus.org/press_and_publications/press_releases/hsus_awards_1000_to_metroparks_deer_preservation_council.html
- In Defense of Animals. "Deer Population Control"http://www.idausa.org/facts/deercontrol.html
- Kirkpatrick, Jay F. PNC Project for Wildlife Contraception. "Response to PA Game Commission." January 2007http://www.pzpinfo.org/home.html
- National Institute of Standards and Technology. "Deer immunocontraception at NIST." May 2005http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/factsheet/deer.htm
- Richey, Dave. Traverse City Record-Eagle. "Weather's effects on winter deer." November 16, 2008http://www.record-eagle.com/sports/local_story_321094322.html
- Shenk, Scott. Charlottesville Daily Progress. "It's deer (vs. car) season once again." Oct. 11, 2008.http://www.dailyprogress.com/cdp/news/local/article/its_deer_vs_car_season_once_again/29352/