The province of British Columbia is home to three types of deer: mule deer, black-tailed deer and white-tailed deer. Both mule and black-tailed deer are classified as Odocoileus hemionus . White-tailed deer, however, are classified as Odocoileus virginianus. In BC, mule deer are the most widely distributed deer and can be found utilizing a range of habitats and climates from valley bottoms to alpine slopes and coastal rainforests to dry interior grasslands. With this adaptability, deer have even managed to make urban areas home thanks to abundant food sources, availability of cover and limited presence of large predators. The growing population of deer in urban settings has led to increases in human-wildlife conflicts where we live, work, play and grow.
Biology and Identification
Deer are ungulates, or hooved mammals of the Order Artiodactyla, meaning even-toed ungulates. They are grazers (grass eaters) and browsers (eating shrubs and woody plants) and have a four-chambered stomach making them ruminants. The process of ruminal fermentation allows deer to partially digest complex carbohydrates that other mammals cannot – this means that almost all vegetation is available to deer as a food source.
In BC, deer mainly travel alone or in small groups. During a large portion of the year, the presence of antlers can distinguish males or bucks from females or does. Antlers begin to grow each year in spring. While they grow, they are covered in velvet which provides the nourishment necessary for continued antler growth. Velvet is shed at the end of summer or early fall. It should be noted that the number of tines on antlers is not an indication of the age of the buck. Deer can communicate using pheromones or scents produced by glands. Using these glands, deer can leave different messages. For example, metatarsal glands (glands located in the hind legs) are used to leave alarm scents, alerting other deer to danger.
In late fall, deer enter into the rutting season, or breeding season. Breeding season is triggered by the reduced photoperiod of the short fall days. The rut for mule deer peaks slightly before that of the whitetail but in general mid-November can be considered the rut for both types of deer. Bucks exhibit swollen necks and can be observed rubbing shrubs with their antlers, displaying dominance by strutting, circling and tail flicking during rut. Mature bucks of similar size will engage in head-to-head fights and lock antlers. These displays and fights are used to assert dominance and secure breeding privileges. Bucks ingest very little food during the rut and as a result of this, the constant movement, displays and battles enter into the winter with a greater risk of winter mortality than females. Gestation period is six–seven months with fawning beginning at the end of May through the month of June. Most commonly deer give birth to twins in BC, although individuals and triplets are also possible. Fawns are spotted to help camouflage them from predators, in addition they are silent and scentless. Major predators of deer in BC are cougars, wolves, bears, bobcats, and coyotes. Although the latter three are opportunistic and tend to only rely upon, fawns, elderly or injured deer. Few deer live more than 8-10 years.
Population estimates for the northern populations of mule deer in BC are between 20,000 to 25,000 deer, while the interior regions estimate approximately 165,000 deer. Mule deer are the largest of BC’s deer standing 90-100cm at the shoulder and weighing an average of 80kg. Weight is influenced by age, condition and season. Bucks in prime physical condition may weigh as much as 180kg, however the average range is 70-110kg. Females are smaller weighing between 45-70kg. Fawns at birth weigh 2.7-4kg.
Coat color can range from dark brown in winter to reddish brown in summer. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of mule deer are their large ears which are approximately two-thirds the length of the head. The outer portion of the ear is outlined with black hair surrounding white hair on the inner portion of the ear. Tail is rope like and black tipped. Finally the bucks have dichotomously branched antlers, meaning the antlers are forked and do not grow from a main beam. Antlers are shed or drop between January and March.
Coastal black-tailed deer
Although the same species as mule deer, black-tailed deer are much smaller with bucks weighing approximately 50-90kg and does only ranging from 40-65kg. Bucks are heaviest heading into the rut in mid-November to December. Black-tailed deer are also much darker in color than mule deer and have an almost entirely black tail, not merely black tipped like the mule deer. Antlers are shed mainly in January. Gestation is about 200 days for black-tailed deer, with the majority of fawns being born in the first two weeks of June. Black-tailed deer are superb swimmers and as a result inhabit many coastal islands in BC. Population estimates state that the population in BC has fluctuated from 150,000 to 250,000 over the past few decades.
White-tailed deer are remarkably adaptable, easily taking up residence in populated areas and distributing into new areas. This ability has made them the most widely distributed ungulate in the western hemisphere. Similar to mule deer, white-tailed deer stand about 90cm at the shoulder. Bucks weigh 65-100kg, while does typically weigh between 45-70kg. Factors that affect weight include age, season, and general health.
