Land & Environment

Oh, Deer! USU Students Exploring Solutions for Human-Wildlife Conflicts

USU wildlife science students Ericka Waters, left, and Arthur Wallis measure Austrian pine limbs at a study site. The Berryman student chapter members are studying ways to deter deer browsing of residential landscapes.

It’s said fences make good neighbors, but the white picket variety of American dreams does little to deter four-legged, high-jumping neighbors of the antlered variety.

Residents of Cache Valley, home of Utah State University, relish their home’s natural beauty, but co-existing with wildlife – including deer – presents challenges.

“Over-abundant urban deer populations are becoming an increasing concern in Cache Valley,” says Jeremy Keys, an undergraduate wildlife science major at USU and president of the student chapter of the USU-based Berryman Institute for Wildlife Damage Management. “A mission of our chapter is to increase public awareness of how best to resolve human wildlife conflicts through education, outreach and science.”

With that in mind, Keys and fellow chapter members Zach Dustin, David Schick, Arthur Wallis and Ericka Waters have embarked on a community research project to help Cache Valley residents foster a wildlife friendly habitat without being eaten out of house – and yard.

“We were approached by Nibley, Utah resident Ron Hellstern, who’s leading efforts to certify his community as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation,” Keys says. “We think there are ways to reduce damage from deer without reducing deer numbers.”

For a community to achieve NWF wildlife habitat certification, a certain percentage of residents must demonstrate their yards can provide food, shelter, water for wildlife, as well as a place for wildlife to raise their young. Nibley is on track to become the first city in Utah to gain certification, which encourages restoration of habitat in residential and commercial areas.

Still, there’s a balance to be achieved in encouraging wildlife, yet reducing common wildlife-human conflicts such as expensive and repeated residential and agricultural landscape damage.

Keys’ faculty mentor Terry Messmer, Quinney Professor for Wildlife Conflict Management in USU’s Department of Wildland Resources, thinks the students are on to something.

“This project hits on all the cylinders,” says Messmer, who is the Berryman Institute director and an Extension wildlife specialist. “It gives our students an opportunity to provide a valuable community service, while gaining hands-on experience in applying science to real-life wildlife-urban interface issues. In addition, they’ll work to publish their research results in an academic journal and present their findings at a professional meeting.”

But the task ahead is daunting.

“Ornamental plants, trees and flowers we add to our yards are deer candy,” Messmer says. “How do you keep the deer away without harming the animals?”

The Berryman chapter members met with Hellstern, who offered his two-acre property as a study site. The students are exploring several possible solutions to deter deer from devouring the Nibley resident’s Austrian pines and pear, apple, peach and plum trees – all irresistible treats to the wildland critters.

“We started by surveying and mapping the study site, measuring tree limbs and setting up controls,” says Keys, chapter president. “As we continue our study over the next six months, we’ll continually measure the extent of deer browsing to determine the effectiveness of our varied deterrents.”

On some trees, the students are testing a taste repellant that doesn’t harm deer but is advertised to make enticing plants much less tasty. On other trees, chapter members are applying plastic netting to prevent damage from nibbling.

“Over the next six months, we’ll carefully monitor our treatment methods and document whether or not they’re effective,” Keys says. “We hope our results can be broadly applied in other areas.”

“Our chapter was excited to get involved,” says Dustin, Berryman chapter vice president. “It’s cool to network with people in the community and use what we’re learning to help them. That’s a big part of college to me.”

Related Links

“USU Club Aims to Help Locals Deer-Proof Yards,” The Herald Journal

USU Department of Wildland Resources

USU-based Jack H. Berryman Institute 

USU Quinney College of Natural Resources 

USU Extension Wildlife Conflicts 

Contact: Terry Messmer, 435-797-3975,

Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-3517,

Back on campus, research team member Zach Dustin carefully compiles hand-written field data for computer entry. The undergrads hope to publish research results in an academic journal and present findings at a professional meeting.


Hands-on Learning 133stories Plants 119stories Wildlife 104stories Wildland 73stories Land Management 67stories Solutions 34stories

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