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In the restaurant business for more than 50 years, Dieter Meier took pride in serving fine cuisine to countless diners in Santa Rosa.

But Meier, 74 and now working as a restaurant consultant, is chagrined by the sight of black-tailed deer devouring the landscaping around on his hillside home in Oakmont.

"They're here all the time," Meier said. "They eat everything."

Pointing out the devastation of flowers, shrubs and trees planted around his home on Hillsdale Drive five months ago, Meier came across two deer browsing in the back yard.

The deer didn't flinch.

"They don't even move any more," Meier said, declaring this year's unwelcome foraging "the worst ever."

Homeowners around Sonoma County, especially those near wooded areas, share his frustration in trying to cultivate ornamental plants and crops without losing them to the four-legged browsers.

"Any time you're close to their habitat they are going to come down and eat your landscaping," said Coey Morris, manager of Bennett Valley Gardens, a nursery on Yulupa Avenue. "It's just a vegetable garden to them."

Some of his customers are saying the deer are increasingly voracious this year, "eating plants they usually leave alone," Morris said.

With deer habitat shrinking as humans build homes and vineyards in what's known as the wildland-urban interface, the two species are competing for space, said Mary Sommer, acting deer coordinator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Deer are losing, of course, as the statewide population of mule and black-tailed deer, which peaked at more than 1 million in the 1950s and '60s, is now down to about 450,000, she said.

The end of an unusually long, dry summer is the "worst time of year" for deer, who thrive on the protein-rich green sprouts that pop up in forests after the rain begins falling, Sommer said.

California was most hospitable to deer in the mid-1900s, when conifer forests were heavily logged and shrubs — the ideal deer food — were allowed to grow on cleared land, she said.

Today there is far less logging, and it's accompanied by spraying to control brush along with replanting of conifers for "efficient lumber production," Sommer said.

In Sonoma Valley, vineyard and housing development has forced some deer out of the region and pushed others into the remaining wildlands, including 5,500-acre Annadel State Park, said Marjorie Davis, who founded Wildlife Fawn Rescue in 1989.

In search of food and water, Annadel deer descend into Oakmont, feasting on residents' prized roses and gardens, she said. Black-tailed deer are the only species found in Sonoma County.

Some people call them "big rats," Davis said, noting that she has been ripped by Oakmont residents for rescuing injured fawns and saving those found next to their dead mothers.

The best defense against deer depredation is fencing, according to Sommer and Davis, who lives in deer habitat in the hills outside Kenwood.

Many Sonoma County vineyards are protected by deer fencing to guard acres of appealing grapes, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Some growers coat their crop with Surround, a non-toxic kaolin clay spray that imparts a bad taste to marauding deer and readily washes off at crush, she said.

Numerous sources, including the UC <NO1><NO>Cooperative Extension master gardener program in Sonoma County and the state Fish and Wildlife Department, offer long lists of deer-resistant trees, shrubs, grasses and plants.

They come, however, with disclaimers, such as the master gardener program's warning: "If food is scarce, deer will eat plants that are otherwise 'deer-proof.'"

"If they are really hungry they'll eat anything," said Sommer, the state deer expert.

Rather than trust such a list, Coey advises homeowners to take a cue from what their neighbors are successfully growing, indicating both deer resistance and suitability in their area.

Rosemary McCreary, The Press Democrat's gardening columnist, described a Santa Rosa gardener's practice of setting small plants in nursery containers out on a "sacrificial rock" to see if they survive before spending more money.

Plants fresh from a nursery, lush from ample fertilization, are especially appealing to deer, McCreary and Coey said.

Deer repellant is usually effective, Coey said, but it requires multiple applications and often stinks because it contains predator urine.

If fencing is not an option, Sommer suggested installing sprinklers triggered by a motion detector. "I think that will drive them off," she said.

Dieter Meier, who lives next to Annadel park, said his neighborhood is overrun by wild turkeys as well as deer and is occasionally visited by a mountain lion.

His landscaper told him everything that he planted was deer-proof. Meier also spent more than $100 on repellants.

"Nothing worked," he said. The deer, which appear to him to be scrawny, "are starving for food. It's incredible."

Meier also blames his fellow Oakmont residents who enjoy feeding deer. "A lot of people love 'em," he said.

Feeding deer is illegal, and a bad idea because it makes them accustomed to people and artificially increases the local deer population, Sommer said.

"We like deer, too," Meier said. "Too much is too much."

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kevin at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)