Backyard warnings from a deer

Trail Camera capture by Mark Paulat, Maricopa County Parks and Recreation.

By Nikki Julien, Arizona Wildlife Federation, and Diane Vaszily, Desert Awareness Committee

Are you thrilled and excited when you see wildlife taking a drink in your backyard or do you wonder why they are ignoring the dangers associated with humans for that drink? Wildlife do not generally choose to be around us…we humans are loud, confusing, dangerous and unpredictable. Deer have been successfully living in the desert without us, so why the new cozy relationship? Could it be that they are unable to find water for themselves? What happened to their water holes?

Photo by Sue Mueller

You see, climate change isn’t just impacting us humans (the cause of the problem); rising temperatures for longer periods affects all life. Not just residents of the desert foothills, not just deer and other wildlife, but plants too. Desert adapted plants, such as the palo verde and ocotillo, drop their leaves in response to dry conditions. Deer are hearty when it comes to desert living and are able to get much of their moisture requirements from their food, but when there are no leaves and no water, what’s a deer to do?

Wildlife is then forced to face their fears and get closer to humans for the chance to survive. But, in addition to the rewards of life-giving water or a meal of the irrigated plant life in your yard, proximity to humans also brings its dangers—vehicles, illegal hunting, dogs, and disease from domestic livestock. Those that survive these hazards are more likely to try it again, pushing their luck out of absolute necessity. Fawns following mom’s example grow up thinking humans aren’t so bad. While we love to see them, it really is a deadly combination especially when fawn predators such as bobcats and deer predators like mountain lions are also in dire need of meals and moisture.

Long before we came on the scene, nature had it down to a science. That science is now changing. Drought is nothing new for the desert, it is a natural cycle in the desert ecosystem. Unfortunately, what has been happening since humans built cities into the desert intensifies drought conditions. The asphalt roads, concrete patios and driveways add to the heat island effect which in turn raises temperatures causing ambient and ground moisture to evaporate. This literally boils the monsoon rain as it pours so it rarely reaches the ground. When rain is lucky enough to land, instead of soaking in to the ground to replenish roots and ground water, it runs off the streets, concrete and roofs into overloaded concrete channels and away. You have seen it happen in your own backyard.

Land use changes often drive deer from their habitat and into a more welcoming area…your yard. Much open space in the Cave Creek area has been redesignated and consequently is now fenced so that it has become inaccessible to most wildlife. In addition, many springs have dried up which ran through the land causing deer and other wildlife to search for water elsewhere. While it is not a good idea to provide food for wildlife, water is so essential that most mammals will find it…even in your backyard. According to Cave Creek resident Sue Mueller, “As the deer lost their access to any water that may have existed in the past on the 250 acres of once open land, they visit our watering hole on a regular basis.”

Conservation organizations and parks build water catchments for wildlife which provide safer locations for deer, javelina and other wildlife to satisfy their thirst away from roadways and the busy lives of humans. Ranger Mark Paulat of Cave Creek Regional Park saw rib-lined deer quickly slurping up the 30 gallons of water from the park’s tortoise habitat and knew it was time for an upgrade. With water supplied by the city of Cave Creek and harvested rainfall, the 9000 gallon water catchment provides not only a drink but also native riparian and desert plants for cover and food with proximity to an established pollinator garden as well. Wildlife visitation has increased dramatically in the number of individual animals and the variety of species. Ranger Mark noted, “Our game camera was triggered more than 4000 times over the course of a three-day weekend.  It would have been more, but the memory card reached capacity and the batteries were spent!”

How are water catchments different than your backyard pool? They keep wildlife away from humans, keeping them cautious and distant. While it might be lovely to photograph wildlife up close, the story of why the deer are there is not so picturesque. Consider it more of a warning.

So what can you do? There’s plenty! Take action at home, in our public lands and with our lawmakers:

  • At home—reduce your water use so you’re not taking more from our aquifers and rivers. Plant desert adapted plants and fix irrigation problems. Harvest water from your driveway and roof onto your land and your trees to soak into the ground.
  • At our public lands—join in a conservation effort to build or fund a water catchment or other wildlife management effort. Volunteer or attend an event about the wonders of our desert by local organizations such as the Desert Awareness Committee and Desert Foothills Land Trust.
  • With your lawmakers—urge them to fund wildlife protections under the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, public land improvements under the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and to act on climate solutions. Visit the Arizona Wildlife Federation website to take action!

Together we can retain the majesty of our wildlife safely (and save the planet at the same time!).

Diane is a retired science and environmental education specialist who serves as the education coordinator for Desert Awareness Committee, a 501c3 volunteer organization under Foothills Community Foundation dedicated to educating all ages about the Sonoran Desert through classroom programs, field experiences, hikes and public seminars held the 1st Monday of each month at the Holland Community Center, Scottsdale. See the list of all events on our website www.azfcf.rg/about-desert-awareness

Nikki Julien is the Outreach Director for the Arizona Wildlife Federation, a 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations to value, conserve, enhance, manage, and protect wildlife and wildlife habitat. Visit to send letters to our Arizona senators, McSally and Sinema, to act on climate.