Oh, those white-tailed deer: the wide-eyed, long-legged, forest creatures seem like pets to so many of us here in Virginia – even in Arlington. And, throughout the state, we really kind of have adopted them as our own. In fact, ‘Virginia deer’ is another common name for these plant-eating, non-territorial animals.
This name for them isn’t surprising, either. White-tailed deer are about as native to Virginia as you could imagine, having lived alongside humans on the East Coast for centuries. So, even if you’ve only lived in Arlington County for a short while, you’ve likely seen your fair share of Virginia deer.
To put it into numerical perspective, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources estimates that there is a pre-hunt population of 850,000 to one million whitetails living across the state.
Make no mistake, either. Despite how commonplace they are, white-tailed deer can be a strikingly beautiful sight to behold. It’s especially eye-catching – and heartwarming – to see a graceful, protective doe followed by her brood of slightly clumsy, doe-eyed fawns.
Still, regardless of their beauty and non-violent nature, Virginia deer can undoubtedly cause their fair share of damage. An overpopulation of these deer is a recipe for multiple forms of disaster – both environmental in nature, and in terms of safety for humans and other animals.
Last spring, with the potential of a deer overpopulation in mind, the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) decided to pursue a contractor-conducted survey of local deer. It was a drone-based study to determine a more precise number of deer that live across the multiple sections of Arlington County.
Released last September, the public now knows this study as “The Arlington County Deer Survey and Next Steps.”
At the conclusion of the survey, the drone contractor stated that all evidence pointed to a number of deer in Arlington County that exceeded the area’s carrying capacity.
In other words, deer overpopulation was confirmed.
“Arlington has 290 deer at minimum as surveyed on non-federal properties, [with] 13 per square mile in the County,” according to the report. The study also stated that four out of seven sections of the county had 20 deer per square mile, which is “higher than most experts agree is healthy for regeneration of native plants.”
The drone study write-up didn’t stop there, either. It went on to say:
“Deer numbers above the biological carrying capacity can affect the ecology of natural lands … Forests do not regenerate, native plants supporting other wildlife suffer, insects and ground nesting birds decline, invasives spread and prosper, and erosion and compaction may also increase when deer numbers are above what the land can support.”
In addition to the environmental problems cited above, there are also legitimate concerns that too many Virginia deer – which are by no means small in stature — are highly capable of causing serious car accidents and other incidents which can inflict significant harm to humans.
Then there are also the serious and life-threatening tick-borne illnesses like Lyme Disease that have been associated with these East Coast deer.
Arlington County Parks and Recreation View
Even though the drone contractor who conducted the study was comfortable with the overpopulation conclusion, the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation isn’t totally on board – at least not yet.
“The survey found that four out of eight areas surveyed were found to have more than 20 deer per square mile, a number which many experts believe exceeds the ecological carrying capacity for similar urban habitats,” said Alonso Abugattas, the Natural Resources Manager for the Parks and Natural Resources Division of the Arlington County DPR. “However, the carrying capacity for deer can vary between and within communities. That being said, the County believes it is too early to say if we have a deer problem.”
Further research, Abugattas explained, is most definitely required before Arlington County will make any kind of decision or take any kind of action that would affect the local Virginia deer population.
Animal Welfare League of Arlington: ‘No Scientific Basis’
As a result of local buzz surrounding this survey, animal welfare experts from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA) officially entered the deer conversation in February.
AWLA leaders insist on being a part of the dialogue and decision-making process as to what deer-related measures – if any – that Arlington County will take.
And one potential measure is culling – an official program through which experts lower the deer population in the community with firearms or other weaponry. This is a process that Arlington County has never before pursued.
The AWLA broke its silence on the matter with an official statement that its leaders released on behalf of the whole organization – including Arlington Animal Control, which falls underneath the umbrella of the AWLA.
Published on the AWLA’s website, the statement was written by Animal Control Chief Jennifer Toussaint and AWLA CEO Samuel Wolbert. And, their overarching message was that the DPR’s 2021 deer study had “no scientific basis.”
