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A Whitetail Lifespan and What We Can Do About It

A Whitetail Lifespan and What We Can Do About It

Springtime cries out with a renewal across the landscape. Fawns will be hitting the forest floor soon and all whitetails will soon be at their healthiest state of the year. There's nothing to worry about, right? Wrong!

Throughout the lifecycle of a whitetail they encounter a variety of elements that can lead to death. Understanding what causes deer deaths can help you with your overall management strategies. Start with Deer Mortality 101.


The number one cause of deer deaths in North America is … you! Hunters are responsible for the majority of all deer deaths and that includes illegal poaching. This mortality rate varies from state to state depending on hunter success, but you don't have to look any further than you or your neighbor if you wonder what could happen to a mature buck you have been tracking.

According to the Quality Deer Management Association, the buck and doe harvest annually is almost even across the country. The latest data from QDMA reports that in the 2015-16 season the buck harvest was approximately 2.7 million and the doe harvest was 2.8 million.

What can you do to stop a buck from dying at the hands of others? This is where management comes into play if you have a large enough property. Setting up food, water and refuge in a central location away from the neighbor's fence can help in keeping deer from straying. By having an oasis on your property with minimal pressure, deer will be that less likely to wander into the reticle of a waiting hunter.


You once again get to play a role in the death of deer, but it comes at a healthy price tag with the collision of your vehicle and a deer. An estimated 1.23 million deer-vehicle collisions occur in the U.S. annually according to State Farm insurance reports. Every one of those collisions costs approximately $4,000 for a cost to the American car owner of than $4 billion in vehicle damage every year.

There's not a whole lot you can to avoid accidents yourself, but to slow down during the rut, pay attention to deer crossing signs and avoid driving in the following accident-prone states: West Virginia, Montana, Pennsylvania, Iowa and South Dakota.

If your hunting property is located adjacent to a busy byway you will need to heed the strategies found in the hunting section. Keep as much of your deer necessities located in the central interior of your property. By keeping food, water and refuge away from roads you can hopefully keep bucks from being roadkill. If you do find a dead deer look for its location next to a highway and for broken legs. If the collision was severe deer usually only hobble a short way to die.

If you live by a busy road, get ready to find a few deer killed by auto collisions.


Weather has a wide influence in the life cycle of a whitetail. It can be a killer as well. One study out of Wisconsin ranks starvation for killing 17 percent of the deer herd in a farmland setting. Weather can play a critical role in that starvation factor. Drought can cause vegetation to wither, snow can cover up browse and even flooding can drown out, or submerge feed. Any or a combination of these factors can lead to starvation.

Spring is a time when you may see the effects of starvation, especially after a hard winter. The most difficult time for a whitetail is the period just before spring, especially in March. Deer are at their weakest after enduring extreme elements and depleting body reserves. Early spring storms can be the whammy for deer trying to make it just a few more days hoping for spring warmth.

When you're out scouting this spring for new food plot locations or looking for shed antlers you could be flabbergasted at finding more carcasses than you hoped. Chalk many of those up to the weather, especially if the carcasses are fairly fresh and you find the deer in thick bedding cover where they retreated before dying.


Disease can cause deer mortality and you may not know it when you find a decomposed carcass. If you find lots of carcasses, especially outside of the winter window, then you may want to consider some of these disease possibilities. First on everyone's mind is Chronic Wasting Disease.

This trophy whitetail succumbed to a late-summer outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease or HD.

CWD was originally detected 35 years ago in captive animals at a Colorado Division of Wildlife Research facility and made its way to the wild in 1981. Since then, deer and elk infected with the disease have been found in wild and captive populations in the majority of states, plus two Canadian provinces.

CWD is progressive and always fatal. Deer may die anywhere, but like starvation they may return to thick cover as they progressively feel ill. Fortunately for hunters, research has so far concluded that CWD is not a threat to humans if you do handle an infected animal. Regardless, wear latex gloves and avoid brain or vertebrae handling. Stay tuned for more on this as scientists and researchers continue to monitor this perplexing disease that has no cure.

A quiet killer that raises its ugly head in late summer is Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease. HD was first officially documented in New Jersey in 1955, but suspected outbreaks were reported as early as 1901. It attacks with lightning speed and intensity nearly every year in some portion of the expansive whitetail range. HD is the most highly visible viral disease affecting whitetails and shows up in nearly every major whitetail nook, except for the extreme northeast and northwest corners of the whitetail range.

Spread by a tiny, two-winged midge, HD can kill an infected animal within days, if not sooner. Infected animals acquire a high fever and hemorrhage internally, often seeking water for fever relief. This is the reason many carcasses are discovered near reservoirs, creeks and rivers. There is no cure, but one of my friends in South Dakota controls it by spraying stagnant water sources on his property with insecticide in late summer with regularity.


Predation can vary like the weather depending on where you live. Coyotes are the main scoundrels in deer predation, especially in spring as they focus on newborn fawns. Nevertheless, feral dogs, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, wolves and some other hungry varmints can leave you scratching your head over a newfound carcass.

Studies from the U.S. Forest ServiceSouthern Research Station at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina demonstrate just how impactful coyotes can be in new environments. Research indicates approximately 70 percent total fawn mortality at this site. Coyotes were responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities. That premise is increasing east of the Mississippi River in other locations as well.

In much of whitetail country predation accounts for less than 15 percent of mortality, but as noted, in depends on your zip code. Clues to predation are hard to uncover as most dead animals are scavenged and scattered. Plus, attacks can occur anywhere, anytime.

Spring predator control can help fawn recruitment and winter predator control can help relieve stress on winter herds, particularly from harassing coyotes.


Finally, consider the fact that deer can be just as accident prone as you. They can break a leg jumping a fence, snap their neck falling down on ice or snagging their hoof in an inescapable, natural trap. I've found dead deer trapped in the fork of a tree, hanging from fences and at the bottom of a steep cliff. You'll definitely know how a deer died when you discover it hanging from a five-wire fence.

Accidents do happen to the graceful whitetail. A common accident is for a whitetail to catch a hoof in a fence and get hung up to die a grisly death.

Spring is the time to relish in life and the revival of the landscape. Nevertheless, the deer grim reaper is still lurking in the woods and the more you know about him the better prepared you'll be for deer management.

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