Arlington Regional Master Naturalists say deer are destroying forest habitats

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Neither Arlington County nor the City of Alexandria have deer management programs, and the volunteers are asking Arlington to develop one.

ARLINGTON, Va. (WDVM) — The Arlington Regional Master Naturalists say white-tailed deer are destroying the county’s forests. Neither Arlington County nor the City of Alexandria have deer management programs, and volunteers are asking Arlington to develop one. Montgomery County, Prince William County, Fairfax County, and the National Park Service have successful programs that have been operating for years.

Master Naturalist Bill Browning says the NPS launched its deer management program around eight years ago. “They’ve been taking out dozens of deer each year and they’ve noticed an increase in tree seedling density on the [Rock Creek Park] forest floor,” he said. 

Browning started participating in Arlington park restorations in 2013. “As I did the restorations, I was realizing that deer were undoing all of our good work,” Browning said. “We were taking out all the bad plants, which they didn’t like to eat, anyway, and when we put in clean, new, fresh, native plants, the deer would eat them before they could get established.”

“When I was young, deer were scarce,” said fellow master naturalist Steve Young. “It was exciting to see a deer because they were so rare in our area. Working in Long Branch Nature Center in South Arlington, I began to see deer everywhere.” 

Browning and Young say deer love Arlington’s suburban habitat. They’d rather hang out in an edge habitat than in a deep forest. As their natural predators have disappeared, deer have feasted on greens within their reach.

“Insects and birds and mammals and reptiles depend on a vertical range of habitat in a forest. There’s no vertical range of habitat in today’s world in Northern Virginia because deer are eating everything from their height down to the ground,” Browning said. “Below [the trees], what would happen in a normal forest, would be their babies; other species pulling up behind them. Because the deer go through and eat all those tree seedling species, the other plants that survive are not native.” 

Deer are also dangerous to motorists. Young says deer are posing another danger to Arlington residents who dare to feed them. 

So what are Montgomery and Fairfax Counties doing right? Browning and Young say Arlington County should adopt a similar three-pronged approach: the county should hire professional sharpshooters and archers, and host occasional shotgun hunts with volunteer hunters. Much of the venison that’s harvested in Montgomery and Fairfax is donated to food banks. 

Visit the naturalists’ deer management page here.  

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