A white-tailed deer stands at forest's edge near a resting flock of Canada geese at Terrapin Nature Park in Stevensville, Maryland. Also known as the Virginia deer, the white-tailed deer gets its name from the white underside of its tail, which it will raise like a flag when alarmed.
In the early 1900s, unrestricted hunting, loss of forests and a rapid increase in development lead to a sharp decline in white-tailed deer populations. Over the next few decades, conservation programs in many states helped re-establish deer populations in the Eastern United States. But just as deer populations had previously suffered, the numbers of their natural predators—wolves, coyotes and mountain lions—fell, too. And as deer populations rebounded, a lack of these major predators allowed herds to grow exponentially, bringing with them a multitude of growing pains, including damage to agricultural crops and gardens, a loss of diversity in plant species and dangerous deer-vehicle collisions.
Scientists refer to the maximum population size that can thrive in a given habitat as that area’s “biological carrying capacity”: the amount of individuals in a species that can survive indefinitely on the food, water and other necessities available in the environment. But another concept is the “cultural carrying capacity”: the number of individuals of a species that can coexist comfortably with the local human population. Deer management experts across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are working to solve the complex puzzle of maintaining deer populations at levels that both support a healthy ecosystem and strike a balance with humans.