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The changeable deer

Population has fluctuated widely over time

December 18, 2010
By GEORGE J. BRYJAK, Special to the Enterprise

Oh, Deer! A series about deer population, Part 1 of 3


Deer first migrated south from Arctic Circle regions into what is now the United States about 4 million years ago. They were hunted by Native Americans and later the European colonists. The first significant decline in the deer population began when Native Americans killed upwards of half a million animals a year by the mid-18th century to supply the deerskin trade. With a decline in this commerce at the onset of the 19th century, deer populations were on the rise, only to decrease (significantly) again via "market hunting" that supplied meat to the nation's expanding cities.

Article Photos

Unafraid of a photographer, a deer stares down the camera in Lake Clear.
(Enterprise file photo — Lou Reuter)

By most accounts, there were no more than 500,000 deer remaining in the United States from 1900 to 1910 (down from "guesstimates" of between 20 and 40 million when the first Europeans arrived), with some areas of the country completely devoid of these animals. Deer were so scarce in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont that track sightings often resulted in newspaper headlines.

In 1900, Congress passed the Lacey Act protecting game and wild birds that were being hunted to the brink of extinction. Biologists began relocating deer from areas where they were still relatively plentiful to regions wherein their numbers had decreased substantially or deer had disappeared completely. Deer populations began to increase in part because their natural predators (especially wolves and mountain lions) were being hunted, trapped and poisoned in large numbers.

No one realized how adaptive deer were and to what extent they would thrive as the nation began the push to suburban sprawl in the post-World War II era. As George Timko of the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Service stated, "We thought they'd be confined to the rural areas. ... We never thought they would be living in cul-de-sacs."

The nation's deer population has expanded approximately 60-fold from roughly a half-a-million animals in 1900 to approximately 30 million today. If the human population had increased by a factor of 60 during this period, the number of people residing in the U.S. would have skyrocketed from 76 million to 4.56 billion.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, there are 17 subspecies of white-tailed deer in the United States, including the Northern woodlands white-tail found from Maine to Wisconsin and as far south as Maryland, and the Virginia white-tail common throughout the Southeastern states. Recent evidence indicates that black-tailed deer (northern California, western Oregon, Washington and the Alaskan panhandle) are a distinct species, although some biologists still consider these animals a subspecies of mule deer (found west of the Missouri River), so called because of their large, mule-like ears. White-tails comprise approximately 75 to 80 percent of the nation's deer population.


Native Americans and deer

In a 1932 article, anthropologist William Ritchie argued that "no single animal played as great a role in the economy of the Indian population of ancient New York as the Virginia deer." Ritchie notes that 25 years of field work uncovering village sites (some almost 6,000 years old) revealed "bone remains of food animals" including "deer of both sexes and all ages." In Schuyler County (south-central New York), one site dated around 3,000 B.C. contained the remains "of literally thousands of deer."

In "The Deer of North America," Leonard Lee Rue III states that "the whitetail was as important to the eastern woodland Indians as the bison was to the Indians of the plains." While venison and bone marrow were important sources of protein, hides were fashioned into clothing, rugs, blankets, bedding, moccasins, fishnets, decorations and religious instruments. Arrowheads, clubs, tools and fish hooks were made from deer bones as virtually every part of the animal was used efficiently. The white-tailed deer was a "general store" to Native Americans of the Northeast.

Beyond a practical use, deer had social, psychological, mythological and religious significance for many Native Americans. For example, anthropologist Shepard Krech states that Cherokees used deer tongues in divination rituals "by throwing them onto a fire using the manner in which they burned or popped to forecast sickness or health, success or failure, drought or rainfall." Deer were also prominent in narratives about the origin of the known world and its inhabitants. Some Native Americans believed that consuming venison made them swifter and wiser.

Social scientist Terry Anderson argues that the widely accepted perspective of Native Americans "living in harmony with nature" and utilizing every last morsel of their kills was much more fiction than fact for many tribes. He notes that 18th- and 19th-century buffalo-hunting Indians of the Great Plains herded hundreds of animals over cliffs, took only the choicest cuts and left tons of meat to rot or be consumed by scavengers.

While we think of Native Americans felling deer using bows and arrows, the hunt was often a community effort involving dozens of individuals. In one practice, a hundred people walking approximately 40 to 50 yards apart would beat hollow bones with sticks, driving deer in front of them toward water, where waiting comrades with canoes tossed snares around their necks and drowned or choked them.


Deer in New York and the Adirondacks

Ranier H. Brocke, professor emeritus at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse, gave me a brief overview history of deer in the Adirondacks and New York state. In the 1800s, hunters were paid $20 for each wolf and cougar taken, a significant amount of money when people often worked for a dollar or two a day. As a consequence, by the mid-1850s to 1880 these deer predators were all but eliminated. However, by the late 1800s any decline in mortality deer experienced from a lack of natural predators was offset by indiscriminate killing of these animals by settlers, often with the use of hunting dogs.

Leonard Lee Rue notes that Europeans "hunted deer far more intensively than did the Indians." Professional hunter Thomas Meacham of St. Lawrence County kept an exact record of his kills. When he died in 1850, Meacham had killed 214 wolves, 77 cougars, 219 bear and 2,550 deer. Rue notes there were "many such hunters."

In the first decade of the last century, efforts were made to conserve New York's deer population via regulations enacted by the Division of Fish and Game. Because of these regulations and the absence of natural predators, the deer population began to increase. As killing does was illegal, hunting had a minimal impact on the state's increasing deer population. Nelson Lafon, a deer manager in Virginia, states that you can kill all the bucks you want, and it won't make a difference - "You have to take does."

Conventional wisdom has it that coyotes interbred with Canadian gray wolves, resulting in "Eastern coyotes" that made their way south to the Adirondacks in the 1920s and were well established in the Park by the 1980s. (Bloomingdale naturalist Ed Kanze notes that we can't say "exactly how or where or when coyotes interbred with wolves.") Eastern coyotes weigh between 30 and 50 pounds, approximately twice the size of their Western cousins. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation estimates the summer coyote population at 20,000 to 30,000 animals.

Brocke notes that a pack of six to eight coyotes can kill a deer every few days. Deer are a main source of food for Adirondack coyotes, especially in the winter when smaller prey live and hide under the snow. According to the DEC, in the spring months coyotes can impact the fawn survival rate "in localized areas."

In the early 1970s, before the coyote population had fully expanded into the Adirondacks and when doe hunting was still illegal in the Park, the deer population had increased to such high levels that forest reproduction was being severely over-browsed. Experimental "any deer" hunts were conducted (under DEC permit) by SUNY-ESF in its 15,000-acre Huntington Forest in the central Adirondacks. These controlled hunts reduced the local deer population from approximately 30 to 12 per square mile, allowing forest reproduction to fully recover.

Brocke believes that today's deer herd in the central Adirondacks is being held down to the single digits per square mile, especially on unlogged Adirondack wilderness areas, by a combination of occasionally severe winters and steady coyote predation.

"Taken as a whole," Brocke notes, "there is good evidence that the Adirondack deer population is stable or declining."


George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale after teaching sociology for 24 years at the University of San Diego. A list of sources will accompany the third and final part of this series on deer.



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