Island National Seashore was established more than forty
years ago, the sighting of a deer was rare. Today, deer are commonly
seen in many parts of the park and in the Fire
Island communities. While the chance to see wildlife is
still valued by many people on Fire Island,
there are concerns related to the abundance and distribution of deer
within the boundaries of the Seashore.
A doe and her fawn in the
maritime forest at Watch Hill.
White-tailed deer are the most
widely-distributed large mammal in North America.
While native to Atlantic barrier islands, they were apparently not numerous
on Fire Island when the park was
established in 1964. However, their numbers have increased dramatically
since that time, along with issues relating to an overabundance of deer:
their impact on native and cultivated vegetation and forest regeneration,
and their association with the spread of disease.
Deer can be found across Fire
Island: from the densely populated Fire Island communities on the western
end of the island, to the undeveloped Otis Pike Fire
Island High Dune Wilderness on the eastern end. Deer also
live and forage at the William Floyd Estate, on Long
Deer behind the dunes in the Fire Island Wilderness.
There are currently approximately
300-500 deer on Fire Island.
Deer density, or the number of
deer per square mile, varies widely between locations on Fire
Island. (This number is also frequently provided per
square kilometer, or km2, in many studies.)
The number of deer, however, is
not as important as the impacts related to their abundance and
So, where are all the deer?
White-tailed deer are crepuscular. That means that they are typically
active at dawn and dusk, but may be out of sight during the middle of the
Bucks in field at William
Floyd Estate, late November.
Bucks use their antlers to spar
with other males during the rut.
Basic Deer Biology
White-tailed deer mate in
Male deer, or "bucks."
can be identified during the mating season by their antlers, which they
grow and shed annually. Antlers consist of bone, cartilage and blood
vessels, and are covered by a living tissue called "velvet." The
growth and shape of antlers depends largely on nutrition and genetics.
Through autumn and much of winter,
antlers remain intact for mating displays and territorial defense.
Doe and her fawn in late June on Fire Island.
The female deer, or does, give
birth to 1 to 3 young in mid to late spring.
White-tail deer live from 6-10
years in the wild, but may live as long as 18 years on Fire Island. Unchecked, deer may double their
population numbers every 1˝ years.
Their weight can range from 110
to 300 pounds. Deer are herbivores, eating about 4-6 pounds of a variety of
plant parts each day. As they browse, deer can affect the abundance and
composition of plant species in their habitat.
Deer have no natural predators on
Sunken Forest understory vegetation, the
low-growing wildflowers and seedlings that live under the canopy of the
trees, in 1967 (left) and in 2002 (center). Herbivore exclosures (right) allow researchers to monitor
seedling establishment in Fire Island's
rare maritime holly forests. Impacts of deer threaten the regeneration
of ancient American holly trees in the Sunken Forest.
Deer and Vegetation Research on Fire
Island National Seashore has been involved in a number of
vegetation and deer monitoring programs over the past 40+ years. During
surveys of plants in the Sunken
Forest in the late
1960s, no deer were reported. From studies conducted in preparation of the
Seashore's draft Master Plan and 1978 general management plan (GMP), signs
of deer browse were evident in the Sunken Forest, and 46 deer were observed
in an island-wide aerial census conducted in 1971. By the early 1980s, deer
abundance and their impacts on vegetation were beginning to be noticeable
across the island. By the mid-1990s, deer had become very abundant within
the Fire Island communities.
How many deer are there on Fire Island? In 1974, Fire
Island's deer herd was estimated at 50 individuals, by 1989 it
was close to 500; and in 2003 it was estimated to be between 500 and 700.
From population density studies over the past few years, it is estimated
that 300 to 500 deer now live on Fire Island. (A
deer fertility study was conducted on Fire Island from 1993-2009.)
During this same period, from the
1960s to present, studies at the Sunken
Forest have revealed
a reduction in the number of plants and small trees in the understory. Other areas within the park also
exhibit impacts to vegetation.
Learn More about Deer Research on Fire Island
Deer scavenging through
unsecured garbage bin in a Fire Island
community. Debris can attract rodents and other wildlife.
Deer can be found foraging in
gardens or rummaging through trash in most Fire Island
Coexisting with Wildlife
There are almost 4,500 homes in
the 17 communities within the boundaries of Fire
Island National Seashore. Where there are residences, there
are often garden plants. Deer tend to prefer succulent plants and
often forage around homes in Fire Island
communities. The human environment seems an unlikely place for wild
animals, but gardens and garbage are an abundant food source and raised
houses and boardwalks provide shelter.
Learn more about how People and Deer can Coexist on
Deer Management Plan
Island scientists have conducted research and a variety
of other studies related to deer for many years. However, the park
does not have a deer management plan. In 2011, the National Park Service
has begun the process of preparing a White-tailed Deer and Vegetation Management Plan and
Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)for Fire
Island National Seashore. Your participation is vital to this
Please visit the National Park Service Planning, Environment and Public
Comment (PEPC) website for further information.
Feeding deer is not only
unhealthy for the deer and potentially unsafe for you, it is also illegal
to feed wildlife in a National Park Service area.
Please help keep our Fire Island wildlife
wild—Don't Feed Deer.
White-tailed deer are beautiful
creatures and it is exciting to view them at close distances. On Fire Island, white-tailed deer are accustomed to
humans and tend not to flee. For this reason, people can get very close to
white-tailed deer and, oftentimes, try to touch or hand feed them. It is
understandable that a close encounter with a wild animal in a natural
setting is exciting. However, it is best to maintain a safe distance from
white-tailed deer in order to promote a natural environment for the animals
themselves and to protect yourself from harm.