“Following the concerns of some local citizens, Arlington County recently funded a deer survey to establish a count of our white-tailed deer population,” Wolbert and Touissant wrote in their joint statement. “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.”
Toussaint explained that the AWLA was compelled to put out this statement because there simply can’t be a conversation about deer without the organization’s input. The AWLA does, after all, handle thousands of wildlife calls and concerns every year.
“We really just wanted to join the conversation, because we should be a part of it,” Touissant said. “For decades, the AWLA has been responsible for wildlife management – which includes deer – for all of Arlington County. We know the statistics because orphaned, injured, deceased deer always come to us first. And, simply put, we know how to make the difficult decisions that impact the community as a whole – both for wildlife and for humans.”
The AWLA’s official statement also made the point that there really is no set-in-stone number that automatically equates to an unhealthy quantity of deer.
“The fact is, determining a ‘healthy carrying capacity’ is a political judgment that is not rooted in biology,” Wolbert and Toussaint wrote. “There is no one ‘magic’ number that any community should have. Saying that 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.”
In other words, the AWLA maintains that there is no proof that any form of deer reduction action – namely culling – is necessary in Arlington County.
“There have been no substantiated claims with regard to the deer populations,” Toussaint said. “The multiple articles we saw that were posted on different media outlets made statistically unsubstantiated claims.”
Touissant explained that what likely happened is that people just started seeing more deer than they previously did – before COVID quarantine protocols kept them at home. Then, deer naturally became a greater topic of conversation.
“We understand that, in an urban area like Arlington, a lot of people have no previous history of interacting with native wild animals,” Toussaint said. “What happened during COVID is that people were home at times that they never had been to see animals.”
The real deal, according to the AWLA?
“As a county, we simply don’t know enough whether or not there are more deer than there have been or if there is more of a problem,” Toussaint said. “We don’t have any kind of data that suggests that there has been more damage caused by deer.”
If you do look at the AWLA’s numbers – those statistics that the AWLA keeps meticulous records of – deer don’t seem to be much of a problem at all for Arlington residents.
In fact, in November 2020, the AWLA implemented an online program designed specifically for the community to report wildlife concerns. And, as Touissant explained, less than three percent of the 650 reports were related to deer.
“Similarly, in 2021 AWLA received 2,733 calls for service relating to wildlife, with only 131 calls pertaining to deer (5%),” the AWLA statement read. “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 would have more deer-related complaints.”
Arlington Naturalists Say: Too Many Deer for a Healthy Arlington
As much as the people on the flip side of the AWLA’s argument appreciate deer and their role in the ecosystem, they see things differently than the animal welfare organization does. And while many of these people in disagreement are also seasoned, highly trained wildlife experts like those at the AWLA, they insist that a passive solution against deer simply won’t be enough to preserve Arlington’s natural areas.
The Arlington Regional Master Naturalists (ARMN) – a regional chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists — is a leading group behind this educational effort.
The ARMN, by the way, is a non-profit organization made up of rigorously educated and certified “volunteer educators, citizen scientists, and stewards helping to conserve and manage natural resources and public lands in Virginia,” according to the official website for the Virginia Master Naturalists.
“ARMN members serve as Park Stewards for 20 parks in Arlington which contain the most important natural areas,” Marion Jordan, Master Naturalist and former ARMN president, said. “We also support the county in a full range of habitat restoration work throughout the county. On top of that, we serve as Park Stewards and do habitat restoration work in other natural areas in our area. (Alexandria, Falls Church, Arlington, and other nearby areas).”
Like the AWLA, the ARMN works together with the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation through a partnership of sorts. And it has been over the last couple years that ARMN volunteers have urged the Department of Parks to pay greater attention to deer issues.
“We have been talking to members of the community about deer for the last two years,” said Steve Young, Master Naturalist and Arlington Park Steward. “People all over the county understand that the deer are a problem. We helped and encouraged the DPR to pay more attention to the deer issue, and they felt like they needed numbers – hence, the deer survey. We are one of the few organizations who are in the position to shed light on this problem.”
