Oh, deer, what a mess!

·4 min read

Sep. 23—Farmers in Niagara County have been growing more concerned about wild animal encroachment in recent years, especially by deer. The local deer population has been encroaching more often than usual in areas where they traditionally haven't been seen.

"In populated areas there's been more notice of deer in residential areas, and even in urban areas," said Cornell Cooperative Extension Horticulture Educator John Farfaglia. "It's probably due to a couple of things, like the loss of habitat over many years, and the growing deer population trends."

Farfaglia linked some of this deer displacement to development in the area.

"There's not as much in the way of undisturbed woodlands and pastures. A lot of this land has gone into farming and development, and the animals get crowded out of what used to be their common habitat," he said. "They have to go where they can, and sometimes that's where the people are."

Deer have always been an issue for farmers, but some say their crops are being damaged or eaten by deer more frequently now.

At Bittner Singer Orchards in Appleton, Jim Bittner said deer pose the greatest threat to younger fruit trees, whose shoots — the newer, smaller and softer branches — are tastiest. When the shoots are nipped off regularly, a tree's growth is hindered and it may eventually die.

"If a deer goes and eats a new shoot and messes up the tree, then you might have to cut that tree down and start all over again," said Bittner.

When deer feed at fruit trees they're also able to spread fire blight, an incurable fruit blight, he added.

"I lost a pretty good orchard here six years ago, mainly from the deer spreading the fire blight up the row," Bittner said. "If it's in a tree they're nibbling on, they will spread the virus to the next one they nibble on."

Bucks pose a threat to fruit trees as well, in late summer when they're shedding the velvet on their racks by rubbing the rack on trees. That can strip the bark off a tree, and Bittner said it's especially damaging to smaller trees like peach and cherry.

"If they rub the bark off of one side, the tree is dead. You'll have to pull it up and plant another one," he said.

Melinda Vizcarra, owner-operator of Becker Farms in Gasport, said deer have been getting into the crops there as well. This year's pumpkin crop was already smaller than usual and now deer are eating the pumpkins that survived, along with corn and apples.

Other consequences of deer encroachment include more collisions of deer and motor vehicles, and damage to landscapes and property.

The local deer population is a suspected source of E. coli contamination of Lake Ontario at Olcott, where multiple temporary beach closures were ordered by the Niagara County health department over the summer. The bacteria came from ruminant feces, which implies grazing animals were the source. Testing seemed to rule out cattle, leaving deer as the most likely culprit, according to environmental health division director Paul Dicky.

"Deer have always been suspect, but honestly it's always been a bit difficult to get our head around how this is all happening," said Dicky. "We still have questions of how their feces would be able to contaminate the water to a significant degree where it makes it not meet swimming quality."

For individual property owners, fencing off vulnerable areas is an option but there's no other quick fix in sight. According to Farfaglia, the bigger-picture options include creating wildlife reserves and loosening restrictions on hunting.

Farm land owners can obtain a nuisance permit to hunt deer on their property when deer hunting season is closed. Bittner has one, but he says it's not a cure-all. Only deer without antlers — females and young males — can be taken and hunting guidelines still apply.

Solutions to this problem beyond just fencing off property are also slim. Farfaglia said that the few options that do exist would be to create more wildlife reserves, or ease hunting restrictions by lengthening the season, or authorizing more

"They don't want people out shooting trophies," said Bittner. "That was a problem once, but it's not the purpose of these permits. The purpose is to reduce population."

Reduced interest in hunting locally, and generally, contributes to deer encroachment, Bittner believes.

"The hunters who are really serious about it tend to go down to the southern tier where the deer tend to be larger," he said. "If you asked the Department of Environmental Conservation, then they'll probably say that there's fewer hunters than there used to be."

Observers note the current environment in Niagara County is ideal for deer. They live in brush more than forests, and there's plenty of brush now due to deforestation and property abandonment.

"Nature has the bigger factor here," Farfaglia said. "The population is more determined by the conditions available which are favorable for their population."