It's a Success Story All Deer Hunters Should Know and Herald

By Emily George

This first appeared on realtree.com on September 18, 2018.

“What do you hunt?” A common question that we are asked as hunters.

And the first answer from us is probably, “Deer.” The whitetail deer is the most sought-after big game species in the southeastern United States.

When the first settlers arrived in North America and discovered the whitetail and its benefits for sustainability - clothing, food, cover, rugs, fishnets - deer hunting for the market boomed.

Up until the early 20th century, deer in the Southeast were excessively pursued. Settlers bought, sold and traded deer parts with Europe and other communities for profit. Subsistence hunting followed by a commercial trade in deer hides peaked around 1700.

Market hunting, over-harvest, subsistence hunting, and lack of effective law enforcement were the main causes that drove the whitetail deer populations in the Southeast to become nearly extirpated. Venison was in high-demand, and with little regulations of deer harvest, the species was facing havoc. During the early 1900s, nearly every southeastern state reached its lowest deer population level.

There were very few, if any, deer that were spotted in the southeastern United States during the early 20th century, and most remnant deer were seen on privately owned land. In addition to over-hunting, habitat change due to timber management, and agricultural purposes throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries dwindled the habitat that deer thrive in.

Timber and agriculture for the market was heightened shortly after the market hunting phenomenon. Timber – a deer’s habitat - was being cut and sold, and agriculture in the South for crops such as corn and cotton was essential to the economy. Deer were losing their habitat and had no where to thrive, causing an even bigger downward spiral of the population throughout the region.

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Age of Restocking

Hunters, foresters and other outdoor enthusiasts were beginning to recognize the decline of deer, which prompted the implementation of game laws and establishment of state wildlife agencies. Shortly after 1900, wildlife agencies existed in almost every southeastern state, and the replenishing of whitetail deer began to unfold.

When wildlife agencies and game laws were established, southeastern states began their restocking efforts. Much of the restocking took place during the 1940s-1970s with most states implementing a “buck-only” law during the restocking period. It is estimated that many southeastern states had roughly 50,000 deer around the 1940s-1950s, but the exact population levels are unknown. Today, states in the Southeast have anywhere between roughly 720,000 to 1.5 million deer, according to most recent population estimates.

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State Agency Work

Virginia

Nearly all the deer stocked after 1967 came from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant in Montgomery and Pulaski Counties. Most restocking occurred west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Little to no restocking was performed along the eastern portion and tidewater region of the state, only protection of the remnant herds took place.

“Deer in eastern Virginia are the oldest species of deer here,” Matt Knox said, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.

“There are all different subspecies, but the basic one is called ‘Eastern Whitetail,’ and the deer in Eastern Virginia are the most representative of that,” Knox said. “Deer in Eastern Virginia represent almost exactly what existed in 1600.”

Knox added that deer hunting is essential for management of the species.

“Deer have a high-reproductive potential. Population [levels] grow very rapidly, they don’t control their own numbers; what controls that is food availability,” he said.

Virginia has unique hunting-season opportunities for hunters compared to other states. The longest deer season in the United States is in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. There is no daily deer limit, and hunters can take any deer they want. Knox concludes that because of the rapidly growing human population in this area, it was vital to set this season to control a healthy environment for deer, humans, and all other wildlife and habitat.

“There’s no other place in the country that has a deer season like we have,” he said.

South Carolina

In South Carolina, residual populations were primarily in the coastal river floodplains in the early 1900’s.

“We didn’t do a lot of restoration or restocking,” Charles Ruth said, state deer biologist for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. “Deer moved around from the coastal populations that were translocated to piedmont and mountains.”

For the most part, the state naturally restored deer and the residual deer populations took advantage of it.

“What little restoration we did was with all South Carolina deer. We are the only state that can say that,” Ruth said.

North Carolina

Most states in the southeast restocked using deer from remnant herds dispersed across the state. Though North Carolina additionally purchased deer from Wisconsin, the primary source of deer were from Pisgah National Forest.

“We continue to tweak what we are doing to manage what is best for the deer herd and hunters,” Jon Shaw said, deer biologist for NCDNR. He says that law-abiding hunters and landowners that worked cooperatively with the state agency by permitting access to their properties for restocking are the primary contributions to the rebound of North Carolina deer herds.

Georgia

The first stocking occurred in 1927, when a U.S. Forest Service Ranger took the lead and bought five to six deer from a traveling carnival owner and turned them loose on Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area.

“A private sector jumped in for restocking, and the state began to get involved. Then a jolt of funding with [the] Pittman-Robertson Act really ramped things up,” Charlie Killmaster said, Georgia State Deer Biologist. Since restocking in Georgia, the deer population has fluctuated, but has seen overall success from the restocking and strict regulations on deer hunting during the 1970s-1980s.

