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Deer and human health - are they linked?

Many neighborhoods are no stranger to deer, particularly in the Northeastern United States. Paying attention to this subject and whether or not deer are in a state of overpopulation can help create healthier communities. 

So, more exactly, what do deer have to do with health? 

Deer are destroying our woodlands and forests as they have no predators to keep them in check. As a result, they eat a negatively impactful number of forest and woodland plants that grow as ground cover and as layers under the tree canopy (known as understory). 

The loss of plants results in less soil protection and soil erodes. The roots of plants play a key role in soil stabilization. With soil erosion comes stormwater management problems and degraded stream quality. Soil erosion also makes drinking water harder and more expensive to treat. Why? Because urban pollution like oil, gasoline, and chemicals left as residue on our roadways adheres to soil particulates and makes its way into our waterways more easily. The eroded soil particles act as a vehicle for travel and deposition.

Furthermore, without a ground or understory layer in our forests, invasive species that deer often do not like to eat (for one reason, as they did not co-evolve with them) are more likely to take hold and become a management problem, and often an expensive one, requiring removal or the use of herbicides.

The health of our canopy trees are also more at risk as the top layer of soil washes away and is compacted from exposure to foot traffic and drying from wind and sun. This compromises the longevity of a tree and its ability to resist pests and other diseases. Without mature tree canopy, we lose the health benefits they provide from shade, comfort and cooling, air quality enhancement, stormwater management and filtration and carbon sequestration.

In the converse, research shows that healthy woodlands and forests with understory and groundcover intact host diminished tick populations, which reduces health risks from Lyme and other tick-born diseases and the economic burden that comes with treating these illnesses.

In terms of humane animal treatment, it is worth noting that deer suffer when populations are too high both from both starvation and from tick borne diseases.

Many communities spend significant amounts of tax payer dollars to purchase and maintain parks, to upkeep and install stormwater and water treatment systems, and in many cases to subsidize health care. As part of a commitment to infrastructure and smart municipal planning, communities should be invested in effective deer population control and healthy forest management. 

While deer populations may seem like a tangential concern and a small one relative to other issues, neglecting the issue has potentially big consequences.