The Whitetail Restoration Story

The Whitetail Restoration Story

Posted 2023-01-30T12:28:00Z

We have plenty of deer to hunt today, but it hasn't always been that way. Lessons for the future can be gleaned from the past

The whitetail restoration is a true success story. Image by John Hafner

Imagine a world where white-tailed deer do not exist, and neither do deer hunters. That was reality for much of America not too long ago, after the whitetail was pushed to near extinction. By the early 1900s, the species was a shell of its former glory, and of what it is today. The bounce back to what we know today was slow, about 100 years in the making.

The Great Fall

When settlers arrived in North America, historical literature describes their findings as a land with bountiful populations of wildlife, especially rich with whitetails, wild turkeys, and small game. But that changed with time. As more Europeans landed in the New World, wildlife suffered. Commercial consumption quickly eroded populations of whitetails and other big game animals throughout the country. By the late 1800s, whitetails and many other big game species had been extirpated from much of their range in North America, said Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the National Deer Alliance. Deer were so valuable to Native Americans and European settlers they were overexploited. Markets for food and hides led to tremendous overharvests of white-tailed deer.

Some experts say the estimated nationwide deer population dropped to as low as 300,000 by 1890, and by the early 1900s, it was much lower.

In addition to overhunting, habitat change, heavy timber clearing, agricultural development, and commercial development also contributed to declines. Some experts say the estimated nationwide deer population dropped to as low as 300,000 by 1890, and by the early 1900s, it was much lower. The need for whitetail restoration partially led to the formation of wildlife agencies and game laws. In 1894, Kentucky passed a law making it illegal to shoot a deer between March 1 and September 1. Then, in 1912, deer hunting was completely closed in the state due to diminished populations. It remained that way until 1946.

Whitetails were hunted to near extinction in Arkansas, too. In 1916, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was created, and it promptly passed legislation to enact a two-month deer season and two-deer bag limit. Three years later, in 1919, it went to buck-only harvests. Still, according to Arkansas Online, by 1930, fewer than 500 deer remained in just nine or 10 counties.

Additional effort was required, and that meant reintroducing whitetails to areas where they'd disappeared.

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While the restoration was a success, we're seeing quickly declining fawn recruitment rates throughout the eastern states. Kentucky is the last remaining state with a rate above 1.0 (one fawn per doe) in the region. Image by Honeycutt Creative

An Uphill Climb Begins

Reintroducing the whitetail was slow, painstaking work. Those conducting it knew they likely wouldn't see the complete fruits of their labor. Yet they did it anyway, anticipating the good they were doing for whitetails and those who cared about them.

The first restoration efforts began in the late 1800s and were funded by sportsmen, landowners, and the state wildlife agencies, Adams said. Teddy Roosevelt is one of the most widely known public figures helping this effort.

Many of these efforts consisted of trapping whitetails from the remaining populations to reestablish new populations elsewhere. For that, conservation warriors used tools such as box traps, tranquilizer darts, net traps, and baiting. Oftentimes, biologists had to wrestle down deer as others tagged them and prepped them for transfer. It was both gritty and tedious work.

Thanks to decades of work, hunters have many opportunities to hunt America's most cherished big game animal. Image by Bill Konway

According to Adams, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin contributed more deer for restocking efforts than all other states. In total, 30 states received deer, and 36 states acted as a source for deer restoration efforts, he said. Obviously, some of the same states that received deer in areas also contributed deer to other areas. Cash deals between states — ranging from $20-40 per deer — and resource trades were made for captured-and-translocated whitetails.

The variance in restocking efforts, and the sources for some of those original herds, could help explain the wide variances in rut timing that we see all over the Southeast to this day. In Alabama, for example, restocking began in the 1920s, and most of the relocated deer were native to the Yellowhammer State. But some of them were brought in from North Carolina, and those efforts continued for decades. In South Carolina, most of the remaining whitetails were along the coastal floodplains, but some of them were trapped and transferred to counties within the Piedmont and mountain regions.

According to Georgia Wildlife, restocking started in the 1920s in Georgia, too, beginning with five deer that were purchased from a carnival owner and subsequently released on a wildlife management area. Florida began restocking in the 1940s, and really increased its efforts in the '50s. In the Sunshine State, there was a lot of focus on habitat improvement, in addition to trapping and transferring deer. The two-pronged approach was very effective and probably led to a swifter recovery.

According to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KDFWR), most whitetails used for reintroduction in the Bluegrass were trapped and transferred from Mammoth Cave National Park and Ballard WMA. By the 1980s, there were enough whitetails on the landscape to open a hunting season in all but the eastern third of the state. A statewide season followed by the late 1990s.

North Carolina created in- and out-of-state deals to restock their herds. From within, most whitetails were trapped and transferred from the Pisgah National Forest. Other deer were brought in from Wisconsin. In Virginia, most restocked deer came from the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, which was in Montgomery and Pulaski Counties. Most were relocated west of the Blue Mountains. Interestingly, the deer herds in the eastern counties remained untouched during the restocking effort, and according to the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, these deer are the closest thing the state has to what whitetails were in the 1600s, prior to colonization.

Though most restoration efforts took place in the Southeast, states in other regions moved deer around, too, including Indiana, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Vermont, according to Game and Fish.

A successful hunt thanks to major efforts that came long before it. Image by Bill Konway

A Completed Restoration

Whitetail populations continued to improve into the 1990s and early 2000s. Some believe herds throughout much of the Southeast began to plateau around that time, but today, biologists still tally the nationwide deer population at around 30 million. Whitetails roam our vast landscapes in force, making the great reintroduction of the last century a huge success. Still, the species isn't without modern challenges. Disease, notably chronic wasting disease (CWD) pose a significant problem, and one that we currently have no answer for.

Today, biologists still tally the nationwide deer population at around 30 million.

Continued, never-ending habitat encroachment is another problem, and there seems to be no end to that in sight. America has about 1.9 billion acres in the Continental U.S., but nearly 200 acres of land is lost every hour to development, and that number continues to grow.

Lastly is the decline of the deer hunter. Though there've been some bright spots recently, the long-term trend is one of fewer people going hunting, and that means less funding for wildlife.

While there are no restoration efforts occurring today, it's important that wildlife agencies, biologists, land managers, and hunters work together for the benefit of the resources. If we fail to do that, and fail to address the challenges of modern and future whitetails, it might just erode the ground gained by the great restoration, eventually prompting another one.

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