And even though the ARMN may have given the Arlington County DPR a nudge to take a deeper look into deer, the DPR had been hearing similar deer concerns from multiple sources for more than ten years.
“Arlington has a long-standing commitment to our natural resource protection and conservation,” Abugattas explained. “In 2011, the Wildlife of Arlington: A Natural Heritage Resource Inventory Technical Report identified deer as a species of local concern, and recommended a population or browse survey, due to impacts deer can cause.”
However, it wasn’t until last year that the Arlington County DPR had access to funds for the drone technology and contractors that were required to conduct such a survey.
“Recent technological improvements made a drone survey a feasible, accurate way to determine the deer population where our parks are interwoven with residential and urban space,” Abugattas said. “This, combined with staff observations and concerns expressed by some community members, led us to do the survey.”
Downplayed Deer Survey Results?
The way the ARMN team sees it, the Arlington County DPR’s deer survey understates the severity of the deer overpopulation data that the drones collected.
“The survey did conclude that there are too many deer in natural areas,” Jordan said. “People seem to be talking past this a little bit, and that concerns us. Headlines being communicated mute the issue, and the longer we wait to do something about the deer, the more irreversible harm we will see done to our ecosystem.”
Abugattas understands this point – at least to some degree.
“The results of the survey identified 290 deer,” he said. “This is a conservative number because some deer may have been missed. We could not survey Federal and National Park Service properties within the County, and we know there are deer there. Also, the surveyors did not count questionable observations, so we believe the 290 deer that were reported is the minimum seen within the County area.”
On top of these roadblocks, Arlington County was not permitted to fly drones at ideal times or during the ideal season for deer sightings.
As both Young and Abugattas explained, the DPR drones could not fly at nighttime when deer would be more visible. Also, the survey was conducted during the spring, when trees were grown out to the point that made it difficult for the drone surveyors to unequivocally confirm the presence of deer.
“Ideally drone deer surveys are performed at night and in winter when there is less activity outdoors by humans and heat signatures show up best,” Abugattas said. “Due to federal permitting restrictions in the National Capital area, the contractor could not fly the drones at night. Instead, the contractor flew as much as possible at dusk, dawn, and on cloudy days… Where thermal images were not clear, the image was not counted.”
Still, the ARMN stresses that, despite the misleading low deer count identified in the survey, the overarching conclusion was clear: there are too many deer in Arlington County – namely in the natural areas.
“Actually, if you look at deer per natural area, it’s a very high concentration,” Young said. “The metrics that the survey used were not representative. The results from urban areas – where naturally there won’t be as many deer, diluted the accuracy of the results.”
As a result, all other plants and creatures who rely on these parks and natural areas for food and habitats are suffering.
Why Does It Matter? Breakdown of Deer-related Damage
The ARMN team stressed that they are in no way avid proponents of actions like culling. It’s just that, it is their duty to look at the bigger picture – and to not take any options off the table that would protect the ecosystem.
“One of the points that the AWLA made during a recent official gathering is their no-kill policy,” Bill Browning, ARMN Master Naturalist and Arlington Park Steward, said. “We can all respect that. They are totally opposed to lethal measures. I don’t think it’s fair to say that we are advocating for lethal deer control. We don’t want to go out and kill deer. What we are doing is addressing the harm that deer cause to our natural resources. All we are saying is that we should be looking at other counties and see what works — what is safest for everyone.”
And, to reiterate: the environmental and other forms of havoc that deer can wreak on a community is undeniable.
As Young explained, deer are large animals that must consume a lot of plants – often native plants – that other creatures need to survive.
“We like deer — they are part of the ecosystem,” Young said. “But if other organisms are being harmed – from native plants to the other animals that rely on them – we need to address that. Otherwise, we are giving the deer priority over other organisms like plants and other animals.”
Jordan elaborated on the importance of keeping balance within Arlington’s ecosystem.
“Birds, for example, need shrubs to rest in, and to take care of their young,” she said. “Foliage is the basis for the survival of other animals, and there is no question that deer are wiping these out from our natural areas.”
