Deer Population Facts
In the early 1900’s there were an estimated 500,000 white-tailed deer in the United States. Unregulated commercial hunting and subsistence hunting threatened to eliminate the white-tailed deer from much of its range. At that time, many state wildlife agencies were formed with the goal of conserving the nation’s depleted wildlife resources. Hunting regulations were put into place, and the harvest of antlerless (female) deer was prohibited. The rebound of white-tailed deer populations that followed is considered a wildlife management success story. Today there are over 25 million deer in the United States and numbers are rising. Successful management was one of the keys to increasing populations. However, other key factors have contributed as well. Around the turn of the century, large predators such as wolves and mountain lions, were eliminated from much of the white-tail’s range, removing the natural check on deer numbers. More recently, habitat changes, including reversion of abandoned farm fields to forest, and human population shifts to rural and suburban areas, have created mosaics of open and forested land ideal for deer. In addition to habitat changes, landowner decisions to prevent hunting have limited hunter access to many areas, allowing populations to increase.
Deer are very charismatic animals, and many people in New York enjoy seeing, watching, photographing, or hunting deer. Although a highly valued species, the white-tailed deer has reached record population levels in many states and will continue to grow. Densities may exceed 40 deer per square mile in some rural areas, and over 100 deer/square mile have been documented near many eastern metropolitan areas. Overall, public attitudes toward deer are becoming more negative as deer populations increase (Swihart and DeNicola, 1997). Public concerns include crop damage, damage to landscape plants, deer/car collisions, transmission of Lyme Disease, and effects of high deer populations on habitat quality for both deer and other wildlife species.
Many communities are facing the challenge of managing locally-overabundant deer herds in areas closed to hunting. Fencing and repellents can help manage site-specific problems, however these methods may just move deer and potential damage to other locations. As long as adequate food resources are available, deer populations can double in size every 2-3 years. Eventually some form of population management is needed to control herd growth and maintain deer numbers within the social carrying capacity.
Swihart, R. K. and A. J. DeNicola. 1997. Public involvement, science, management, and the overabundance of deer: Can we avoid a hostage crisis? Wildlife Society Bulletin 25:382-387.