Mule deer don't just wander through the Boulder, Colo., neighborhood where I live. They drop fawns in our backyards. They browse on almost everything. In Table Mesa, surrounded by open space, it's a love-it-or-leave-it situation. Don't like Odocoileus hemionus eating your garden? The solution is simple: move. Venison is not an option.
When I moved here in 1989, I
promptly set to work transforming the bluegrass lawn. In the front
yard, I worked out a native plants scheme, moving from high plains
grassland to montane zone. I started digging and planting: quaking
aspen, gambel oak, upright juniper, ponderosa pine and a Colorado
spruce. To mimic the riparian areas of the foothills, I planted
dwarf willow and staghorn sumac. I left a postage-stamp of the
remaining bluegrass and another of sage and
It wasn't long before the mule deer
moved in. They stripped both aspen and oak of fresh spring growth.
They devoured the creamy blossoms shooting up from my native
yuccas. They ate the staghorn sumac down to the nub. They ate my
columbines and my yarrow, and the candles off the ponderosa pine
seedlings. They devoured my wild rose, laboriously transplanted
from private property. They tried to eat my prickly
As for the herb and vegetable gardens, only
oregano and lemon thyme didn't appeal. The flower garden was
delicious. Down went peonies, vinca, larkspur, lupine and tulips.
Year in, year out, always the tulips. Like Ben & Jerry's for
Thus began my trial by deer. It was
easy enough to terrorize them: I found myself running out the back
door, waving my arms and making like an excited orangutan. This
frightened them off as far as the neighbors' yards. As soon as I
was inside, they would mosey on back. The young ones who couldn't
leap the fence so handily seemed genuinely terrorized, and I
thought perhaps this early trauma might discourage them. But I
learned what hunters have always known. Mule deer, when frightened,
run about 10 paces and stop to look around. If no longer
threatened, they forget all about it and go about their
I got serious and perused the hardware
store display, buying several brands of deer repellent and spraying
lavishly on the edibles. They appeared to consider it salad
Marking my territory like a predator
was the answer, I heard. I wasn't keen on the idea of urinating all
over the front yard, so I peed in an old milk jug and distributed
the "scent" to key locations.
Somebody on the bus told me that
predator scat would do it. I called the mammal curator at the
Denver Zoo. "You're from Boulder, aren't you?" he said. "Every year
I get a call from somebody over there with the same question. Ever
hear the story of the smart deer and the stupid deer?"
On the promise that I would spread the tale
around, he told me. "Say you sprinkle lion poop all around your
garden. The smart deer comes along and sniffs the scat, notices
that it isn't fresh. The smart deer eats your garden, unafraid of
some phantom, long-gone predator. The stupid deer comes along and
sees the same scat. He doesn't know what it is, he doesn't know
where it came from and he doesn't care. He eats your garden. So
there you have it."
"What do you recommend?" I
"Keep a mountain lion on a 40-foot
chain in the backyard."
Meanwhile, the deer
family grew. Healthy, of course. Deer #246, now a 10-point beauty
of a buck sporting tagged ears, commanded his own harem and a
bachelor herd in our neighbors' backyards. His young bucksters are
now getting horny enough to challenge him. It won't be long before
we see #246 at the cafe down the street, sipping cappuccino,
retired. People here labor under the misconception that deer wander
into our yards when the going gets scarce on the mesas. Make no
mistake; these deer never leave the
Three things work:
fences, more fences and giving up. I put chickenwire around the
aspen and oak; they're doing well. I gave up on the staghorn sumac
and now it's trying to re-establish itself from the old rootstock.
I discovered I could make it difficult for the deer to leap the
fences; I constructed elaborate high-jumps from fallen branches.
Those obstacles work sufficiently to allow re-establishing the
flower garden. The deer still come around, but it's an odds game.
Reduce the number of visits and you increase the number of
Pay closer attention to what
they disdain. My neighbor has donkeytail spurge growing out of
control. "The deer won't eat it," he insists. But spurge has not
yet been upgraded from aggressive exotic to native, so I pull it. I
have yet to see a deer eat sagebrush or rabbitbrush. They show no
interest at all in iris, hyacinth and daffodil and barely touch
penstemon. They've never tasted the willows nor do they seem at all
interested in cinquefoil. But that could change if a new generation
acquires new tastes.
I no longer try to terrorize
the deer. If I speak to them they may leave. Last week, I tiptoed
out with my guitar and played the blues for them. They didn't know
what to make of it, but when I aggressively vamped an E-major
chord, they sailed over the fence. I watched them go and fortified
the spot with more branches. It's a question of minimizing the
losses and appreciating the gains. When all is said and done, this
is true: My garden is inhabited by graceful, elegant creatures.
Evan Cantor thrives in