In summer the deer’s pelage (or coat) is mainly reddish brown and changes to greyish brown or grey in winter. Chin, throat, ring around eyes, underside of tail and belly remain white year round. When running away, white-tailed deer are especially distinct in that they often raise their tail to display the snow white patch on the underside and wave the tail back and forth as if waving good-bye. This is termed flagging. As with mule deer, white-tailed deer also shed their antlers annually. Unlike mule deer however white-tailed deer antlers are not branched, all tines come off of a main antler beam. Gestation period of white-tailed does is 195-210 days, at which time she will drive off the previous year’s young and locate sufficient cover to fawn. Newborn fawns weigh approximately 3kg, are reddish in color and covered in white-spots to assist in camouflaging them in their first weeks when they are most vulnerable. In September fawns lose their spots, in October they are weaned and by December on average they weigh 35kg as they enter their first winter.
Many enjoy seeing deer where they live; however, once deer establish in a neighborhood it is particularly difficult to remove them. Once established in your neighborhood, deer: can decimate your shrubs, gardens and landscaping; increase chances of vehicle collisions; can transport ticks close to your home; harm pets (in particular dogs); and can attract large predators. Here are few tips to help discourage deer from taking up residence in your community.
• Fencing. Fence fruit trees and gardens to keep deer out. This will require a high and/or electrified fence (refer to Grow section for more details).
• Do not feed deer. This does not help deer, deer have ample food supplies in the wilds and in fact supplementing that food supply can trigger an increase in population that is not sustainable in the wild thereby potentially harming deer in the long term.
• Remove excessive cover from your yard. Deer require cover to safely travel through communities and bed down, by keeping the vegetation in your yards trimmed you can discourage them from staying.
• Utilise motion activated lights and/or sprinklers. Used randomly these can dissuade deer from using your yard.
• Chase deer away from your property. Whenever deer appear, chase them away. Whatever benefits your yard may have been providing to deer will no longer be worth the energy they need to expend to escape. Please remember that it is illegal for you or your dog to injure a deer.
• Select non-fruit bearing trees for your yard. Collect all fruit and windfall from your existing fruit trees. If you are unable to do this please consider removing the fruit trees from your property, blowing off blossoms in the spring so the trees does not produce fruit or contacting a local gleaning program to assist in the collection of your fruit.
Deer are wild animals, you should never approach deer especially those with young as they may attack. Laying their ears back and lowering their head can be signs of an impending attack. If you are attacked by a deer try to stay upright, cover your head with your arms and move to shelter. If you are concerned for your safety or have sighted deer in your neighborhood that are no longer afraid of people or pets please report them to the Conservation Officer Service by calling 1-877-952-7277.
BC provides almost endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, many of which occur where encounters with deer are likely. Consider the following when enjoying BC’s great outdoors.
• Keep dogs close. In the wild, members of the canid family are the natural predators of fawns and therefore a doe is likely to see your dog as a threat. This can elicit a defensive attack by the doe. This is of even greater concern if you are walking your dog off-leash when you come across a doe with fawns. Pets, most commonly dogs, but also cats have been attacked and killed by deer.
• Leave fawns alone. If you come across fawns while out hiking or biking do not touch them, back away from the area and leave them be. Does will hide their young while they feed, returning occasionally to nurse. By disturbing the fawn you greatly decrease its chance of survival.
• Stay on the trail. This reduces your chance of stumbling upon a hidden fawn.
• Give them space. We all enjoy viewing wildlife but it is important to respect them and give them enough space to avoid them feeling threatened and as a result defending themselves. If you are attacked by a deer stay upright, cover your head with your arms and move to shelter.
Deer can harm homeowners’ gardens and producers’ crops alike. From large scale agricultural operations such as the vegetable fields of the lower mainland and orchards of the Okanagan, to smaller organic produce operations popping up across the province and even the gardens and fruit trees we have in our backyards. Deer consume planted produce, trample gardens and fields and in the case of nurseries and orchards damage trees by antler rubbing. In BC this can mean a great deal of loss to the thriving and growing local food production movement and industry. The local food movement is a great resource for British Columbians and can be conducted in a manner that is sustainable for both the grower and deer.
Tips for reducing deer conflict in your yard and garden:
• Plan ahead. If you have not yet planted your garden you can consider using less attractive species (cedar hedges are attractive to deer and do not maintain their form or recover well from browsing), planting plants in a way that limits accessibility by the deer to the plants, and fencing.
• Install fencing. Fencing, although initially costly, is the most cost effective option in the long term as it is the most effective and if built appropriately to limit deer access will result in less property damage and plant replacement over the years.
