Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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Clark County residents learn to share backyards with deer

Shy, graceful creatures forced closer to people as habitat disappears

By , Columbian staff writer
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Columbian black-tailed deer browse shrubs, trees, grasses, nuts, fruits and garden crops. Feeding them anything else can make them ill or kill them.
Columbian black-tailed deer browse shrubs, trees, grasses, nuts, fruits and garden crops. Feeding them anything else can make them ill or kill them. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) Photo Gallery

My newest neighbors are four-legged, furry and — to use the latest scientific terminology — totes adorbs.

This year, a doe and her fawns began nosing through my yard several times each day. They meander down the block, silently exploring other yards. Occasionally the energetic fawns start leaping and chasing around. Their calm mom hurries up only when there’s a sudden disturbance, like a car approaching on the street or even a curious observer appearing in a doorway.

Deer live all around us — as invisibly as possible — in suburban and even urban Clark County, said wildlife biologist Stephanie Bergh of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Black-tailed deer are everywhere in Vancouver,” Bergh said. “Anywhere they can make a living.”

They do that by browsing shrubs, trees, grasses, nuts, fruits and garden crops, then bedding in tall grasses or nearby woods. Deer are often called an edge species because they hang out on ragged fringes of our orderly landscapes, the transition zones with both greenery to nibble and dense cover in which to disappear.

There’s nothing new about deer in this area, Bergh said. What’s new is us taking over the landscape in ever increasing numbers.

More information

On the web

All about Washington deer (background information, creating habitat, avoiding problems): wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living/species-facts/deer

Landscape plants that deer do and don’t like to eat: wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2019-03/living-with-deer-tables-1-2_0.pdf

Why not to feed deer and elk: wdfw.wa.gov/sites/default/files/2021-09/deer_feeding_brochure_final.pdf

On the phone

Wildlife emergency or threat? Call 911.

Nonemergency wildlife problem? Call 877-933-9847.

Ridgefield office of Washington Fish & Wildlife: 360-686-6211.

“Green spaces and woods — that’s absolutely deer habitat,” Bergh said. “It’s being lost to development. There is so much development and so much infill.”

Two patches of forest were leveled within earshot of my Felida home earlier this year, making (noisy) way for construction of new housing developments. That’s precisely when local deer went from visitors to residents of my block.

While Columbian black-tailed deer are the species usually spotted in and around cities and suburbs in Western Washington, Bergh said there’s no good method for estimating their population. The only meaningful numbers regarding local black-tailed deer are annual hunting tallies, which have been stable in recent years. (Endangered white-tailed deer have enjoyed a resurgence in and around the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge thanks to reintroduction efforts.)

“We don’t do surveys for deer in urban areas,” she said. “I don’t know how we would count them. They live in the forest and the brush. They’re very secretive. They’re not going to come out and let you see them.”

But that may be changing as deer and people get increasingly accustomed to sharing neighborhood turf. And since habitat is shrinking fast these days, making your yard a more natural habitat for deer isn’t a bad idea, Bergh said.

“People love to watch wildlife. Watching deer in your own yard can be really fun,” Bergh said.

Just be aware that there are right and wrong ways to coexist with deer.

Corn = cardboard

The wrong way, Bergh said, is feeding deer anything the landscape doesn’t naturally provide. The growing tips of trees, shrubs and grasses are ideal deer food. Well-intended supplements are unnecessary, even harmful.

“We very strongly discourage feeding deer,” she said. “It can literally kill the deer to feed them foods that aren’t from their natural sources.”

Deer tend to grind and yank at twigs and shoots, leaving evidence behind in the form of a ragged “browse line” no higher than 4 feet. Twigs that look ripped and torn rather than bitten cleanly are a telltale sign of deer.

But deer are not picky eaters. They’ll gladly gobble up treats that seem healthy and wholesome to us, like corn, apples, alfalfa, potatoes, bread, even peanut butter. But those foods are bad for them.

Despite a complicated assemblage of four stomachs, deer have a tough time extracting nutrients from anything but woody roughage. Too much sweet or starchy food can make them ill or even kill them.

“It’s about the same as people eating cardboard,” Bergh said. “We could physically do it, but it wouldn’t be good.”

