Wildlife can damage home gardens, crops

Managing issue no easy task

An electric fence helps keep large animals, such as white-tailed deer, out of the home garden and prevents wildlife damage to crops. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

MARQUETTE — Planting a garden takes time, work and patience but when a hungry deer creeps into your rows of corn, gobbling up the product of those many back-breaking hours, those beautiful animals become nuisances.

In the Smart Gardening Series hosted by Michigan State University Extension, MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Director James DeDecker explained how to manage wildlife damage to home gardens and crops in the presentation “Creating Pollinator Friendly Landscapes and Wildlife Damage Management in Home Gardens” June 16 in a Zoom video conference.

Managing wildlife damage includes several approaches, including installing tall fences, DeDecker said.

“Depending on who you are and the context, a deer can be a beautiful animal to admire. It can be a trophy for your wall. It can be a hungry pest coming for your garden plants,” DeDecker said.

In the U.P., most crop damage is the result of white-tailed deer, DeDecker said. However, in Chatham, bird damage is an issue, he said, adding that sandhill cranes cause a lot of damage to small grain, corn and potato crops.

Strawberry plants, pictured above, may be the perfect treat for small wildlife but installing fencing or scare tactics, such as scarecrows or fake owls, near a home garden helps keep out wildlife from damaging crops. (Journal photo by Jackie Jahfetson)

Across the United States, wildlife damage exceeds $4.5 billion annually, DeDecker said.

In Wisconsin alone, the state lost $28 million to white-tailed deer damage in one season, he said, adding that wildlife damage in Michigan is limited.

Wildlife damage management is “the art and science of manipulating habitats, wildlife and humans to alleviate damage issues,” he said.

However, wildlife damage is a “complex and value-laden problem,” because there are multiple passionate stakeholder groups, high economic stakes and a complex intersection of state/federal laws and agricultural best practices to keep in mind, DeDecker noted.

“What I think is really unique about this is that it reflects the human element. And we often leave that human element out of other pest management systems and approaches, and I think that’s because of the fact that we don’t have the same values tied to weeds or insects, pests, as we do to wildlife. So, that human element is pretty important,” he said.

Looking at wildlife damage, there is a difference between perceived and real losses. For example, in a home garden that’s designed to have aesthetic appeal, damage to the appearance may feel more important than the economic loss from the damage.

Wildlife damage can be found on twigs, leaves, fruits, buds, bark and it’s a very context-specific problem, he said.

In order to control the wildlife damage, gardeners and crop growers have to look at where it is occurring, identifying the specific crop, areas of farm or field, associated habitat and management on damaged and neighboring properties.

Other variables include the time of damage — the particular season, crop phase, time of day — and the cost of damage versus the value of wildlife, which can be considered in terms of damage versus yield loss, economic thresholds, personal tolerance and social acceptability, he explained.

Resources for controlling wildlife damage include regulations, control tools, efficacy, time, labor and capital.

Implementing scare tactics, or mechanical controls, such as lights, lasers, loud sounds, predator effigies, water jets, bio-acoustics and dogs is a way to keep wildlife from entering your garden and fields along with repellents, which are chemical controls.

DeDecker said repellants can be contact or area repellents. Contact repellents are applied directly to vegetation and deter through taste or physical discomfort. Area repellents are applied on or near vegetation and deter through odor and are best suited for small areas and high-value crops. These repellents also require regular renewal and can be expensive, he added.

“The gold standard for wildlife damage management is exclusion, usually by fencing or other physical barriers,” DeDecker said.

The issue with growing deer populations each season is that there are fewer hunters to manage wildlife and there needs to be more economic incentives for voluntary hunters, DeDecker said.

“What’s pretty neat about this too is the fact that initially, individuals can have all of these different values wrapped up,” he said. “For example, I work with farmers that they love to complain about the deer damage on the farm, but they’re hunters when November rolls around and so they’re reluctant to implement some control tools because they also value the deer as hunters.”

DeDecker also addressed the concept of integrated pest management, where the objective is to mitigate risk while managing pests.

This method reduces the financial cost of pest management, prevents pesticide resistance, allows habituation to other controls, maintains beneficial and valuable attributes of “pest” populations, protects non-target species, population and individuals and protects environmental quality and human health, DeDecker said.

Applying this method includes implementing pest management thresholds and combining multiple control tactics, he said.

Ultimately, he noted that keeping wildlife out of your gardens and field crops begins with what you plant, the palatability of plants, as well as the preference for certain crops that contain particular nutrient contents, varies with different species.

Jackie Jahfetson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is



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