Whitetails at the Crossroads: Have Whitetail Numbers Declined?

crossroads_fNot long ago, had you walked into the average gun shop or feed store and claimed, "Whitetails are in deep trouble," the guys likely would have glanced at each other, looked back at you and burst out laughing. How could North America's No. 1 big-game animal — the only one readily able to coexist with people, and the only one whose population boom is increasingly blamed for environmental issues — now be struggling? By comparison, eyewitness reports of a zombie apocalypse might have seemed credible.

Yet as we approach another hunting season, the notion of major issues with the whitetail population doesn't seem so loony after all. Not everywhere, at least. Today, more than at any other time in recent years, concerns over falling numbers and general herd health are on the minds, and lips, of literally millions of hunters, landowners and resource professionals from the Southeast to the northern Rockies.

They're especially big news in the U.S. heartland, where the species had seen a sustained renaissance since the middle of the last century.

A gradual decrease in whitetail numbers evidently has been occurring for around a decade now. Dr. Kent Webb, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, estimates the U.S. population fell roughly 13 percent from 2006 to 2012, from approximately 30 million to 26.3 million. And then the decline actually seems to have accelerated.

While final harvest totals aren't yet in, we know the 2013 kill was down a lot even from 2012. And at one taxidermy shop, deer cooler and post-season hunting show after another, a shortage of large racks suggested the trophy hunting was as bleak as the deer hunting in general.

crossroads_3In the wake of such results, people will ask questions. And in absence of clear answers to them, they'll freely formulate their own. To do so, they'll blend what they've observed with what they've heard and maybe even what they want to believe.

One evening in July, I posed a simple question on my personal Facebook page: "Who out there has fewer deer to hunt than five years ago?" Within minutes, responses were flooding in from across the whitetail's range.

From Pennsylvania: "I've seen a dramatic decrease over the last 5-10 years. I remember hunting with my grandfather and seeing 20-30 deer a day. Now I'm lucky if I see that number in a week."

From Michigan: "Last season our group took one doe. That was the only deer anyone had a shot at."

From Illinois: "EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and liberal harvest numbers have led to the decline."

From New York: "Last two years have been the worst!"

From Wisconsin: "Harsh winters, too many predators, way too many doe tags and other political problems have diminished the herd."

From Ohio: "I don't see as many deer as I did a few years ago, before the ODNR caved in to the insurance companies and Farm Bureau and let people kill six deer. That, combined with the change in how you check in deer (telecheck), opens the door for even more poaching. How this will affect the quality of the deer herd Ohio is noted for remains to be seen."

From Montana: "The West is devastated. Between wolves, winter kill, disease, too many doe tags issued, other predators, etc., some areas are down 80 percent or more. Yet they do not issue fewer tags in most areas."

From Indiana: "Way down, thanks to the DNR biologists letting each hunter harvest 12 deer. And the EHD that went through."

From Maine: "Unlike the Midwest, most of our loss has come from the destruction of good winter cover and severe winters. Our fish and wildlife department wanted to reduce numbers in my part of the state but likely went too far. No EHD here."

From Georgia: "I had a lease for 25 years in Heard County (west-central). I now hunt out of state because the deer numbers have dropped so much. With the numbers down in many parts of Georgia, it takes its toll on the quality of deer you harvest. My personal opinion is that the DNR setting bag limits so high, along with predators, has taken a heavy toll on Georgia deer numbers."

From Manitoba: "Parts are down 50-75 percent from five years ago. Three rough winters out of the last four, high predator numbers and poorly funded wildlife departments are all playing a role. Game managers simply don't have the funds to keep tabs on whitetails or to improve their knowledge of modern management philosophies. Plus, our current government sees money from tags as a form of revenue and is very hesitant to reduce or close any big-game seasons."

I could go on, but you get the idea. If you're concerned that the bottom has fallen out of whitetail numbers in some places, you're far from alone. Yet my Facebook post also received a number of replies suggesting populations remain in good shape in many locations, particularly in more temperate regions.

From Kentucky: "Not a problem here. It's been pretty darn good."

From Texas: "Deer population is the highest we've seen in years. Not sure what the 'official' stats are, but where I personally hunt in South, East and West Texas, we're not seeing a decrease at all. Plenty of deer. TPWD has done an incredible job of managing the herd. Antler restrictions have been a huge plus for Texas: more and bigger deer!"

From North Carolina: "Numbers are strong in central NC. Too strong."

From Maryland: "Where I live, near the Pennsylvania border, there are good numbers — but no bears and very few coyotes."

From Arkansas: "We have almost too many. We kill almost 100,000 bucks a year. We have plenty of deer."

From New Jersey: "We have so many deer. The bag limit is six bucks and unlimited does, and the population is still rising."

And yes, I also got positive feedback from some states in which other respondents pointed to problems.

