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Are Whitetail Populations Destined to Decline?

Deer populations are down by about 2.8 million since 2008. Some biologists are alarmed by this, while others believe it’s natural and healthy for the overall herd.


Some wildlife biologists worry the whitetail, the backbone of American hunting, is running tail-flagging for a crash. Doctor Grant Woods, a consulting wildlife biologist who assesses deer herds all over the country, has said, “I think we’re nearing a crisis mode. The best-case scenario is that deer populations drop 10 to 25 percent over the next couple years.”

The thing is, according to numbers crunched by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), whitetail populations in North America already have fallen by about 10 percent since 2008. In 2008 the QDMA estimated there were between 32-33 million whitetails; now the QDMA estimates there are closer to 30 million. If those estimates are accurate and projected forward, it’s conceivable the population could fall toward 20 million.

Increasing predator populations, commodity prices, disease outbreaks and aging habitat in the Northeast and parts of the South are factors making some worry this might be the beginning of a precipitous check in what has been, in many areas, an over-populated herd. Most biologists, however, see this as a much more complex and localized issue.

Brian Murphy, CEO of the QDMA and a wildlife biologist, doesn’t think the whitetail is headed for a crash. “We’re just entering a period many didn’t foresee,” he says. “Instead of the surging whitetail numbers of the 1990s and early 2000s, we’re seeing stable to slightly declining populations in many regions as populations fall in line with habitat.”

Murphy also points out that over the last few decades the quality-deer management concept has been experimented with in many states. In 2011, 22 states utilized some kind of an antler-point restriction; eight of them had statewide restrictions. Meanwhile, 10 states had “earn-a-buck” regulations in parts or all of their states.

“Earn-a-buck regulations are highly effective at increasing antlerless harvests,” notes the QDMA’s Whitetail Report 2012 (, “but are widely unpopular among hunters.”

Reducing herds also can be unpopular. Early in the 20th century America’s hunters footed the bill for much of the whitetail’s comeback and now are actively utilized to manage North America’s game. But the controversy over population goals aside, to some extent the lower overall whitetail population has been accomplished by design.

Beyond the sometimes-controversial measures taken by state game agencies to reduce herds, a few factors affect deer populations that wildlife managers aren’t completely sure how to factor in, and it’s these factors some biologists fear.

Disease Outbreaks
Whitetail hunters drive the hunting industry. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 12 million deer hunters in the United States. The licenses they buy raise about $600 million annually for state wildlife agencies, and the gear they buy generates $12.4 billion for the American economy. So when a deer herd dies off, it’s not just hunters who worry. Die-offs occurred in many parts of the country during the summer of 2011. Outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease (HD) in whitetail herds took place from North Carolina to Montana. HD is the most significant viral disease that impacts whitetails annually. It is an infectious, blood-borne disease of deer and elk transmitted by biting midges or flies; it is caused by either of two closely related viruses, epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) virus or bluetongue (BTV) virus. According to the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study (SCWDS), in 2011 18 states reported suspected cases of HD. When HD occurs, massive die-offs can take place in segments of the overall population.

Predators on the Increase
A recent five-year study on fawn survival on the Savannah River, led by Forest Service researcher Dr. John Kilgo, indicated that less than a quarter of whitetail fawns born in the spring live until autumn. The study used radio transmitters implanted in the female parts of adult does, which were pushed out at birth. When a signal indicated a birth occurred researchers headed to the site. They fitted live fawns with GPS collars, and otherwise determined cause of death. At the end of the study researchers concluded coyotes were the biggest factor in this 75 percent fawn mortality. The researchers’ conclusion: The Savannah River deer herd can sustain itself with this predation, but only if hunter opportunity is diminished.
So is the Savannah River predation rate an anomaly?

Overall, the average fawn survival rate declined significantly from 2000-2010. The QDMA says, according to state statistics, the rate (to 6 months) was .81 fawns per adult doe in 2000 but just .66 in 2010. Regionally, it varied. In Michigan just .39 fawns made it to 6 months whereas in Iowa 1.3 per doe lived until fall. In the Northeast, Maine had the highest fawn recruitment rate (.75), followed by Pennsylvania (.70).

Aging Habitat
A 2010 study on land-use changes across the whitetail’s range done by Mark A. Drummond of the U.S. Geological Survey indicated forestland in the Northeast decreased by an estimated 4.1 percent from 1973-2000, mostly due to urban development. Meanwhile, much of the forest cover across Appalachia has been aging due to massive reductions in acres logged by timber companies in New England and New York, and lawsuits against states that thin or clear-cut portions of forests. This is a big factor because while a young hardwood forest can produce 1,000 pounds or more of deer food per acre, a mature forest produces much less—some studies indicate as little as only 50-100 pounds per acre.

“This, more than any other factor,” says Murphy, “is something we can change by lobbying our state agencies to manage public lands not just for trees, but also for wildlife.”

