Whitetails at the Crossroads: Have Whitetail Numbers Declined?
September 16, 2014
Not 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.
In 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.
We 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.
With 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):
'œEstimated harvests based on our licensed hunter mail survey have shown a steady decline in deer numbers over the past 10 years. This coincides with a general perception among our hunters and many of our staff of a decline in total deer numbers in much of the state. Increased antlerless deer harvest beginning in the late 1990s, changes in habitat across the landscape, and impacts of other wildlife species (e.g., feral pigs, coyotes, etc.) all likely have contributed.'
(Editor's note: All whitetail hunting in Arizona is of the Coues' subspecies, the only one listed separately by the Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young clubs.)
'œHarvest of Coues' whitetails in Arizona has increased 25 percent in the last decade. Last year's statewide Coues' harvest was the highest in 24 years. The buck:doe ratio is 27 bucks:100 does — which, put another way, is a 1:4 ratio. That is great for public-lands hunting in the West. The age structure is stable or increasing, offering great opportunities for a mature buck in every unit if hunters are willing to get off a road or their quad.
'œThe increasing Coues' population is due to improved weather patterns. From the late 1980s through the 1990s dry winters prevailed, and deer populations declined. As more winters received average precipitation, deer populations started a slow recovery. The changing demographics (more bucks and more mature bucks) is partly due to permits not being raised as fast as populations are recovering. We have also made changes in our hunt guidelines to be more conservative in our harvest. This is nice for those who get a tag, but we still have tens of thousands of deer hunters who have to sit home every year because there are not enough tags for everyone. We do not harvest does at all.
'œOur whitetail hunts are limited entry (lottery-style) draw, so we can easily adjust permits to respond to needed management changes. We work closely with human dimensions professionals to keep in touch with what the public wants and try to provide a diverse balance different hunting experiences.'
'œBased on our reported harvest, the
population is increasing. In 2012, we reported a record harvest of over 212,000 whitetails being taken. We followed up again with an estimated 212,000 being taken in 2013.
'œWe spend a considerable amount of effort to ensure adequate female harvest in many parts of the state. We monitor sex ratios, female age structure and fawn recruitment rates to ensure a highly productive deer herd. We also attribute this increase in checking number to ease of checking and high rate of compliance by Arkansas hunters.
'œFor most of the state, we are not in a herd growth stage. We are trending more toward herd stabilization to slightly increasing. In some areas, I would state we are in a herd-reduction stage. As far as practical tools, our most efficient tool in the toolbox is the Arkansas hunter. We will either increase or decrease female harvest, depending on desired harvest rates.'
'œThe deer population has steadily increased from about 3,000 deer in the 1930s to a high of about 150,000 deer during the late 1990s. The last statewide population estimate conducted in 2007 estimated about 124,000 deer. The population throughout much of the state has remained relatively stable in recent years, but at various deer densities throughout Connecticut's 13 Deer Management Zones (DMZs). Deer densities in most zones are at suitable levels, due to good hunter access to land for hunting.
'œHowever, some areas of the state where access is limited due to firearms restrictions and mortality rates are low, deer densities are higher than preferred. The population in our urban deer management zones has been well above preferred levels for over a decade. However with the addition of several management options (see below), the deer population in those zones has been steadily declining.
'œConversely in DMZ 4, where hunter access to land is much greater, a population decline prompted a restriction on hunters using antlerless tags during the firearms season. After many years with the restriction in place, evidence suggested the restriction was no longer required in certain portions of the zone, and it was divided into DMZ 4A (tag restriction remained in effect) and 4B. Hunter access to private land is one of the major factors influencing population control.
'œA shift in management strategies was needed a decade ago, when it became apparent there was an deer overabundance issue in southern and southwestern Connecticut (urban deer management zones). In an effort to address these issues, changes in regulations were made to increase the management tools available.
The first strategy put in place was issuing free replacement antlerless tags to hunters who harvested an antlerless deer, then allowing hunters to also get an either-sex tag after harvesting three antlerless deer, allowing the use of bait, extending the season from the end of December to end of January and most recently allowing the use of crossbows. These tools have proven successful in urban deer management zones and would be practical in other management zones, should they be needed.'
'œVirtually any indicator of population size of the Illinois deer herd would show a trend consistent with declining statewide populations over about the past 10 years. However, we would not portray that decline as a problem, but as a management success.
