The Return Of The White-tailed Deer


There is a common belief that wildlife conservation has been a losing proposition. The destruction of the buffalo herds, the fate of the passenger pigeon, are common knowledge. In our own time we see the whooping crane and the California condor at the very brink of extinction. But wildlife conservation has not been without its successes. And none has been more spectacular than the restoration of the Virginia white-tailed deer to the woodlands of the East and the Middle West.

Originally, some thirty varieties (subspecies) of the white-tailed deer occupied North America. Most inhabited the fringes of the great eastern hardwood forest that reached from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. West of the forests mule deer and elk predominated, although some whitetails roamed the thickets in the bottomland around the rivers of the Great Plains. The little Sonoran whitetail inhabited the foothills around the great southwestern desert, and pockets of local abundance of other subspecies occurred in the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. North of a line running roughly from Minneapolis to Portland, Maine, dense forests of spruce, fir, and pine provided little food for deer.

The whitetail attained greatest abundance on islands and around marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in the brushlands and grasslands that separated the eastern hardwoods and the Great Plains. It never penetrated deeply the virgin timber of the uplands, where the interlaced crowns and limbs of giant trees shaded the earth, checking the development of the lush undergrowth deer need for food. But even on the uplands occasional breaks in the forest canopy permitted the growth of deer foods and the presence of deer. Lake shores and riverbanks supported thickets of underbrush. Beavers, common on all eastern streams, helped the deer by their cutting and flooding activities. Hurricanes and tornadoes cut swaths that were soon reclothed with seedlings, shrubs, and vines growing among tangled windfalls.

Most of the eastern Indians led a semi-nomadic existence, moving on every few years under the pressure of enemy attack or because of exhausted crop fields. All the woodland tribes used fire extensively—to clear garden patches and homesites, to minimize surprise attack, to drive game, or to improve hunting. Burned lands encircled most Indian villages for miles, and any land abandoned or not intensively cultivated was soon revegetated with ideal deer food and cover. Indeed, the Indian probably helped create many more deer than he killed.


This was most of the story of the eastern deer before the seventeenth century. How many there were then no one knows. But the pattern of white exploration and settlement probably gave a misleading impression of abundance. Colonization began on coastal lowlands, as at Jamestown, or on abandoned Indian lands, as at Plymouth, and exploration of the interior usually followed the rivers, through some of the finest deer habitat in the East.

Colonial agriculture was an extension of Indian methods in that the white man also used fire to clear the land. But colonial farming was far more expansive, and rarely did the white man permit the land to revert to forest. Cleared lands not used immediately for new settlements were burned repeatedly to maintain grasslands. Increasing numbers of cattle, sheep, horses, goats, and swine were raised largely on the open range and competed with deer wherever suitable deer range developed. Not long after the Revolution most of the virgin forests east of the Appalachians had been cut and the lands burned over —in many cases, not once but dozens of times.

Still, in spite of such destruction of their habitat, deer persisted. There were lands between the widely spaced towns where light burning and logging improved their range. There were morasses—like Virginia’s Dismal Swamp—that defied destruction by fire and drainage. There were rocky ravines and mountains too rugged for farming or grazing. All of these harbored deer. But they also provided refuges for the cougar and timber wolf, traditional natural enemies of the whitetail. And they soon became the haunts of that even deadlier predator—the meat and market hunter.

Venison and buckskin became staples of the colonial economy with the first landings at St. Augustine, Jamestown, and Plymouth. Once the Indian learned that a venison haunch was worth a yard of calico or a trade axe, he trapped, snared, and shot deer wherever he encountered them. By 1630 many coastal tribes had access to European firearms, and one Indian hunter with a gun could kill five or six deer in a day.

Deer declined rapidly along the Atlantic seaboard throughout the seventeenth century. On February 4, 1646, the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, ordered a closed season on deer hunting “from the first of May till the first of November; and if any shall shoot a deere within that time he shall forfeit five pounds …” The ordinance set a pattern for laws adopted by most of the colonies by 1720.