From Wisconsin: "This year, bean and alfalfa fields are full of animals, and mature deer at that. The increase in mosquitoes has pushed them out of the swamps and thickets and into the open. If you want a great out-of-state hunt, west-central Wisconsin is the place to be."

From New York: "Last year I processed over 100 New York deer, with some nice bucks in the mix. Usually I do only about 25 a year." (This came from a processor in New Jersey.)

From Georgia: "Plenty down here in South Georgia. Ten years ago I never saw a deer on the property behind my house. Now six to eight live back there."

From Illinois: "My area was not affected as badly as some others. As for all the deer everyone said died in our area: Don't you think you would be tripping over them? Plus, everyone around here is complaining about all the deer again. They all showed back up. We had a really good shed season, also."

So public perception of what's going on varies greatly from person to person. This is of course due to individual location, observational skills and experience, but it's also related to nuances in timing and other factors that can be tricky to isolate.

Even on opposite sides of the same thicket on the same day, two hunters could reach very different conclusions on how many deer are in the area, as well as the herd's sex ratio, age structure, average body size and even genetic potential.

crossroads_4We avid hunters and landowners are good observers, but few of us are trained in the science of deer biology. And even if we've compiled herd data for the land we hunt, we have few benchmarks for comparison to other herds. We see what we see and wonder who else is seeing the same thing — and why.

Let's accept the obvious: that there are far fewer whitetails today than even a few years ago. What really has caused the decline? Has tough weather hammered recruitment rates? Is EHD, some other disease or perhaps even a new parasite the problem? Have increases in large predators finally tipped the balance too far in their favor? Is some mysterious pathogen in the soil or water to blame? Could we simply have been shooting too many does?

With so many questions and so few hard answers to date, it's easy to see why the public would be as confused as it is concerned.

Each of these factors of course has potential to reduce deer numbers. But whitetails had been doing so well overall despite a number of natural and man-made threats.

What's curious is that everything suddenly seems to have coalesced into a significant decline. Is it just bad luck so many threats have arisen at once? If so, is this a natural blip that will correct itself in time? Or are many of our whitetail herds really in deep trouble? If they are, what can, and should, be done about it?

Getting a Headcount

To claim there's been a decline in numbers is of course to say we know there were more deer in the past. And that in turn suggests we have some reliable way to make such a comparison. Do we?

Let's start with a core truth: It's virtually impossible to get an exact count of any organism. Even if we could, by the end of the process that number would have changed. Perhaps only in the case of the rarest species do we really have any hope of getting within 1 or 2 percent of the true number. But that's not simple, either. There's still a certain amount of estimation involved.

For example, counting the world's endangered whooping cranes — which are big, white, live in the wide open and basically consist of one flock of just under 300 birds — is so tricky ornithologists make no claim to being dead on with their annual census. And this is a daytime-active species whose ultra-limited nesting and wintering sites are well known and exhaustively studied.

Whitetails of course are different. They live all over and like to hide; they don't care to parade past a trained observer in single file, in daylight. So the notion of truly counting them is a joke. If you think there's a way to get even a 95 percent accurate census of wild whitetails scattered over the world's third-largest continent, you might well also believe in unicorns.

Yet despite the overwhelming problems associated with counting deer, many wildlife agencies feel compelled to at least come up with ballpark figures. To that end, they've long employed a range of censusing techniques, individually or in combination. Among these are aerial surveys (using helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft), walking observer counts on transect lines, vehicle spotlight counts, track/pellet counts and the use of trail cameras.

Deer-vehicle accident data also are used to extrapolate overall numbers in some areas. Many wildlife agencies also use legal harvest as another indicator of how many deer there are, operating off the premise that the overall hunter success rate is a fairly constant percentage of the number of animals available.

crossroads_2With whitetail populations, what tends to get the public's attention is an increase in conflicts with humans (road kills, damage to ornamental plants, crop losses, Lyme disease, etc.) or a decrease in hunter sightings/harvest.

Also, a notable lack of mature bucks will sound the alarm for many serious hunters, even if the general public and casual hunters don't notice or specifically care about it. Absent sudden change in these areas, hunters and non-hunters alike tend to see the population as healthy and in reasonable balance with its habitat.

But in truth, deer and all other wildlife populations are in a perpetual state of flux, with numbers varying as conditions dictate.

It might be tempting to say hunting conditions account for a big part of the yearly swing in harvest numbers. And of course they play a role. Standing corn, severe weather, even the vagaries of how holidays happen to fall in relation to gun season: all can have a local or perhaps even regional impact on hunting effort and the number of deer taken. But across a continent — and over several years — a pronounced downturn in the kill is difficult to explain unless deer numbers are themselves lower.

The number of whitetail hunters has dropped a bit in some places of late, but overall it's held up better than the harvest has. So the decline hasn't resulted from a sudden drop in hunter participation. And presumably it hasn't come about because large numbers of hunters suddenly have become far more selective in choosing targets. It's even hard to say people now have less free time to be in the woods.