'œThe goal of scientific deer management programs cannot be simply to provide a continuously growing herd, or even to maintain a stable herd at some historic high-water mark if that results in an unacceptable number of negative deer impacts. Rather, managers — in partnership with all affected stakeholders — must adopt goals/objectives that are biologically and culturally desirable, and implement harvest programs that bring deer herds in line with those objectives.
'œSeveral years ago the Illinois General Assembly, responding to public complaints of too many deer, created the Joint Task Force on Deer Population Control. This 15-member task force was comprised of representatives from the General Assembly, outdoor users, deer- hunting groups, farmers, insurance companies and law enforcement, with a technical support group of Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) staff.
'œThe broad mission of the Task Force was '˜to examine and make recommendations on ways to manage the Illinois deer population.' One of the most significant recommendations of the Task Force was for IDNR to begin using the rate of deer/vehicle accidents (number of accidents/miles driven) as the objective by which to judge the success or failure of deer management programs.
'œThey further recommended a specific objective in terms of statewide deer/vehicle accident (DVA) rate, which corresponded to a decrease of 14 percent in accident rate from the statewide peak observed in 2003. Each individual county also has its own objective that is based on DVA rates. The Department adopted these recommendations and continues to use them for deer goals and objectives relative to herd size, although some individual county objectives have been adjusted over time.
'œAdoption of those recommendations has led to a planned, incremental decrease in deer herds in many Illinois counties to achieve the overall goal. IDNR biologists based their recommendations for seasons, regulations and quotas on those objectives, and the state DVA rate and many county DVA rates declined in response.
'œThe statewide objective was reached in calendar year 2012, when accident rates dropped below goal for the first time. Deer hunter harvest has also declined. From a peak harvest of 201,209 deer during the 2005 hunting season, harvest steadily declined to 180,811 in 2012. The change in harvest for the 2013 hunting season was much more dramatic, with only 148,614 deer taken, but our severe winter and adverse weather conditions during the season undoubtedly contributed at least in part to this lack of success.
'œMost notable declines came during some of our short gun seasons, when it is difficult to overcome a severe weather event. However, this followed on the heels of two summers of relatively high EHD activity, so Illinois deer hunters are understandably concerned about herd status.
'œWhile hemorrhagic disease has had significant population impacts in some localities hard-hit by the disease, it's more difficult to discern any larger-scale impacts (such as at the county scale), because of the patchy distribution of outbreaks. However, changes in deer population status (whether caused by hunter harvest or significant disease events) would be reflected in changes in DVA rates, so we will continue to monitor and make changes as necessary to maintain populations near goal.'
'œSeven to eight years ago our herd was increasing, which is great for hunters. But as a deer herd increases, so do other things, such as deer-vehicle collisions and crop damage reports. Since then, we've made some efforts to reduce the herd where needed, and our herd has been decreasing the past couple of years.
'œWe focused our efforts on reducing our herd, introducing additional opportunities such as a late antlerless season, expanding the use of crossbows into the early archery season, and creating a bundle license that allows hunters to purchase additional licenses at a reduced cost. Also, we've had some recent outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease occur statewide, with intense outbreaks occurring in the northern part of our state where deer cover is limited and hunting pressure is high. We feel all of these factors are synergistically working together to achieve a reduction in our herd.
'œOur management shifts are best handled year to year through changes in our bag limit. If the herd is doing well, or too well, we increase the amount of deer allowed to be taken. If the herd is below where we want it to be, we begin to reduce the number of deer allowed.'
'œA '˜roller coaster ride' would probably describe the past 10 years for whitetails in Nebraska. The population steadily increased by 50 percent from 2003-2010. No change in 2011, then a 30 percent drop in 2012 and an 8 percent drop in 2013. The buck harvest was: 24,000 (2003), 38,000 (2010), 26,000 in 2012 and 24,000 in 2013.
'œPopulation growth was likely due to low natural mortality and difficulty in getting hunters to shoot enough antlerless deer. Antlerless harvest finally exceeded buck harvest for the first time in 2010 and again in 2011, due to Earn A Buck rules in some units and the inclusion of freee antlerless whitetail tags on 80 percent of our deer permits.
'œThen, 2012 was a major EHD year. 80 percent of the state was affected by losses ranging from 15 to 40 percent. We estimated that about 30 percent of our whitetail herd died. Free antlerless permits are now mostly gone, and we are allowing herds to grow for the next year or two.
