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Save a plant, eat a deer

Deer browse may help prune shrubs, but when is it too much? (Photo courtesy of Justin Moore).
A state-listed plant for Massachusetts, a delicious treat for a passing deer.
Lion's Foot is a tastey treat. Left, uneaten buds just outside the airport fence. Right, the top flowers bitten right off.

There are multiple versions of how deer came to be on Nantucket. Ask anyone at the coffee shop and see how many versions you get. While some of the details may change, the general story is the same: they swam (or at least one did). They swam? “Come on,” you say. “That can’t be right.” However, check out this recent video by Elyse Pirzada to see just how a deer can swim if not how far. While I love the magic of the legend, the scientist in me wonders if a deer could swim in the ocean for 20 miles or more.

Eventually, the sole deer that came to shore was a “lonely” buck, so two female deer were brought over to keep him company. Other stories involve deer being brought over in the early 1900’s solely for hunting purposes.  

Regardless of how (or exactly when) they got here, the Nantucket deer population is here to stay. They thrive in the abundant conservation land found throughout the island landscape. While they are joy to behold for many, there are consequences to having an abundant prey population with few predators to control the population size.

The white-tailed deer is a wide-ranging, prolific, and adaptable prey species endowed with acute senses and keen survival instincts. Primarily herbivores, these deer must eat plants. Thus, they are consuming what is around them. While grazing and browsing on our flora are normal parts of nature, problems arise when the population of deer becomes greater than the available resources and they then deplete the surrounding flora, or worse, starve. On Nantucket, we pride ourselves on the amount of conservation land and its unique flora including some rare and endangered species. However, as the deer population has increased, so has their impacts on the very habitats we love. Suffering the consequences of their own overbrowsing, deer can become undernourished, undersized, and more susceptible to winter die-off.

According to the Mass Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, there are 85,000 to 95,000 deer statewide with densities ranging from about 10 per square mile in northwestern Massachusetts to 45 - 55 per square mile on Nantucket. As a benchmark, a study from Pennsylvania found that the threshold density where deer begin to have serious negative impacts on forest vegetation more than 20 deer per square mile. For Nantucket, we have more than double that threshold level for having serious negative impacts to vegetation. 

New England blazing-star (Liatris novae-angliae), a globally rare plant species, is a favorite deer snack as is the state-listed Lions’s Foot (Nabalis serpentaria). The latter species almost exclusively reproduces in the grasslands inside the airport fence – a natural deer exclosure. Just outside of said fence, the flowering stalks of the Lion’s Foot are munched before setting seed.

Another major conservation concern is the impact white tail deer populations have on non-native invasive plants. Since deer mainly prefer the native flora they are accustomed to, they preferentially eat the native plants giving the non-natives an even greater competitive advantage. This has been documented with garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) among others.

In an effort to reduce deer herds, Nantucket is in a Wildlife Management Zone that gives out an almost unlimited amount of “antlerless” deer permits. This allows for the reduction in females thus reducing the overall reproductive potential of the deer herds. Additionally, the Nantucket Food Pantry is now accepting donations of legally-killed deer that will be processed and dispersed to the community. This allows hunters to support the community and give an incentive to further reduce the deer populations. Listen to Anne-Marie Bellavance, the director of the Nantucket Food Pantry, to find out more about this program.

What can you do?

Many notable ecologists and conservationists including Bernd Blossey of Cornell and Thomas Rawinski of the USDA Forest Service, suggest that to be a true plant conservationist, you must support appropriate and ethical herd reductions. While you may not be a hunter, you can surely enjoy the spoils as I do. More simply put:  Save a plant, eat a deer.

Deer season is already upon us with archery having started in October. These quiet, stealthy hunters generally go unnoticed and provide a conservation service to the island by reducing the population and filling the freezer. It’s the two weeks after Thanksgiving, marking shotgun season, where there may be more of a significant impact to the deer herd. On the opening day of shotgun season 2015, more than 80 deer were checked in at the tagging station. We’ll have to wait until January when the numbers come out to see how successful this year’s hunting season truly has been.

During this time of year, I would caution outdoor activities on huntable lands. Remember, there is no hunting in the whole state on Sundays and there are many properties, such as the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, where hunting is never allowed. If you do venture out, don’t forget to wear orange. It is the new black, after all.


The 2015 Massachusetts deer hunting seasons are as follows: archery, October 19 – November 28; shotgun, November 30 – 12 December; primitive firearms, December 14 – 31. By law, hunting is only permitted between 1/2 hour before sunrise and 1/2 hour after sunset. Hunting is prohibited on Sundays.

Click here for information on property-specific regulations with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation.