The Return Of The White-tailed Deer

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The response of the deer to these near-ideal conditions, especially in the Northeast, was explosive. From the islands of cover where they had survived precariously for nearly a century, deer pushed out in all directions. Those in northern New England spread southward into the farming counties. The deer in southeastern Massachusetts fanned out into the central counties and southward into Rhode Island and Connecticut. Adirondack deer rcpopulated the Catskills, western Vermont, and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. By 1908 Ernest Thompson Selon, the best-known naturalist of the day, guessed the deer population easl of the Mississippi to be about five hundred thousand.

This natural spread and increase was assisted by sportsmen’s organizations and the newly organized state game agencies. In 1878 a sportsmen’s club in Rutland County, Vermont, had purchased seventeen captive deer (ten of them from the keepers of the New York State Prison at Dannemora) and had released them in woodlands closed to hunting by the state. By 1895 this nucleus had increased to several hundred.

The success of the Vermont experiment inspired several eastern states to adopt a similar approach. In Pennsylvania it succeeded almost beyond belief. Soon after 1899 the Pennsylvania Game Commission began to purchase deer and release them in state forests. In 1905 the first units of an extensive deer refuge system were stocked with animals live-trapped in state forests. Two years later there were enough whitetails to warrant limited hunting. In 1907 hunters bagged two hundred bucks in a state where there had been no wild deer at all less than twenty years earlier.

By the mid-1920’s deer seemed to be everywhere in Pennsylvania. Herds of forty or more could be counted along almost any country road in the evening. Dozens could be flushed from any wood lot. They were invading barnyards, cornfields, and orchards. Strollers on the outskirts of Harrisburg and Philadelphia were frequently startled by the snort of a frightened buck or thrilled by the sight of a doe’s white flag.

The great Pennsylvania deer bubble burst soon after 1925. Game biologists had begun to notice that the animals taken by hunters were becoming stunted. Antler development was so poor that sportsmen complained of seeing up to a hundred deer in a day but not one with a forked antler that would have made it legal game. Then, in the bitter winter of 1926, the deer began to die. They died singly, by dozens, and sometimes by hundreds, in snowbound, overbrowsed winter yards. Vernon Bailey, a leading federal mammalogist, tallied in a few weeks more than one thousand dead deer in four townships of one county.

Bailey’s verdict confirmed that already reached by the Pennsylvania Game Commission—a drastic reduction in the deer population had to be made if the state was to save its forests and any deer at all. Winter ranges had been stripped of all vegetation as high as a man’s head by thousands of starving deer.

Until then, Pennsylvania, like most states that then permitted deer hunting, allowed each hunter only one buck with at least one forked antler each year. But a buck usually mates with several does, and most spikehorns and other sublegal bucks are capable of breeding. Because of this, the deer population had doubled every two or three years in spite of a mounting annual buck kill. And each spring the does were producing hundreds of thousands of fawns for which there would be no winter food. In 1930 the Pennsylvania Game Commission, in the face of bitter public opposition, declared an open season on antlcrless deer. Between 1931 and 1941 hunters killed more than 725,000 deer in Penn’s Woods. This harsh but necessary treatment cut the herd from near the million mark to below a half million. In the years since, regulated special antlerless deer seasons, now generally accepted as a standard management practice, have stabilized the deer population at around an optimum four hundred thousand.

In the South and in the Middle West south of the Great Lakes, restoration of the deer came later. But all of the states in these regions profited by the techniques developed and the mistakes made by Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. As recently as 1930 most of the states between the Rockies and the Appalachians still had comparatively few or no white-tailed deer. South of the Potomac in the Appalachians, the only thriving deer herd was in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Elsewhere in Appalachia the mountaineers—law or no law considered any edible wildlife as fair game at any time.

During the Depression many of these families left the hills. Their farms, and sometimes whole villages, were absorbed into state and national forests and parks. Another vast tract of prime deer habitat—still almost without deer—quickly developed. And again the return of the cover coincided fortuitously with another major advance in the wildlife conservation movement.

Until 1937 practically all state wildlife agencies received little or no income except from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. And often state legislatures diverted large portions of these funds to highway construction and other projects unrelated to wildlife conservation.