"The last 10 years enabled us to develop new deer-management tools we had never used in the past. These include: bonus antlerless tags, Earn A Buck and the River Antlerless permit: a 105-day, $11 permit antlerless permit that restricts harvest to private land river bottoms, where most of our deer problems occur.
'œOne of the most important things we learned was to communicate honestly and clearly with the public (landowners, hunters and non-hunters) on goals, objectives and methods. Listening to our stakeholders was an important part of the process.'
'œAfter about a 66 percent increase in whitetail numbers between 1995 and 2001, the statewide modeled deer density in Kentucky has stabilized at approximately 850,000 animals (e.g., 2003: 847,911 deer; 2008: 877,240 deer; 2013: 821,731 deer).
'œThis is the result of liberalization of harvest (i.e., increase in the kill of does from our 2000 Season to the present). Also, we've seen advancing vegetational succession (a decline in early successional vegetation stages) because of inadequate land management for the creation and/or maintenance of optimum deer habitat (and also possibly the loss of supplemental winter forage in the form of reduced availability of winter wheat food plots resulting from a marked decline in tobacco production since 2003).
'œOur most practical tools for managing the herd are public involvement/engagement of and educational outreach to Kentucky's deer hunters and rural landowners and, when warranted, changes to harvest regulations.'
'œThe overall whitetail population in Louisiana is down. We attribute it to feral swine, weather patterns (flooding, droughts), hemorrhagic and other diseases, energy and urban development/sprawl, industrial forest management practices and habitat fragmentation.
'œAdjusting season and bag limits, increased deer management assistance program (DMAP) efforts on private lands and science-based research are our primary tools for change.'
'œMaine manages its deer population to publicly derived goals and objectives. Following the last planning period, which took place at around the turn of the millennium, MDIF&W biologists working with Maine residents identified population objectives for the state's various Wildlife Management Districts (WMDs).
'œWithout getting too specific, the goals generally run from managing from 50-60 percent of the land's carrying capacity (in areas where current over-winter habitat issues may limit deer population growth, resulting in the land's inability to maintain high densities) to 15-20 deer per square mile. The latter density goals generally occur in the southern half of the state, where winter doesn't have as strong an influence on the population.
'œHowever, social carrying capacities are present. What this means is that Maine residents at that point in time wanted to maintain deer abundances below what the landscape could potentially support. Thus, during the early part of the new Millennia MDIF&W issued a high number of Any-deer permits in the southern regions to effectively reduce deer abundances in order to meet the new goals. As such, the deer population in Maine declined during the first few years of the 2000s, but by design.
'œUnfortunately, the decline was hastened during 2007-8 and 2008-9 winters, when the state experienced its third and ninth worst winters, respectively, since the 1950s. It's believed the state lost approximately 30-35 percent of its inhabiting deer population during each of the two winters. Not only can harsh winter storms impact deer via direct mortality, they also can significantly reduce the productivity of animals that survive. In short, Maine's deer got hammered.
'œFortunately, now a handful of years removed from those winters, our deer population appears to be continuing to rebound well. We believe that our population numbers may have dropped to below 170,000 individuals; however, we currently believe the population to be at approximately 200,000 or more individuals. This puts us within range of our long-term average of approximately 215,000 animals.
'œIn further support of this apparent growth, we have now had multiple years of increases in our buck harvest without a significant increase in hunter effort which lends further support that our population is continuing to increase; the idea being that more hunters are intercepting bucks without significant changes in hunter numbers or hunter hours spent hunting.
'œThe two most influential factors influencing our deer populations (man aside) are extreme winter events and loss of over-winter habitats. These obviously are closely related to each other. Maine winters don't need to be introduced, as it is generally already known that they can be trying periods for deer. In regard to winter habitats, over 90 percent of Maine is privately owned. As such, trying to conserve deer yards (dense-canopied softwood forests with healthy inclusions of young hardwood browse and a high level of connectivity between these areas) can be difficult. The importance of these habitats is that they help to lower the energetic costs associated with winter for our deer, thereby slowing the process of fat and muscle loss through winter. In addition, deer generally show a high degree of fidelity to these over-winter sites. Thus, when they are lost, it may result in a local extirpation of that population of animals.
'œMDIF&W does not currently have an estimate of a rate of loss our deer experience due to animals such as black bear, bobcats, and coyote. I am throwing this in because there is almost always some question pertaining to how predators impact our deer population.