“We have total control by being able to regulate hunter harvest,” Killmaster said. “Simply changing the regulations can affect an increase or decrease in the population. There is an incredible level of influence.”

Alabama

The first restocking occurred during the 1920s. Most deer came from remnant deer herds in Alabama, while a few were obtained from North Carolina.

“Some counties were not restocked, but rebounded with remnant deer,” Chris Cook said, deer program coordinator for Alabama Wildlife & Fisheries.

Today, the deer population in Alabama stands at about 1.5 million deer. Season regulations vary by region and county in the state.

“We are looking at what data we have and what data we need to get,” Cook said. “We are looking at what seasons and bag limits and impacts it takes to make better decisions on where we are at.”

“Without deer hunters, it would be possibly, impossible for us to run our agency,” Cook said.

 Florida

Florida’s deer herd began to recover in the 1940s. The Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission began spending the allocated money on restoration efforts and Wildlife Management Areas to benefit the restored wildlife with better habitat to thrive. By the 1950s, the deer population was assumed to be between 45,000 and 50,000. Since then, deer populations increased rapidly annually.

Kentucky

The Kentucky Division of Game and Fish began a white-tailed deer project in 1946 to restore the species. The project included refuge establishment, trapping and translocation of live deer, and habitat improvement. Restoration work continued for 52 years, and Kentucky now has a quality deer population that ranks in the top five for all time Boone & Crockett buck production.

Tennessee

The agency's white-tailed deer program began in the 1940s with restoration efforts. From 1940 to 1985, more than 9,000 deer were released into various areas of Tennessee. With the increase of deer, harvest rates have also increased significantly.

Mississippi

Like other southeastern states, Mississippi’s deer herd was nearly-extirpated with only remnant herds found in remote locations of the state. Restoration efforts began in 1932 with the establishment of the state game commission.

 

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Hunters’ Contribution to Wildlife Conservation and State Agencies

State wildlife agencies are the primary source of deer research and population success. Without regulations prompted by analyzation of annual data collected on deer and other wildlife, deer populations would not thrive.

But the primary source of funding to state wildlife agencies to conduct wildlife work is through dedicated hunters and sportsmen. Hunters are the main source of funding for deer research.

“It is a primary source of funding for deer research. In North Carolina, there are three times as many deer hunters than turkey hunters in the state,” Shaw said.

Deer hunting generates the most license dollars in all southeastern states -- more than any other type of hunting. These dollars not only benefit the whitetail deer species but the management of all wildlife in the state.

“Deer have impacts on other wildlife, and they are selective browsers, and they can eat a ton of forage and biomass through the year; which can have a big impact on what the forest looks like,” Shaw said. “They mold the ecosystem for lots of other species.”

“Without deer hunters, it would be possibly, impossible for us to run our agency,” Cook said.

In addition to license sales, the Federal Pittman-Robertson Act aids in the work of state agencies by collecting funding from federal excise taxes on hunting, ammunition and archery equipment and allocating it to state wildlife agencies to fund wildlife management efforts. Hunters contribute to the management of wildlife for all outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy.

But hunters support deer management through state agencies in more ways than one. Compliance from hunters for annual surveys that state agencies send out are a large factor to management of the species. Following the law, participating in hunter survey’s, and purchasing licenses and hunting equipment are the primary sources of a thriving deer population in your state.

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Future of Southeastern Whitetails

Today, deer management in the Southeast remains healthy. Regulations will occasionally fluctuate throughout the years based on research and data that shapes management practices year-to-year.

As the largest group of hunters in the United States, deer hunters have an obligation to ensure deer hunting does not see a decline in the coming decades. Hunting is a vital management tool for managing whitetail populations that ultimately affects all other wildlife and their habitat in the ecosystem. Deer hunting also contributes to the acquiring of land for public hunting and recreational purposes, the maintenance of land, and the maintenance of species for hunting or wildlife viewing. Deer hunters are the backbone of conservation and serve both hunters and non-hunters.

It is up to us as deer hunters to ensure that deer and other wildlife continue to thrive into the future and provide all the benefits they did centuries ago. Though deer hunting is a heritage in the Southeast, it still continues to die as an ancestral tradition. As society moves forward, the popularity of hunting in general is seeing a decline and minimal interest from rising generations. Let’s do what we can to ensure that there will be land and healthy populations of deer to keep the woods and other wildlife healthy, and to ensure our grandchildren are given opportunity to traipse into the woods in pursuit of a southeastern whitetail.

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