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New York's 'Mr. Deer'

New York's 'Mr. Deer'
In this photo, circa the early 1950s, Bill Severinghaus explains his tooth-aging technique to an interested bystander at a whitetail check section in upstate New York.

Since the whitetail deer is New York's most important big game animal, it is inevitable that it would be the subject of much concern and study by sportsman, game officials, and biologists. The management of this magnificent animal has been a controversial subject for many years. Almost every community has its individuals or groups that are vitally interested, in one way or another, in any legislative or management measure which affects the deer population. Each group is a strong champion of its own interests and convictions. There seems to be an almost universal desire to involve a simple panacea that will solve the problem of the local group, yet be acceptable on a statewide basis. Thus, those charged with the management of the deer herd have a host of people looking over their shoulders. In addition to the farmers and foresters, the hunters, resort and hunting camp owners, restaurateurs, sporting goods dealers, and many others have a vital interest in the welfare of the deer." -- (From History of The White-tailed Deer in New York, 1956, C.W. Severinghaus, C.P. Brown, Game Research Investigators, New York State Conservation Department.)

A WHITETAIL PIONEER

History of The White-Tailed Deer in New York was a phenomenal, first of its kind piece of research that covered the abundance and distribution of deer in New York from pre-colonial times. From graphs, maps and charts created long before computers, the booklet explains deer management in New York State from the first statewide law in 1788 that established a closed season from January to July, to the first doe seasons in 1954.


New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 wildlife biologist Ed Reed recently commented, "The only thing missing from that complete history is the arrival of the coyote." During a period that spanned four decades, C.W. Bill Severinghaus became one of the most prolific and productive whitetail research biologists who ever cut a deer track. His work has been referenced in nearly every major white-tailed deer book and publication put out in the past 50 years.


Having authored over 160 scientific papers and conducted research throughout the U.S. and Canada, he was an internationally recognized authority on the biology, life history, management and population dynamics of whitetails. Bill Severinghaus naturally became known locally as "Mr. Deer." Although he retired in 1977 from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Bill continued on as a consulting wildlife biologist for many years.

THE BIOLOGY OF DEER

In 1949, the criteria for determining the age in white-tailed deer through tooth development, wear and replacement became this biologist's most notable achievement. After examining the jawbones of 18,000 deer, Severinghaus and fellow researcher Jack Tanck worked up a system that became, and still is today, the standard for aging deer. Although more accurate methods are in use today, the Severinghaus/Tanck method is still the only one that can be used with a fair degree of accuracy in the field by the average layman.

Severinghaus did a lot of research in the Adirondack Mountains, particularly the 50,000-acre wilderness called the Moose River Plains. In his study of trails and runways, he observed that deer trails used in the "Plains" area along the South Branch of the Moose River in New York during the 1890s were still heavily used during the winter of 1951 some 60 years later.


These winter trails provided Severinghaus with an index for gauging malnutrition caused by winter stress and starvation. He used trail counts vs. tracks in winter for determining the foraging ability of deer. Severinghaus observed, "When individual deer tracks outnumber deer trails and group tracks, deer are foraging enough to maintain their physical condition. Conversely, when deer trails and group tracks equal or outnumber individual deer tracks, their foraging range has become so restricted that they are unable to secure adequate nourishment." This trail index is still used today in whitetail winter "yarding" areas in the northeast.

Some of the other important research this New York State deer biologist conducted during his tenure included such timely subjects as the following: the mobility of whitetails, showing that they could jump up to 7 1/2 feet high and leap 29 feet horizontally; the hair depth of the winter coat of whitetails; and the variations of fertility in whitetails relating to range conditions.

He also did research on the number of calories expended by deer at rest and under stress and the relationship of weather to winter mortality and population levels among deer in the Adirondack region of New York State. Those studies included analyzing the annual weight cycles and the various weights of whitetails in relation to their range. Minimizing deer damage to forest vegetation through aggressive deer population management was always of utmost concern to this dedicated deer manager.


CARRYING CAPACITY

By the early 1950s Severinghaus realized that the central Adirondacks contained far too many deer for the available food. The region was still recovering from the massive logging enterprises of the late 1800s and early 1900s that had eliminated many of the old historic winter deer-yarding areas. Existing winter deer yards were overloaded.

Biologists were just beginning to realize that the effects of over-browsing take much longer to correct than re-population of deer. And since regulated hunting is the most practical means of controlling wild, free-ranging deer, Severinghaus and other concerned biologists in the conservation department advocated opening a season in 1954 in which deer of both sexes would be legal game in two large essential wilderness tracts in New York's north woods.

Even though a huge stride was being taken toward the implementation of sound management that would achieve a better balance between the deer population and the carrying capacity of the winter range, old opinions and rigid traditions about killing does were hard to change. Severinghaus was an advocate and spokesman for the program. Years later, severe winter kills in the late 1960s and a record low Adirondack buck harvest of 2,907 deer for the 9,962 square miles of Regions 5 and 6 put an end to that program in 1970.

A COLLISION COURSE WITH CONVENTIONAL THINKING

During a span of three decades from the 1960s through the 1980s, Severinghaus conducted numerous annual public deer forums throughout the Adirondac

k region to inform and educate the local residents. Those with strong opposing views began threatening him with harassing phone calls and bodily harm. The issue of having an open doe season was such a hot topic at one of the deer forums that posters condemning the practice were made by local school children and posted all around the village in which the forum was held.

At one point, security was required during the annual deer forums held in different towns across the region. (Only a few years ago, a similar situation occurred in Pennsylvania when biologist Dr. Gary Alt received serious threats on his life after initiating antler restrictions along with a heavier doe harvest in Pennsylvania.)

At one of the Adirondack deer forums, a group that so distrusted the state's deer biologists brought in 15 deer carcasses and challenged Severinghaus and fellow researcher Jack Tanck to come up with precise information as to what had caused the deaths of those deer and various other age and fertility information. Accepting the challenge, the two men took on the massive job of determining the exact physiological information on each of the dead deer.

The case histories put together by those examinations convinced the opposing group that Severinghaus and Tanck knew exactly what they were talking about. The scientific information that Severinghaus had presented all those years to an often distrustful and hostile audience wasn't just a pack of lies after all!

"MOOSE RIVER MASSACRE"

In February 1964, Severinghaus supervised a project involving the effects of deer population reduction in high-density areas in the Adirondacks. The study took place in a remote wilderness area called the Moose River Plains. However, what started out as a timely research project on the effects of the overcrowding of winter deer yards turned into a media feeding frenzy.

As part of the study, Severinghaus and conservation aides killed 54 bucks, does and yearlings in an effort to determine the health of the deer population in the crowded deer yard and heavy snow conditions of late winter. Reproductive organs and leg samples were taken from each deer to examine the herd's overall health.

A few days later the headlines read, "Unwarranted Slaughter: The slayings carried out by what were termed State Conservation department biologists during the last week of February have drawn the wrath of at least 76 newspapers throughout the state and as far away as Chicago."

Pictures of the dissected deer graced the pages. The lack of any understanding of deer biology for the benefit of the entire herd was glaringly apparent. Severinghaus was vehemently condemned for what became known by many as the "Moose Creek Massacre."

AN IMPORTANT LEGACY

Despite the heavy criticism, Severinghaus always stood his ground, and he always backed up his management philosophies with hard facts. If you go to a search engine like Google on your computer, you'll discover over 800 separate references involving the works and documents of C.W. (Bill) Severinghaus during his long career, which began shortly after he graduated from Cornell University in 1939.

Severinghaus and his research staff had the opportunity to study whitetails in the largest forest preserve in North America, the 2.8-million-acre Adirondack Park. In many ways, he introduced an entire generation to the fascinating biological world of white-tailed deer. Many of the management principles he and his staff developed years ago are still applied today wherever whitetails roam the woods. From Lawrence Koller's 1948 classic, Shots At Whitetails, to Rob Wegner's three-book Deer & Deer Hunting collection, published in the 1980s, to Leonard Lee Rue's numerous volumes on whitetails published over the last 35 years, the knowledge gained through Severinghaus' vast research and his many contributions show up time and again.

Bill Severinghaus passed away on July 6, 2007, at the age of 90. In a recent interview with Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III, the most published whitetail photographer and author in North America, Dr. Rue stated, "Bill Severinghaus was a pioneer in the forefront of educating people and getting whitetail research to the general public." Truly, every deer hunter who goes to the woods in the 21st century can thank New York's "Mr. Deer" for the countless contributions he made to whitetail hunting and management!

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