The Future of Deer Management
This last point leads to a frightening diversion of opportunity. Historically, hunting on public land was comparable to that on private land, but over the last few decades this has been changing. Now the discrepancy in quality is widening as habitat generally ages on public land. As public lands become less diverse ecosystems, private landowners tend to do a better job improving habitat, so much so that, incredibly, from 2000-2009, hunters logged a record 4,423 whitetail bucks with the Boone & Crockett Club. These 4,423 bucks make up nearly 40 percent of all the whitetails in the club’s book.

Though herd management is a very regional issue and antler size is not necessarily a measure of a quality experience, it is certainly true that the next great movement in deer hunting needs to be centered on how game managers can improve the quality of the environments on public lands. If this doesn’t occur, deer hunting as an American pastime could decline substantially.

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13 Responses to Are Whitetail Populations Destined to Decline?

mytwo cents wrote:
November 18, 2013

So Stanley wants to blame enviro-maniacs? This is a multi state problem of declining deer populations and the answer is simple. Its over harvesting during hunting season with states using hunters to destroy their own sport. The enemy is your fellow hunter who insists on shooting a doe no matter what. The puppet masters are insurance companies and your local insurance agent that have politicians in their pocket. In some areas, big farm lobbies have no love for wildlife habitat that deer love either. Until hunters organize and demand the greedy interests stop with long deer seasons and the decimation of the breeding doe population, the future is bleak for the whitetail. I happen to be an Environmental Biologist and an avid hunter and have not shot a doe in 15 years. I'd advise the rest of you to do the same and organize against the theft of your heritage by puppet masters using unwitting or unwilling hunters to destroy the whitetail population.

Stanley wrote:
November 11, 2013

In Pa we have enviro-maniacs dictating deer management. New age greenies who are so out of touch with reality of hunting and nature its crazy. They want more deer dead constantly, to promote biodiversity extremism. Put the forests in a self-sustaining mode without the help or interference of man. Not a realistic scenario imho, but they sure are trying... NUTS.

Hal wrote:
January 19, 2013

The map in the print edition has an error in state labeling.

Carl Giuliano wrote:
December 20, 2012

The whitetail decline in PA amounts to close to 50%. But, that's the way the PA Game Commission (PGC) planned it (for a variety of objectives that make no sense). The result has been a disaster for hunters, and youth hunting can be described as boring. PA hunter complaints have been met by PGC defensiveness, and insults. One of their biologists referred to hunters as spoiled brats. Lots of luck keeping PA a hunting state!

Mike G wrote:
December 15, 2012

I agree with Matt S. I bet the insurance company's are happy to see the deer population diminish. It will save them tons by keeping deer off the roads. Maybe they are the ones putting the pressure to up the doe tags.

Jack in Virginia wrote:
December 14, 2012

Our limit has gone from one deer in the late 70's to five or six now, along with DMAP, DCAP, Bonus tags and Earn a Buck. I noticed the road kills declined sharply in the fall of 2010 and remains low now. coyotes are all over the state and I've gone from killing 2 or 3 deer a year to one the past two years and I see fewer deer per outing now. The liberal limits and coyotes are greatly reducing the deer herd in Virginia.

Chuck wrote:
December 13, 2012

In the area where I go hunting for whitetail, the number of deer have declined significantly. While the state and the department of wildlife will deny it, it seems to correspond with the outlawing of hunting cougars with hounds. In the last few years, I have seen several cats and lots of tracks for them. Up until 5 years ago that was a rarity, now it is the rule.

Bill Hoffman wrote:
December 13, 2012

We need to do a better job of educating hunters and the public about how a balanced approach to harvest is healthy for the population. Taking some mature does along with mature bucks is important, and passing on prime young bucks, the hardest thing for some hunters to do, is also important for the overall health and balance of the herd.

Brian R Crum wrote:
December 13, 2012

I wouldl like to see Ohio go to an Earn-A-Buck system and reduce the amount of antlerless deer that can be taken. Currently, in the Zone I hunt, a total of 6 can be taken - 1 of those antlered, but many hunters are only out looking for that trophy - so make them earn it. ODNR will not admit it, but I believe the population really starting to be impacted by there management practices. This is the first year in a very long time that during Gun Season I did not harvest a single deer.

Jose O. wrote:
December 12, 2012

I don't think hunter quotas are doing anything to significantly decrease the herds. Since the 80s I have been allowed quite a few deer which most times I don't fill all my tags. I find the decrease a bit hard to believe, it seems there are quite a few more deer these days than any time in the past I can remember. Any state/county stats available?

Buck B. wrote:
December 12, 2012

I used to hunt the central mountains of PA but the decline in the numbers of deer is alarming. In our valley this year, only two bucks were killed. Years ago, the numbers were in the thirties. The woods now looks like a park with little to no vegetation on the forest floor. In my estimation, the lack of food is the cause for a lack of deer.

Randy Gerhart wrote:
December 12, 2012

I totally agree with Matt's assesment of the current Whitetail decline. Too many antlerless deer liscenses and too long of a season for the anlerless tags.

Matt S. wrote:
December 05, 2012

I'm not a rocket scientist but continually allowing generous limits (especially antlerless tags) may have something to do with it...yet no one seems to mention it. Let's shoot everything that moves!