The most logical conclusion to draw is that the average hunter simply is having a harder time finding suitable deer to shoot.

A History Lesson

There wasn't always what today's hunter might call a "normal" number of whitetails. In precolonial times, Eastern herds were scattered across vast woodlands, with high densities mainly confined to where windstorms, ice damage and/or fires (some caused by nature, others by man) had opened the forest canopy enough to let much understory forage grow.

Relentless logging, especially in the eastern third of North America, joined hand in hand with nonstop subsistence and market hunting to decimate the whitetail population. So great was the destruction that by just after 1900 the North American population likely totaled only a half-million or so: roughly the number now in Louisiana alone. This was around a 98 percent drop in the herd from what experts think lived on the continent in 1500.

With forest regrowth, greater protection of existing herds and restocking efforts in areas that no longer had deer, numbers began to rise. Some newly formed wildlife agencies outlawed deer hunting for much, if not all, of the first half of the 20th century. There was a major effort to bring back the once-common whitetail.

During settlement large predators also were greatly reduced by hunting, as well as trapping. Thus, the restocked deer had a relatively easy time taking hold. And they quickly increased in many areas. With millions of North Americans serving in the military during the bulk of two world wars, and with millions more working to support them, there weren't that many people in the woods even where hunting was legal. It was a great time to be a whitetail.

By the founding of North American Whitetail magazine in late 1982, the overall population was in full explosion mode. In a feature I wrote for an issue 31 years ago, I profiled the deer-rich Central Texas Hill Country in which I'd grown up. I noted roughly 1.5 million whitetails then occupied the 25-county region, and that this number constituted roughly 10 percent of North America's total population. (The Hill Country had so many deer in part because of light hunting pressure, limited antlerless permits, range conditions that had improved rapidly from a major drought in the 1950s and the advent of effective control of the screwworm, which always had killed many fawns in the region.)

From the estimated 15 million or so whitetails living when NAW began just over three decades ago, the number kept climbing. By most estimates, it did so until sometime in the very early 2000s, when it appears to have topped out at 30 million or a bit over. Whether or not that's the most ever living on the continent at once we don't know, but it's likely the high-water mark of the modern era.

Such estimates are offered not to explain today's downtrend but to show what's "normal" for a population can depend somewhat on when you examine it. When NAW began, at the continental level there was around one whitetail per whitetail hunter. Even now there are roughly two per hunter.

We've become accustomed to even higher deer numbers, so we know they're at least temporarily possible. Question is, are they sustainable over the longer haul?

In one way, making sense of today's whitetail world requires a really big-picture view. But it's on the local level that hunters and landowners have their main concerns. That's where our most popular big-game species really is managed. It's also the level at which most positive change will occur.

What Do The Agencies Say?

There are fewer whitetails now, and many people feel the population is too low. They want "their" deer back and want help in making it happen.

After right at a century of almost uninterrupted growth, the continent's whitetail population recently has dipped. While the current estimate of more than 26 million is still nearly double that of when North American Whitetail magazine was founded in 1982, the recent downturn has many deer hunters and land managers worried about what the future might hold. Disease outbreaks, historically high doe harvest, increasing predator issues, climate change and assorted land-use challenges all are on the list of concerns for many whitetail enthusiasts.

In an effort to address the current situation and determine how the species' future can be improved, with its Sept. 2014 issue NAW began a 5-part series titled, "Whitetails at the Crossroads." Written by editor in chief Gordon Whittington and editor Patrick Hogan, this series focuses on the complex web of factors that, to varying degrees, affect the deer you hunt and manage.

Unlike waterfowl and saltwater fishes, whitetails aren't collectively managed by groups of agencies across state/province borders. So what do these folks at various agencies say is going on with whitetails inside their boundaries? And what, if anything, are they in a position to do about any population issues that are being seen?

With such questions in mind, NAW recently asked a number of deer program leaders at state and provincial wildlife agencies the following:

(1) How has the overall whitetail population in your state/province been trending (over the past decade in particular)?

(2) To which main factor(s) does your agency attribute any change?

(3) Should your agency perceive a shift in management strategy is needed, what are the most practical tools available to you for making that happen?

As expected, responses to these questions varied greatly from one area and biologist to the next. Those received prior to the deadline for the Oct. 2014 issue can be found there.

Check out their responses below (photos do not represent the DNR agents/biologists):

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Be Sure to Watch

NAW editor Pat Hogan and I, along with Dr. James Kroll, will appear on an upcoming Sportsman Channel special hosted by Paul Sawyer of Whitetail Properties. State of the Whitetail Union will present many experts' views on issues we're addressing here. Check out the two-part special event airing 9/23 and 9/30 at 9:30PM ET. In the meantime, if you'd like to offer your thoughts on what's going on with the deer herd, or find out what other hunters and landowners are saying, please visit the NAW Community section.

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