• Cover shrubs and trees. Burlap or sheeting covering your shrubs and plants over the winter months can be used to create a barrier that limits browsing. Burlap and sheeting is not appropriate for use during summer months as it can reduce growth. Temporary fencing, or netting during the growing season is both more suitable and more aesthetically pleasing. Barriers whether they be burlap or netting should start close to the ground and extend past the reach of deer, at least 1.3m. The benefit to barriers is that they are reusable year to year and are definitely less expensive than replacement of shrubs and trees and other garden plants. In gardens consider using chicken or other wire with a mesh size < 4cm. Plants can be wrapped individually or large strips can be installed around entire rows or hedges.
• Plant less palatable or desirable species. It is important when selecting these species to consider native plant species first and avoid any invasive non-native plant species. Shrub and tree species noted for being less desirable and susceptible to browse are blue spruce, juniper or paper birch. If you want to plant perennials, mint and columbine are two native species considered less desirable to deer. Consult your local nursery to discuss which plant varieties will grow best in your region. Remember however, in the end, deer can and will eat almost anything given the right set of circumstances.
• Scare them away. Motion activated sprinklers and or lights can help deter deer from your property.
• Chase them off your property. Leashed dogs can be used to assist this scare tactic as long as no offense is committed. A person commits an offense if they allow or cause a dog to hunt or pursue wildlife under Section 78 of the Wildlife Act.
Tips for larger scale agricultural growers:
• Install fencing. Fencing must be installed at an appropriate scale to be effective. For deer, fences need to be at least 2.4 meters high with no space between wire and ground. Fencing is often the only effective way to prevent damage to nurseries, orchards, pastures and crops. To reduce fencing costs consider grouping crops that are most susceptible to deer and fence them together. For fencing to retain its effectiveness it must be regularly inspected and maintained. Use of barb-wired fences is not recommended as it can cause injury to wildlife and is not effective in discouraging deer from entering your property.
• Scare them. A temporary fix to reduce crop depredation is the use of scare products such as exploders, noise makers, lights, or dogs on leash, however these are usually only temporary fixes and the more the scare devices are used the less they may work as the deer will become accustom to their use and no longer consider it a threat. Furthermore if food sources are limited such as in severe winters scare devices are less likely to be effective. Producers Associations may be able to further assist you with this option or provide you with more information. It should be noted that in the case of propane exploder cannons that they should only be used in large areas and not within or close to residential areas. In orchards use of bangers and cracker shells may also be used to scare deer.
• Know the laws. It is unlawful for the owner of agricultural property to destroy wildlife causing damage to or foraging on crops without prior permission from the government. Phone the Conservation Officer Service if you are having problems to help come up with a solution (1-877-952-7277). Check with local municipal by-laws to ensure there are no bylaws restricting the use of loud scare devices. Remember that a person commits an offense if they allow or cause a dog to hunt or pursue wildlife under Section 78 of the Wildlife Act.
• Keep plants out of reach for deer. Plant rapid growing tree varieties that grow tall enough to be out of reach for deer. To protect trees until they reach a height not available for browse fencing, netting or burlap can be used. Saplings and very young trees can be protected with mesh tubes. To further reduce browse damage once the trees have reached full height consider pruning trees to 1.5m above the ground and higher. If you are not interested in taller trees consider utilising trellis varieties such as those becoming more common with apple varieties. These can be spaced closer together and protected from winter browse more effectively and with reduced fencing costs. Posts can be installed around small trees to prevent antler rub and resulting damage or breakage.
Even if you work in urban areas and do not consider wildlife or deer during your day-to-day routine, there is a chance of encountering them and some things you can do to reduce your chance of coming into conflict with them.
• Obey all posted speed limits and respect “Watch for wildlife” and “Wildlife crossing signs.” About 80% of all collisions with wildlife involve deer. Close to 8,000 collisions with deer occur in BC every year resulting in personal injuries and in rare cases even fatalities, not to mention increases in insurance rates and potential increases to tax payers for road clean-up costs incurred by the Ministry of Transportation.
• Remove the welcome mat. If deer are persistent on the grounds surrounding your work removal of any cover or palatable plants may motivate them to move on.
• Scare them. Installation of motion activated lights or sprinklers or chasing them off the property can be enough to discourage them from staying.
• Do not feed deer.
• Give them space. Deer may attack if provoked or if defending their young. Laying their ears back and lowering their head can be signs of an impending attack. Try to stay upright, cover your head with your arms and move to shelter if you are attacked.
For those who work out in the wilderness and do expect to encounter deer at work remember the following.
• Do not feed deer. Pack out what you packed in in terms or food and associated garbage.
• Respect all wildlife, including deer and give them their space.
• Do not disturb young fawns. Leave them alone, it is their best chance for survival.