- Historic Sites
The Return Of The White-tailed Deer
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
Only the wilder parts of the Adirondacks, the Arkansas mountains, the remote swamps of the southern shore, and the Gulf coast gave refuge to the deer. T. S. Palmer of the U. S. Biological Survey (antecedent of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service) estimated the wild white-tailed deer population of the United States and Canada in 1890 at around three hundred thousand. His agency spent considerable effort in encouraging people to raise deer in captivity, since the future of the whitetail seemed to rest with those kept in fenced deer parks.
But even as the decline continued, seeds of restoration had begun to sprout. In northern New England and the Maritime Provinces logging was converting the original coniferous forests into young mixed hardwood-deciduous woodlands ideally suited for deer. Rocky soils and an inhospitable climate discouraged any massive invasion of agriculture. By 1890 deer had spread throughout northern Maine and New Hampshire and deep into New Brunswick and Quebec, far north of their original range. In this region the wolf, the only significant northern deer-predator, teetered on the brink of extinction.
East of the Appalachians the industrial age had drastically changed land-use patterns. Thousands of marginal farmers, unable to compete with the flourishing agriculture of the West, had abandoned their worn-out farms, taken factory jobs in town, or had gone west. In the Piedmont region of the South the boll weevil, the end of slavery, and competition with foreign markets had forced the abandonment of thousands of cotton fields. The deserted land was soon invaded by quicksprouting, fast-growing pines. By 1885 there were millions of acres of maturing “old-field” pine forests in the eastern United States. Pine alone is a poor deer food, and these new forests supported few deer; but the maturing of the pines brought a new logging boom to the East that was in full swing by 1890. And as the pines were cut, they were replaced by the scrubby, mixed hardwood-coniferous forest that makes ideal deer range.
Coinciding with the return of this largely deerless deer habitat was the development of the modern conservation movement. For the first time more than a few people began to recognize values in wildlife other than those measurable in meat, hides, and feathers. In large part this concept originated, somewhat incongruously, with sport hunters in the eastern cities. Until about 1830 the pursuit of game for sport had been primarily a pastime of the wealthy. But the postGivil War era had produced a new middle class with money, leisure, and, often, a desire to escape temporarily from urban living. Lavish tourist camps and hotels blossomed on the shores of wilderness lakes and rivers. Most of these resorts offered, among other outdoor diversions, excellent deer hunting.
As interest in recreational hunting spread, pioneer conservationists sought ways to increase the limited supply of deer. Game laws had changed little since colonial times. As recently as 1870 the deer-hunting seasons ran from three to seven months, bag limits were nonexistent, and the use of dogs, flares for night hunting, and salt licks were accepted sporting practices.
Gradually, one state after another tightened its game laws. In 1873 Maine adopted the first bag limit for deer—three for any one hunter in any one season. Michigan and Minnesota imposed five-deer limits in 1895, and Wisconsin a two-deer limit in 1897. Weeks and even months were lopped oil’ theopen hunting seasons, and most states prohibited deer hunting entirely in counties where deer were scarce; in 18g8 Massachusetts closed the whole state to deer hunting for a period of five years. By the turn of the century every state north of Virginia and Arkansas had outlawed night shooting and the use of dogs for deer hunting. Moreover, by this time nearly every state had an official agency entrusted with the protection of wildlile.
Many of these reforms were aimed directly at the market hunter, whose importance to the economy was on a sharp decline. Most were initiated and fought through by sportsmen who had organized politically potent fish and game protective associations. The market hunter was finally forced out of business by a federal law (the Lacey Act of 1900) that banned interstate shipment of game killed in violation of state laws.
By the turn of the century both the deer and their habitat were receiving real protection for the first time. Their old natural enemies were nearly gone. People were fighting forest fires instead of setting them and watching them burn. Slate and federal forestry agencies were replanting old burns. The cover was returning to the land.