'œI think that the most important tool our agency has to facilitate a change in the management regime, in Maine, is the state's constituents. Deer management is inextricably linked to what the state's public would like to see on the landscape whether it be more deer, or fewer deer. As such, public surveys, meetings, and just general involvement, are very important tools for managers as the information provided by the public will help us to assess whether we are meeting our social objectives, which may potentially be more difficult to meet than the biological objectives; at least in some instances. Utilizing these tools more often may allow us to more readily adapt our management regimes through time."
'œIn Manitoba, the white-tailed deer population has declined from an estimated 150,000 animals in 2004 to about 100,000 or so animals in 2014. Winter mortality has been the main factor to the decline of the population. In Manitoba whitetails are at the northern limit of their range, and winter mortality is a recurring and natural phenomenon. During a normal winter, deer winter mortality losses range from 15-20 percent, and moderate to severe winter losses can range from 30-40 percent or higher.
'œIn the past four years, Manitoba has had three severe winters for whitetails (2010-11, 2012-13, 2013-14). Manitoba's winter severity index (WSI) is a general measure of conditions based on the fact that prolonged below-normal temperatures, late snow melt and snow depths greater than 35 cm for over 60 days can reduce overwinter survival of whitetails.
'œDetermining the extent of population change is best achieved by looking at many parameters collectively. In Manitoba, aerial surveys, hunter questionnaire data and population modeling are used to implement changes to the deer season framework. Reducing hunting mortality by reducing the length of the hunting seasons and reducing the harvest of does by changing the bag limit of most deer licenses to one antlered deer.'
'œThe whitetail population trend in Maryland has been largely stable over the past decade, with a significant number of deer across most of the state (230,000 estimated population size). However, in some of our urban/suburban areas we are probably still experiencing an upward trend because of access issues for hunting.
'œWe have stabilized the population (which was previously growing) by liberalizing the harvest of antlerless deer (larger bag limits, longer/more seasons). Regulated hunting remains, and will remain for the foreseeable future, our primary tool for managing deer.'
david stainbrook David Stainbrook
'œDeer numbers have been stable to increasing over the past decade.
'œIn the western part of the state we have recently and purposefully been slowly bringing those numbers up to our goals by adjusting antlerless permits. In the central part of the state we have been keeping deer numbers stable through antlerless permits. However, in the eastern part of the state deer numbers in many areas are above our goal and rising, even though antlerless permits are abundant.
'œIn areas where there is adequate hunting access, we are able to keep deer numbers down. But in areas with little to no hunting access, numbers will continue to climb. Many of these areas in eastern Massachusetts could be hunted if hunters were able to get the appropriate permissions from nearby homeowners to hunt within discharge setbacks and abide by town bylaws, but it is a very difficult and time-consuming process. A real shift in public understanding needs to occur before these closed areas are willing to allow hunting — which, if given a fighting chance, can successfully bring those deer numbers down.
'œWe manage numbers through regulated female harvest (antlerless deer permits), so much of the change is purposeful (keeping numbers stable and at goal). In areas where deer numbers continue to climb, it is typically because of limitations to hunting and hunting access.
'œWe have the tools to manage deer with regulated hunting and have shown that in areas with adequate hunting access. It comes down to if hunters cannot get the access to remove deer from an area, then the numbers will continue to grow in that area. Until the limitations to hunting are relaxed, we will continue to have issues with high numbers in sanctuary habitat (closed to hunting), regardless of where it is located.'
'œThe overall whitetail population in Minnesota has been trending down over the past decade. The main factor in this has been purposeful harvest management to bring densities toward permit area goals established through a public process between 2005 and 2007.
'œWe had a severe winter in northeastern Minnesota in 2013-14, resulting in areas that are now being goal. We are implementing a conservative season for 2014 to boost the population. In some areas of northern Minnesota, deer have experienced a number of fairly challenging winters in recent years.
'œOur harvest management strategies (ability to adjust bag limits for individual permit areas), association regulations and hunter support/participation are the most practical tools we have to support shifts in strategy. We use a public process to establish permit area population goals (which we are in the midst of revising statewide). Engaging diverse stakeholders in the discussion is important to gain not only hunter but also landowner and other public support — and, hopefully, move toward fewer swings in deer population management by getting collective support.'
