A Comprehensive Look Into Deer & Wildlife Management in Arlington County
By President & CEO, Samuel Wolbert, and Chief of Animal Control, Jennifer Toussaint.
Following the concerns of some local citizens, Arlington County recently funded a deer survey to establish a count of our white-tailed deer population. You may have heard that the results of this survey suggest that Arlington County has a “deer problem” with deer levels exceeding higher than healthy amounts.
This, however, is far from the truth.
During the survey, 290 deer were counted, averaging 13 deer per square mile, with more deer in forested areas or stream corridors, and less deer – and even no deer – in segments of more urban density. This makes sense: deer, like all wildlife, will congregate in areas with food and shelter.
The survey, which was undertaken by a company that claims to specialize in “wildlife management”, suggests a sustainable level of 5-15 deer per square mile. This number, often referred to as “carrying capacity,” has no scientific basis (the report itself has studies citing different ranges, and the “5-15 deer per square mile” figure was not backed up with any specific citation). The fact is, determining a “healthy carrying capacity” is a political judgement that is not rooted in biology: some communities, and even areas within a community, will be able to sustain different numbers of deer based on multiple factors, like type and quality of food and cover. There is no one ‘magic’ number that any community should have. Saying Arlington County, with 13 deer per square mile, has too many deer is a political determination and not based on the environment in which the deer are located.
Arlington County appreciates and supports our wildlife neighbors. We should not allow the preference of a few to supersede the will of the majority. In a County engagement presentation on the Forestry and Natural Resources Plan, wildlife conservation scored in the top three categories in which citizens are interested and wildlife observation scored in the top three reasons residents visit our local parks. These survey answers are not surprising: Arlington County, from leadership through its citizenry, is passionate about wildlife.
So then, why do some feel there are too many deer?
Most often, you hear about deer grazing and the resulting destruction of forest understory. It’s easy to blame deer for any forestry growth woes, when the reality is that forests are affected by many factors: insect damage, disease, pollutants (like harsh fertilizers), invasive species, increased foot traffic, climate and weather extremes, over-development…and deer. In fact, a Yale Forestry School study assessing deer impact on forests concluded that deer density within the studied area was not a leading factor in tree regeneration decline nor loss of plant diversity. Deer are just one of many factors – they are not the factor – and should not be made as a scapegoat for larger systemic ecological problems.
Others have expressed concerns about deer as nuisances. AWLA maintains statistical records on wild animal intakes and concerns raised by the community. Following the implementation of an online digital conflict reporting form in November 2020, AWLA received over 650 wildlife concerns. Of those complaints, only 17 related to deer (less than 3%). Similarly, in 2021 AWLA received 2,733 calls for service relating to wildlife, with only 131 calls pertaining to deer (5%). Of those 131 calls, nearly half were resolved through education. (In fact, the most common concern raised by residents was not about adult deer but, rather, the health of orphaned fawns.) If there truly were “too many deer” we, as the County’s wildlife experts, would have more deer-related complaints or issues arising from deer – which is simply not the case.
From our extensive work in humane wildlife management, we know from experience that the issue is not the number of deer but rather the conflicts we have with them. The County’s focus should, therefore, be on managing deer conflicts, not deer numbers. We support Arlington County adopting a practical, humane, and sustainable deer management plan. As the County’s animal resource center, we will continue to work with anyone in the community to create humane deer management solutions that keep our citizens, ecosystem, and wildlife healthy and safe.