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.