Specially formulated deer pellets are equally bad, she added. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife discourages people from feeding deer in any way other than letting them browse on natural brush.

But Fish and Wildlife does encourage the creation of healthy habitat for deer and other creatures. The agency’s extensive list of native trees, shrubs and flowers that are compatible with deer’s complicated tummies includes local landscape favorites like vine maple, blackberry, oak, Doug fir and red cedar.

Town deer

Beyond loading them up with undigestible food, there are other reasons why encouraging deer to depend on people is a bad idea, Bergh said. Concentrating deer at feeders or water features can spread disease and draw predators like cougars, bears, coyotes and even domestic dogs.

It also encourages deer to make themselves at home in our hazardous built landscape.

“We see a lot of town deer get into precarious situations,” she said. “They get stuck in fences. They get stuck in buckets. They get dog chew toys stuck in their mouths. When somebody calls you about a deer with a toilet seat stuck around its neck, that’s not good.”

Dogs on the loose are a frequent reason why running-scared deer get hit by cars, Bergh said. Worst of all, it’s not uncommon for Fish and Wildlife to take calls about deer that have been shot with arrows, still alive and suffering.

Call 911 if you’re experiencing a genuine wildlife emergency or danger. If it’s a less-pressing problem (including an injured or stuck animal) call WILDCOMM, Fish and Wildlife’s enforcement program, at 877-933-9847.

Creatures of habit

Deer don’t get around much. It’s typical for black-tailed deer to range only within limited home turf — an area only as large as 3 square miles and perhaps as small as half a mile — and to retrace the same routes and pathways over and over again. It’s easy to spot their footpaths, which look like people paths.

Deer aren’t adventurous. They don’t usually stray far from easy hiding places like shrubbery and stands of trees. But they’ll also hang out in wide-open green spaces that stay relatively quiet and undisturbed, like parks and golf courses. Big patches of matted-down grass indicate their sleeping spots.

Deer may go browsing at any time of day or night, but they’re generally crepuscular — that is, most active at dawn and dusk. Family groups usually consist of a doe and her fawns. Bucks (males) are, as they say, rolling stones.

Deer are sensitive to the slightest movement and have excellent noses. To watch them, stay very still and downwind. And good luck with that.

Fences, friends

If your deer-friendly feelings stop at the edge of your flower or vegetable garden, a tall, sturdy fence is your best bet.

“Preventing deer damage is a big concern … and the research leans heavily on the concept of 9-foot-tall fencing to keep them out of areas where they are not wanted,” Erika Johnson, coordinator of the WSU Clark County Extension Master Gardener program, said in an email. “Of course, this can get expensive fast.”

Fences aren’t effective unless they’re sufficiently strong, tall and flush against the ground, according to Fish and Wildlife’s detailed online discussion of living with deer and preventing conflicts.

“Deer will wander the perimeter of the area until they’ve found an opening,” the webpage states. “Incredibly, deer will try to either crawl under or squeeze through a fence before jumping over it.”

In Hockinson, gardener Karen Palmer has reached a compromise with local deer.

“We decided early on not to fence our entire cultivated property, but rather to learn to get along with nature,” she said.

Palmer installed limited fencing around critical garden areas, and uses chicken-wire cages around young starts. To protect her favorite ornamental flowers, she sprays them with nontoxic Liquid Fence, which adds a garlic-and-sulfur reek that’s even more repellent to deer noses than to human ones.

But Liquid Fence and other repellents need frequent reapplications and deer get used to them, Johnson said. The same goes for scare tactics like scarecrows, bright flashes and loud noises.

“Noises and flashy things … only work until the deer discover that they aren’t too big a concern,” Johnson said.

In the end, Palmer said she figures that sacrificing some plants is the price of befriending deer.

“We find that the pleasure of getting visits … makes up for the extra headache of finding a plant nibbled almost to the ground,” she said.

“The deer who visit our yard grew up here, probably first came here as babies with their mom, know my voice and know that I am not going to hurt them,” Palmer said. “They just sort of look at me with a ‘Yeah, yeah, I know you don’t want me to eat this plant’ look, and then mosey on.”