At dawn and at dusk, Debi Kyte sees mule deer in the yard of her northwest subdivision home. They’ve eaten the flowers off her azaleas, nibbled the top of her shrubs and rubbed the trunk of a baby fir tree bare. Often, they track her landscaping bark across her walkways as they leave.
“They’ll eat pretty much anything,” Kyte said, who moved to Bend around seven months ago from Portland. She doesn’t dream of keeping a vegetable garden in her backyard, which abuts River’s Edge Golf Course, because erecting a 5-foot tall mesh deer fence, which the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife recommends, would be too much of a hassle. To deter the deer without harming them, she sprays her plants with a natural repellent she bought at Home Depot. She hasn’t had any problems since. While their damage remains, so does her fondness for the ruminants.
“The deer are beautiful. They’re part of the life I love here,” she said.
Across the street, in Yeong Kim’s front yard, stands a thrashed pine tree, most likely shaved down by bucks marking their turf with their antlers.
“I don’t think about the damage. I love the deer more than the trees. It’s not a big problem,” he said. “Sure some (people) don’t like them. But we think they’re okay. When the deer come, we say, ‘Welcome.’”
In Bend, deer and the damage they cause is a perennial issue for many property owners. Damage is significant in parts of town such as the southeast quadrant where native vegetation is interspersed with subdivisions and housing developments, said Corey Heath, district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The deer are also attracted to the native vegetation in places found near Awbrey Butte, along the Deschutes River and in Deschutes River Woods, he said.
In 2015, the Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated that 18,000 deer wintered in Central Oregon. While Heath said these numbers are not necessarily relevant to the deer population in town, deer do migrate and the numbers may shed light on the 1,013 vehicle-animal collisions in Deschutes County caused by deer and elk, which the Oregon Department of Transportation tracked between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2015.
No entity tracks the deer population within Bend city limits, where there is no ordinance against feeding deer as there is in Sisters and in Sunriver. In August, Prineville’s City Council considered but ultimately declined to fine people for feeding deer.
Deer and elk and other hunted animals concentrate in urbanized and suburbanized human areas for numerous reasons, including lessened predation pressure, said Dana Sanchez, an extension wildlife specialist at OSU-Cascades. This is how we have a higher than natural density of deer.
“They have to eat something,” Sanchez said.
The damage from plant nibbling and that from antler raking are often found in the same place.
Sanchez explained that male deer rake trees with their antlers to leave signals to both male and female deer in the area. Doing so leaves a scented oil, which emits from glands on their heads and elsewhere on their bodies. This marking season begins in early fall when the deer thresh the velvet tissue that has enveloped its antlers and nourished its growth, which began in spring. Stephan said when bucks strip their velvet, they tend to use a small, supple tree because their antlers aren’t fully hardened.
The tree rubbing, which some call horning, is an advertisement of their prowess. Other males often over-mark a tree with their own scents. Deer may additionally damage trees by stripping bark as a desperate food source toward the end of a hard winter.
If a homeowner has had a tree that has experienced a deer thrashing, Sanchez recommends paying an arborist to determine whether the tree can be salvaged. Wrapping the trunk in chicken wire or making a pen around the tree can be useful way to protect them, too.
A nonetheless welcomed presence
Troy Eckberg, the director of golf at River’s Edge Golf Course alongside Kyte’s and Kim’s homes, said they don’t have any damage issues caused by the 15 or so deer that regularly roam and bed down on their 18-hole course.
“I saw a buck just this morning walk across the putting green and it was frosty out there, so I thought it might have done some damage. But I looked out there this afternoon and there was nothing,” Eckberg said. “They cruise around here all the time. They’re all a positive for us — we think it’s a welcomed feature to our golf course. We love to have them out here. We think they’re fantastic.”
Eckberg has only heard complaints from nearby homeowners who discover that deer have eaten their roses in the spring and summer.
“That’s just the way it goes in Central Oregon,” he said.
For some Central Oregonians, however, the deer have ceased to be charming. Sarah Whipple, the owner of Bend Pine Nursery, which is situated on an acre in Deschutes River Woods, encounters different types of damage during different times of the year. When fawns are born in the spring, they bite and pull and break parts of Whipple’s assortment of trees.
The fawns “don’t know what they like and what they don’t like, so they mess with a lot of different things,” Whipple said. When the bucks’ antlers begin shedding velvet in early fall, Whipple notices trees with freshly stripped bark and snapped off branches. These she shoos off with a paintball gun. Some are repeat offenders; even though the paint washes off, Whipple recognizes them once or twice a week. She has put cages around the smaller and more valuable items, but deer still find their way into Whipple’s nursery, which only has fences on two sides. She has considered installing a full fence, but that would necessitate a gate, which in turn would hinder people coming and going. In the Upper Deschutes Unit of the Deschutes Wildlife district, where the Bend Tree Nursery is situated, an estimated 968 deer wintered in 2015, according to the ODFW.
“I think there’s way too many (deer), and every time a predator comes down to do its job and keep the population in check, (the authorities) kill the cougar,” Whipple said. “I think the management of deer in Central Oregon leaves a lot to be desired.”
But not all property owners or managers share Whipple’s frustrations.
Jeff Amaral, the natural resources manager at Bend Park & Recreation District, said deer damage to trees isn’t really an issue for the city. He said non-native, ornamental trees may be more vulnerable to deer feeding or antler rubbing, but he hasn’t noticed any damage. The department doesn’t prioritize native versus non-native trees and plants as it pertains to deer behavior.
A sometimes fatal attraction
Deer are often attracted to non-native, ornamental tree and plants because they’re like “candy for deer,” says Toni Stephan, a horticulturist at Oregon State University-Cascades.
“Landscape plants are much more nutritious than native plants because we water, fertilize and baby them,” she said. Ornamental plants are “candy for deer” because they don’t have the natural defenses that native plants have developed to not be palatable to deer.
Additional methods of warding off deer damage include planting deer resistant plant species, using natural spray repellents, fencing and wrapping vulnerable tree trucks.
Stephan, as does the ODFW, discourages homeowners from leaving out sustenance for deer, such as a water buckets and mineral blocks. This creates a higher level of disease in a small area because deer may become ill by licking a mineral block contaminated by a diseased deer — just as a communal water ladle might sicken an entire football team. At her previous job in Eagle Crest Resort’s landscaping department, Stephan said a resident had left out cracked corn for deer. The fawns ate it too, but because their young stomachs lacked digestive power, they died of bloat.
“It is an excruciatingly painful death,” Stephan said. One spring, she and other employees removed the carcasses of 50 fawns that had died of the condition.
“People are drawing the deer closer to their homes so they can see them,” she said. “They think they’re helping the deer, but they’re not.”
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