Too Many Deer!

Published Sep 1st, 2022 by Lynnwood Andrews

There are too many deer in Vermont, and they are inflicting harm on people, forests, and other wildlife. Historically, Vermont’s deer herd was controlled by predators like Eastern wolves and mountain lions, by our long, cold and snowy winters, by a lack of preferred forest-edge habitat, and by human hunters.

Colonists and settlers exterminated wolves and mountain lions. They cleared much of the forest, creating large tracts of the edge habitat where deer can thrive.

Today, we rely mainly on hunters to control deer. Nevertheless, as the number of hunters decreases and the number of land owners leery of allowing hunters on their property increases, our deer herd expands to unsustainable levels.

Human Health

Deer numbers drive the prevalence of the black-legged tick, which accounts for over 99% of all tick-borne diseases reported in Vermont, according to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets. Ticks carry Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babeosis, Borrelia miyamoitoi disease, and Powassan virus disease.

Vehicle collisions with deer are a significant risk. According to Vermont Fish and Wildlife, since 2016 between 2200-2500 deer are reported killed on Vermont roads per year. As some collisions are not reported, this is an underestimate of the accidents.

Forest Health

Deer significantly alter forest structure, regeneration and biodiversity. Because they evolved with native plants, deer generally prefer them over non-native species. While a starving deer will eat almost anything, large deer herds strip the landscape of preferred native plants before turning to less preferred species. This contributes to the spread of non-native invasives.

When the forest understory is overbrowsed by deer, the mix of plant species changes, with impacts ranging from altered soil chemistry and nutrient cycling, to long-term changes in forest structure and composition. Recovery from such changes requires long-term reduction of deer pressure and interventions that support recuperation of decimated plant populations. A study of deer browse in Pennsylvania found that when forest openings and edges were protected, some plants re-grew. By contrast, in unprotected control areas, Hay-scented fern, which deer avoid, proliferated, created permanent dense “fields” that cast such heavy shade on the forest floor, tree and other plant seedlings could not grow.

Tree seedlings and saplings, especially oaks, maples and cherries, are often so heavily browsed that they cannot grow to maturity. They disappear from the mix of species vital to maintaining not only species diversity, but a healthy age spread of trees. When openings occur in the forest, tree saplings cannot grow if they are not there at all, or have been repeatedly eaten down, so that they cannot compete with species that deer avoid.


When deer strip the understory of native plants, other wildlife that depend on these plants may starve or suffer higher predation. While there is a paucity of research in this area, studies have documented significant impacts on some bird, small mammal and invertebrate species. Many species are sensitive to decreases in understory foliage density and changes in flower abundance and timing.

How to Help

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife (VDFW) has resources to help hunters and landowners. New and experienced hunters can benefit from hunter safety classes offered by VDFW. Landowners can find a list of hunters who would like permission to hunt in their area. With this connection, landowners could post their property while allowing only invited hunter(s) on their land.

More information can also be found in our resources.

Originally published in Fall 2022 Norwich Times