The Return Of The White-tailed Deer


The preamble of the Connecticut law reflected official concern over the future of the deer: The killing of deer at unseasonable times of the year hath been found very much to the prediudice of the Colonie, great numbers of them having been hunted and destroyed in deep snowes when they are very poor and big with young, the flesh and skins of very little value, and the increase greatly hindered.

And in 1705 the General Assembly at Newport, Rhode Island, noted that it hath been informed that great quantities of deer hath been destroyed in this Collony out of season … and may prove much to the damage of this Collony for the future, and … to the whole country, if not prevented.


There were scattered convictions, but none of these colonial laws was effectively enforced, and by the mid-eighteenth century there were few deer left to protect near the larger communities. Frontier farmers still lived off the land and took their venison when they wanted it. Along the edges of the retreating wilderness Indian and white market hunters still combed the thickets for game in all seasons, far from the reach of the nearest “deer reeve,” the officer appointed to track down poachers.

After the Revolution, along the valleys of the Ohio, Wabash, Cumberland, and Mississippi, and on the southern shores of the Great Lakes, the destruction of the wilderness continued on a grander scale. And by this time the market hunters, still operating in the van of civilization, had reached the prairie fringes, the most productive part of the original whitetail range. A spreading network of canals, roads, and rails kept them near to the markets of the East. On a single day in 1818 a party of hunters in the township of Medina, Ohio, killed three hundred deer, twenty-one black bears, and seventeen wolves. (On the average this meant about twelve deer per square mile.) In the winter of 1859 meat hunters killed the last of Iowa’s original deer by hatcheting them in deep snow. Similar slaughters occurred regularly throughout the Middle West as long as deer could be found in numbers large enough to warrant the effort.

With the opening of the West, the center of the market-hunting activity shifted to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. There most of the burden was borne by the bison, the pronghorn, the elk, the mule deer, and the bighorn sheep. But thewhitetailsinthe vulnerable range along the prairie bottomlands ended in the stewpots of wagon trains, cavalry patrols, and riverboat crews.

In New England and the states bordering the Great Lakes, land clearing and meat hunting had eliminated most of the deer within their original range. But logging of the northern conifers had created new and better range in the North. By 1870 deer had become common in the northern counties of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Maine, where fifty years earlier there had been few or none. To the deer, however, the cutting of the conifers was a mixed blessing. Each of the logging camps employed hunters to provide fresh meat for the lumberjacks. And the market hunters, who by now had exterminated the deer farther south, flocked into the newly developed range.

Using dogs, guns, steel traps, and wire snares, a skilled hunter could average ten deer a day. In December, 1872, Litchfield, Minnesota, shipped six tons of dressed venison to markets in Boston. In 1880 the freight offices in Michigan alone handled more than one hundred thousand deer destined for Chicago and the East.

This direct slaughter was bad enough; but the fires that followed logging in the northern pine woods around the Great Lakes were worse. In the wake of the timber cutting, dry, pitch-filled slash—discarded treetops and limbs—covered hundreds of thousands of acres, awaiting only a spark to ignite it. One of the first sparks hit the stumplands upwind of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8, 1871. Before the fire burned itself out, it devastated more than 1,280,000 acres and snuffed out the lives of some twelve hundred people (see “Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire,” in AMERICAN HERITAGE , August, 1956). Fires swept the north country repeatedly until the turn of the century, killing nearly every living thing in their paths, including deer, and converting millions of acres into weedy wastelands where no deer could survive.

By 1880 scientists and a few pioneer conservationists were beginning to express concern for the future of the white-tailed deer as a species. Ten years later the deer population in North America hit rock bottom. The Appalachians and most of the country west to the Rockies were practically without deer. Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, West Virginia, New Jersey, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska all counted their whitetail herds at near zero. The “last deer” in Indiana was shot near Red Cloud in 1893. Southern Maine and southern New Hampshire had none.