Readers on the East End are reporting an increase in the deer population this summer. Although we enjoyed it at the time, the mild winter of 2011-12 is at least partially responsible for this baby boom, and the domino effect it's having is not pretty.
Typically, freezing temperatures over the winter kill off a portion of the natural world's inhabitants -- not just deer, but also rabbits, insects and plant diseases. Without this natural population control, more deer mean more offspring, which combine to mean more ticks and can result in more cases of Lyme disease.
Many residents of Nassau and western Suffolk don't have any contact with deer. But those living out east have a completely different story to tell: Deer can defoliate entire trees overnight. Hollyhocks, impatiens, crocuses, daylilies, hostas, roses and tulips are exceptionally special treats, and most arborvitaes don't stand a chance.
Reader Geraldine Merola of Sag Harbor tells me that since March she has removed a total of 38 ticks from her two children, her husband and herself. Of those, she identified 21 as deer ticks, eight as wood ticks and nine as lone star ticks. Her 4-year-old daughter already has been treated for Lyme disease.
Merola said hiring an exterminator has "definitely helped, but of course it's only my own yard. As soon as we go for a hike or take the dog for a walk, we find more ticks."
In addition, Merola said her property is nearly barren.
"I'd been looking forward to my own landscaping project for years. I did my research, called the Cooperative Extension, got their list of 'deer-resistant' plants and planned my design with it. I prepared the soil with compost and installed dry wells for water control."
Last month, Merola reported that she'd "lost 50 strawberry plants. Deer shredded the bird netting, my new apple trees are ruined, half the potatoes I planted have been stripped of their leaves, and the roses are bare. The black-eyed Susans, which I have been so tenderly trying to establish en masse from seeds, were relieved of all their flowers overnight. The hostas are nothing but stems sticking out of the ground. The redbuds and the elderberry are nearly dead, and the crabapple has no lower branches remaining."
As for those beautiful Hamptons estates with magazine-ready gardens?
"They all have a budget for deer fencing," Merola laments. "Those homeowners trying to garden for a few vegetables or an ornamental display don't stand a chance. The deer are all being forced onto our property."
Lori Severino, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, confirms the mild winter "likely resulted in more deer surviving the winter in relatively good health." And it's not only private residences that are at risk from deer damage. There appears to be a reduction in mid-story trees -- those with leaves within deer reach -- in natural wooded areas, as well. Anecdotal evidence suggests deer browsing is "having a negative effect on the understory" in many areas of Long Island, Severino said.
So, what's being done to control the deer population? The USDA Forest Service reports that the most effective control has been regulated hunting (Severino said more than 2,000 deer are taken during the two annual hunting seasons in Suffolk).
"Many municipalities also issued Nuisance Deer Permits, which allows them to cull deer" where public hunting may not be practical or where it is "not enough to effectively manage the deer populations," she added.
In an effort to reduce the number of Lyme and other tick-borne disease cases, some communities have begun employing "4-Poster" technology, which was developed in 1994 by USDA researchers. The program involves baiting deer with corn mounted on a passive feeding-station device that transfers a tickicide to their heads, necks and ears when contact is made with the gadget's rollers. Ticks feeding on the deer are killed by the pesticide, just as applying tick control products on pets does.
No quick fix
The steps to safeguard public health appear promising, but eliminating the decimation of plants and trees may prove more of a challenge.
The Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry Division of the USDA is encouraging landowners to "monitor deer impacts and, when necessary, to seek guidance from natural resource professionals who may be able to suggest remedial measures such as hunting, culling, fencing, repellents, scare devices, vegetation management options, or integrated combinations of these."
The department, however, acknowledges there is no quick fix for the problem:
"Such measures may not eliminate deer damage," it concedes, but just "reduce it to tolerable levels."
As for Merola? She just broke down and ordered a fence.
"I've lost about $2,000 to $3,000 worth of plants," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm hoping some of it recovers, but I'm going to have to plant a lot of new stuff. Now with the fence, hopefully I'll even be able to grow Asiatic lilies."