'œAs any astute deer manager knows, population trends are dictated by local conditions such as hunter density, habitat condition and frequency and severity of hemorrhagic disease outbreaks, which vary greatly across the landscape — especially in a state with the physiographic diversity of Missouri. Overall statewide population is stable to slightly lower, but that greatly ignores local and regional trends in deer populations. For example, across much of central, northern and western Missouri deer populations have been trending downward, while deer populations across southern Missouri have been slowly trending upward.
'œRapid deer population growth in central, northern and western Missouri occurred during the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s and required liberalization of harvest regulations to reduce deer populations to socially acceptable levels. These regulation liberalizations (increased antlerless harvest opportunities, antler-point restriction, longer seasons) coupled with hemorrhagic disease outbreaks in 2007, 2012 and 2013, have resulted in decreasing deer numbers over the past five years.
'œThere are some indications of lower pregnancy rates in does less than two years of age — which, when coupled with shifts in herd demographics that have resulted from the antler-point restriction, is contributing to an overall lower potential growth rate for the population. Continued restrictive regulations on antlerless harvest in southern Missouri are directly contributing to the slowly increasing of the population across the southern third of the state.
'œWe have acknowledged that a shift in management strategy was necessary to respond to declining deer numbers across central, northern and western Missouri. In May of 2014 the Missouri Conservation Commission approved a reduction in the availability of firearms antlerless permits across much of central, northern, and western Missouri. We've demonstrated that hunters in Missouri are willing and able to shoot enough deer, when combined with hemorrhagic disease outbreaks, to control the population. Therefore, adjustment to the availability of firearms antlerless permits is the most practical tool we have to adjust levels of antlerless harvest.
'œUltimately, we evaluate deer populations on a county level and have the ability to propose adjustments annually. I can't reiterate enough that deer management is very localized and driven by local conditions. We have the ability to annually adjust regulations to deal with this variation and public input. Therefore, we aren't just focused on the decreasing deer populations; while we need to consider harvest liberalization in areas of increasing deer numbers, there are areas where we have had conservative regulations and the desire is to increase those populations.'
'œThe population has been stable or increasing in most of the state. Regulated doe harvest and winter weather are the two main factors affecting the deer population in New Hampshire. Regulation of doe harvest and management of critical deer wintering habitat (deer yards) are our main tools available.'
'œStatewide populations trends are down almost 100,000 animals from our all-time high estimate of over 204,000 in the mid-1990s. Bear in mind that our population estimator is for the '˜huntable' portion of the herd, since our model extrapolates from the hunter harvest. This is an underestimate of the state's total deer population.
'œThis decline is by design and due to increased season lengths and liberalized bag limits. New Jersey has a 5 1/2-month-long deer season in some zones and unlimited antlerless bag limits in two-thirds of the state. Such is the challenge of managing deer in the most densely populated state in the country and where approximately 79 percent of the land is in private ownership. Hunter access is the biggest problem to success.
'œNew Jersey is broken down into 60 deer-management zones, each of which is managed as an individual herd. Data on each is analyzed annually, and season lengths and bag limits adjusted as needed, within the legal framework. Additionally, we have a DMAP program and a Community Based Deer Management Program (since 1995) for communities where hunting is not possible or practical, which allows for options outside of the sport-hunting season.'
'œDeer populations have largely been increasing in New York over the past decade. Of course, we have a few management units where deer populations have declined and others where populations have stayed fairly stable, but on the whole, the deer population in New York is larger now than it was a decade ago.
'œPopulations peaked between 2000-2002 at levels we hope not to see again. As we countered with intentional herd reduction, New York simultaneously got hit with a couple back-to-back severe winters. By 2004-2005, deer populations in large portions of the state were below desired levels, while a few other areas remained stubbornly above target. For the past decade, our management strategies have focused on limiting antlerless harvest to achieve modest population growth in some areas while liberalizing harvest in ever-increasing portions of the state to rein in populations.
'œOn the broad landscape, we simply modify how many antlerless tags we make available in each Wildlife Management Unit in order to achieve desired population change.
'œHowever, deer populations in some portions of the state have been quite resilient to our reduction efforts, and our liberal antlerless tag opportunities exceed demand by hunters in some management units. In these units, our management plan calls for us to consider antlerless-only portions of bow and muzzleloader seasons and possibly a new antlerless-only muzzleloader season.'