Browning also gave a data-backed example of deer harm that neighboring Maryland has observed over the twenty years:
“Maryland’s state butterfly has been decimated because deer have been eating the white turtle head plant that these butterflies need to make larva,” Browning explained. “This is just one example of what too many deer can do to the environment, to those living in it, and to the understory of our forests and wooded areas.”
Then there are the trees that Arlington County has spent a considerable amount of funding to plant across the area. And, unfortunately, deer place these trees in jeopardy, too.
“We are planting all these trees that are good for the community, and bucks are ruining them as they rub their antlers against them,” Browning said. “This means that we waste a lot of money on tree planting.”
Then, of course, you can’t discount the potential harm that droves of deer can bring upon their human neighbors.
“Deer are large animals,” Young said, explaining that they can easily weigh close to (or more than) 150 pounds. “Not only do they need to eat a lot of our plants to sustain themselves, but they can easily do damage to humans – both on the roads and in other areas. I have watched them in Glen Carlyn Park become bolder and bolder over the last ten years. I myself as a cyclist have had close encounters with deer on the W&OD trail.”
Next Steps, According to the Survey
Arlington County DPR is waiting on more data to make any decisions, which means that, for now, Virginia deer can all breathe a sigh of relief.
“The County plans to solicit proposals for a further deer management assessment,” Abugattas said. “The selected contractor will determine current ecological impacts within natural land parks, share those results with the community and engage with them on possible strategies to mitigate impacts where needed. They will then make recommendations on which strategies are best suited to mitigating those impacts while maintaining a healthy white-tailed deer population on our natural lands and protecting and improving the ecological health of Arlington’s natural resources.”
He added that, as many different types of damage and harm that deer can do, the focus of this study was for the purpose of curtailing the environmental impact of deer.
“While all the issues mentioned may have merit and are important (i.e. vehicle accidents, Lyme and other tick-born illness, potential damage to gardens, etc.), what we are primarily focused on are the ecological damage to the small existing number of natural land parks,” Abugattas said. “This is where most deer are concentrated and where potential ecological impacts are the most likely to occur. As DPR are the stewards of these properties and we have such few left, that is what concerns us the most, and where the contractor will be doing surveys and making recommendations.”
As the deer population will be status quo for the foreseeable future, the master naturalists’ concerns continue to grow. They said that the longer the County waits to act, the worse off the ecosystem will be — and it’s impossible to know now how irreparable the damage will be.
What does the AWLA hope to see for the future of Virginia deer?
Whatever the Arlington County DPR decides to do, the AWLA calls for a plan that is “practical, humane, and sustainable.”
Even now, Touissant insists that there are plenty of effective, humane, and even cost-effective ways to manage the damage that is potentially caused by deer — and other wildlife.
Just some examples of preventative damage measures that people can pursue on their own property include using harmless plant repellants, and/or noise devices to scare away deer and other wildlife. (Fun fact: she says that large helium balloons of big-eyed cartoon figures also tend to scare animals away, too.)
As for further research that Arlington County said it plans to pursue, Toussaint suggested a more localized, data-driven approach. It would, she explained, involve having experts conduct and analyze detailed, location-specific reports instead of looking at Arlington County as a whole.
“There are different solutions for different problems, as well as for the different areas where they exist,” Toussaint said. “We need data tracking so we can see the different clumps of areas that tend to have consistent concerns. What people will discover is that there are different ways to combat these potential problems that simply do not involve getting rid of natural wildlife.”
ARMN Suggestions for Arlington Further Research
The ARMN encourages the Arlington County DPR to look at all deer-related actions of neighboring counties to discover what has worked and what hasn’t.
To the ARMN team, it’s all about working smarter, not harder. If something has worked in neighboring counties for example, why not dig into the specifics of those processes and the research that went into them?
No matter the approach that the DPR goes with, only time will tell what the future holds for the Virginia deer in Arlington County.
In the meantime, reach out to any of these organizations for questions or concerns about deer and other wildlife.