Venison is not an option

  • View from the living room

    Evan Cantor

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 rabbitbrush.

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 pear.

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 mule deer.

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 business.

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 dressing.

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. Ineffective.

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 asked him.

"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 city.

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 surviving plants.

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 Boulder, Colorado.

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