'œOver the past decade, populations have been relatively stable in most rural areas. However, populations are generally up over the long term in urban/suburban areas.
'œIn rural areas, stability has been driven by stable deer season frameworks and liberal doe harvest opportunity. In many rural areas of the state our antlerless harvest levels meet or even exceed our antlered buck harvest levels. In urban/suburban areas population increases are driven by changing landholder attitudes, local laws that restrict the discharge of weapons and inability of hunters to access lands to hunt on. These factors make it hard to use hunting as a management tool in these areas.
'œEducation of hunters and the general public is a huge component in any change in management strategy. Of course, our agency also has the regulatory process to implement changes to hunting seasons, frameworks, bag limits, etc., and a component of that is input from the general public.
'œProfessional technical guidance is also critical for individuals or entities (e.g., municipalities, other governmental agencies, private businesses, producers, etc.) looking for advice on strategies to manage deer populations, whether it be hunters wanting to manage populations or land/habitat, cities wanting minimize negative impacts of deer, producers wanting to minimize damage to agricultural crops, etc.'
'œNo mystery here. We have fewer deer, and the reduction was a product of very liberal antlerless harvests designed to reduce populations to established goals. So in this case, perception is reality. We will revise those goals next summer and will do what it takes to align populations with these newly established goals.'
'œAlthough timber-management activities stimulated significant growth in South Carolina's deer population in the 1970s and 1980s, considerable acreage is currently in even-aged commercial pine stands that are greater than 10 years old: a situation that does not support deer densities at the same level as younger stands, in which food and cover are more available.
'œSouth Carolina has had extremely high deer harvest rates over the last two decades, with an emphasis on antlerless deer. This was necessary in an effort to stop what once was an ever-increasing population trend.
'œCoyotes are a recent addition to the landscape and are another piece of the puzzle. SCDNR has recently completed a major study with researchers at the Savannah River Site investigating the affects coyotes are having on the survival of deer fawns. Cumulative data through the first three years of the study indicated approximately 70 percent total fawn mortality, with coyotes being responsible for approximately 80 percent of these mortalities.
'œIf these findings even moderately represent a statewide situation, this '˜new' mortality factor is clearly involved in the reduction in deer numbers. This is especially true when combined with extremely liberal deer harvests that have been the norm in South Carolina. Given these results and the difficulty and high cost of coyote control, it seems apparent that making adjustments to how we manage deer, particularly female deer, is more important now than prior to the colonization of the state by coyotes.
'œThere are still plenty of deer in South Carolina, just not as many as when the population peaked. In fact, the current number of deer is better (in SCDNR's opinion) than when the population was at peak. On the other hand, we don't want to see the declining trend continue too long.'
'œPopulations of white-tailed deer were increasing rapidly at the turn of the century in South Dakota. By the early 2000s deer populations exceeded social tolerance levels in almost every deer management unit; crop depredations, vehicle collisions, urban conflicts, etc. were at record highs. Consequently, South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks increased harvest opportunities substantially to reduce deer herds across the state, and by 2002 a record whitetail harvest of 52,500 occurred. Harvest levels in subsequent years continued to climb until the all-time record of about 80,500 were harvested in 2010.
'œSince 2010, deer populations have declined substantially as intended, but unfortunately populations have plummeted well below management objectives in many areas. Causes of population declines are likely due to increased rates of doe harvest, followed by record years of deer losses due to disease and severe winters. In 2011, close to 1,000 reports of dead deer, presumably lost to EHD or bluetongue, were submitted to SDGFP, which was a record at that time. (The actual estimate of deer losses is unknown but definitely higher.) In 2012 the reported deer mortalities more than tripled, with approximately 3,700 reports submitted. Luckily, in 2013 reports decreased to a more manageable level, albeit still high.
'œSevere winter weather can also impact deer populations in the northern plains through direct winter mortalities and impacts to recruitment. SDGFP quantifies winter weather by calculating a Winter Severity Index (WSI), which is based on temperature extremes and snow depths. WSI values were well above normal in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Overwinter mortality rates increased in many areas of the state in these years, as witnessed by radio-collared animals and anecdotal observations.
'œOur agency will begin development of a statewide deer management plan in 2015, which will outline strategies and objectives to manage deer herds across the state. In the meantime, SDGFP has reduced deer harvest (in particular antlerless) substantially in most areas to help deer herds recover. Reduced deer harvest unfortunately also equates to reduced hunter opportunity. As a result, SDGFP is currently evaluating the deer licensing system to determine if there is a better and more publicly acceptable way to allocate limited licenses.
'œWe anticipate that whitetail deer herds will bounce back quickly in many parts of the state, but recovery of some herds will take time. Still others face substantial habitat losses that will affect the long-term objectives of deer management in those areas. Record habitat losses from conversion of grasslands (native, pastures, and CRP), wetlands and shelterbelts to agriculture will not only impact deer herds from a biological standpoint, but will also impact social carrying capacity of many deer management units.
"Furthermore, increased predator densities in some parts of the state have been observed (coyotes on the prairie and mountain lions in the Black Hills, based on survey and anecdotal information), which could slow the deer herd recovery of some areas with extremely low ungulate densities.'
'œThe statewide white-tailed deer population in Texas has been stable to slightly increasing. In my opinion, more interest in wildlife and habitat management has encouraged landowners to become better land stewards, ultimately improving habitat for whitetails as well as other native wildlife species.
'œIn Texas, we have about 9,300 properties and 23 million acres under wildlife management plans under our Managed Lands Deer Program, which is similar to DMAP (Deer Management Assistance) programs in other Southeast states. This has provided the opportunity for TPWD wildlife biologists to work with private landowners to encourage responsible management of whitetails while promoting the importance of native habitats to deer and other wildlife species.
'œIn some areas of the state (Hill Country near Mason and Llano counties) we probably have deer densities above what the habitat should be supporting. We continue to encourage harvest to maintain appropriate deer densities that can be supported by the native habitat. Unlike some other states, we don't appear to have problems with coyote predation on deer populations and do not experience the impact from EHD.
'œPopulation declines, when and where they occur, are most likely related to drought conditions Texas has experienced in the last decade or so. Although drought conditions persist across parts of the state, rainfall comes frequently enough to keep fawn production at reasonable levels to maintain deer populations. As mentioned, harvest is important to help maintain healthy herds that can be sustained through the rough time and then bounce back quickly when conditions are right.
'œLarge-scale shifts in management strategies are accomplished through regulatory changes of county season and bag limits. TPWD wildlife biologist conduct deer population surveys each fall and collect harvest data to assess impacts our hunting regulations have on the deer population. If significant changes in the deer population occur, regulations can be adjusted through our regulatory process to increase/decrease bag limits and change season lengths to influence harvest rates.
'œIn addition, as mentioned, Texas has a strong technical guidance program to help educate and provide site-specific recommendations to landowners regarding management of native habitats, whitetails and other native wildlife species. Our best tools are a combination of regulatory changes, deer permit programs and technical assistance programs.'
'œStatewide the deer herd has been fairly stable over the past 10-20 years. But this statement is misleading, because we have seen areas, like our western National Forest lands, which have shown significant declines and other areas that have shown significant increases over this time frame. Also, in several areas, we have seen deer population declines which are/were the desired result of liberalized seasons and bag limits.
'œI personally think the most important deer management issue in Virginia is hunter recruitment and retention.'
'œOver the past decade, white-tailed deer populations were mostly increasing for about the first 5-7 years, and then there was a large decrease. Numbers have begun to stabilize or recover in most areas, with conditions in 2014 looking favorable.
'œTwo main factors and several localized factors are credited with the recent declines in deer populations. The two biggest factors are disease outbreaks (epizootic hemorrhagic disease and bluetongue) and drought conditions reducing natural forage production and concentrating deer in riparian and irrigated areas. These two factors tend to be related. Other localized factors that have had impacts include: severe winter weather events, mountain lion predation, chronic wasting disease, increased doe and fawn hunter harvest in a deliberate effort to reduce populations, and a possible increase in deer/automobile collisions.
'œHunting is the main tool the department has to manage deer numbers. Buck harvest is mostly managed through season length and the number of non-resident licenses issued. Population levels are mostly managed with the quantity of doe/fawn licenses issued specifically for whitetails, and the quantity is increased or decreased each year depending on conditions.
"The length and timing of general hunting (potentially unlimited licenses) and limited quota seasons can be changed to alter hunting opportunity. The separation of mule deer and whitetail licenses is also another tool used to control and direct harvest as needed. Because the majority of whitetail-hunting opportunities are found on private land, communication and coordination with landowners is important in management.'
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.