Why Man Cannot Control Whitetail Densities

Posted on January 20, 2015




“Despite their agility, speed, stealth, and incredibly acute senses, very few deer die of old age.

They meet their fates early, and in ways that are nearly countless.”

Al Cambronne – Deerland




“The path of the whitetail hangs in the balance and will be determined by you here at this symposium,” said Will Primos, founder of Primos Hunting, in his comments at the opening of the 2014 QDMA North American Whitetail Summit. Sensationalism aside, are we to believe that the whole species of Odocoileus virginianus are dangling on the precipice of elimination and the savior is an organization with roughly 200 handpicked attendees, called stakeholders, that claims to represent all facets of whitetails?   I am in agreement with Outdoor Life’s Editor, Andrew McKean when he writes, “We need a national group with political influence derived from its millions of members, a gravitational pull that can direct resource-management decisions, and lead education and outreach efforts to promote and defend deer hunting.”

But, without disputing the merits of the QDMA, of which I am a member, we need to be careful with regards to  perceptions as they are being bandied about. After all, this isn’t Europe. Last time I checked we operate on the North American Wildlife Conservation Model, which holds to the basic principal that our fish and wildlife belong to all North Americans, and that they need to be managed in a way that their populations will be sustained forever. Those of us that do indeed hunt deer are at best, a marginalized minority when compared to the entire population, which incidentally have as much stake in whitetails as do those of us that pursue them, and derive an income as a result of the animal.



So yes, I agree we indeed should have a unified voice as deer hunters and like McKean writes, “I don’t care what it’s called – the Deer Association, Whitetails Forever, Flagtail Nation – but it’s high time we deer hunters, on a national basis, started working together instead of apart.” As a result of that symposium came the National Deer Alliance of which the goal is to attract and unite deer hunters under one umbrella. With the American deer hunter being classified as a shaky coalition of special-interest groups that are predisposed to finding fault with each other’s favorite hunting methods, it remains to be seen how unified this fledgling alliance becomes. However, regardless of agendas, numbers, science, habitat, education, or even money, we cannot, nor will we ever be able to fully control deer densities.


Uncontrollable Variables Affecting Deer Densities


Al Cambronne writes in Deerland: “In much of North America, deer populations are limited only by disease, starvation, (winter) and hunting.”



More whitetails will die annually as a result of that which cannot be controlled than from all of the bullets and arrows of those that hunt this animal. The following are the leading death knells to our whitetail population. As a result, “Deer managers face myriad challenges, complications, and uncontrolled variables.” according to Cambronne. He continues, “In the South unprecedented drought and high temperatures leave deer herds decimated. In the North long, cold winters are followed by April, that cruelest month when emaciated bucks fail to arise from their beds and gaunt does survive by reabsorbing their fetal fawns.”




Winter truly is the grim reaper when it comes to decimating a whitetail population. The age old fairytale that says, “…and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again” certainly applies to even our best management efforts when battling winter severity. Supplemental feeding, cutting browse, and other efforts are all helpful in sustaining local herds during brutal winters, however this is merely a band aid approach given the scope and size of the whitetails winter range.

Deer biologist, John Ozoga writes, “Across the whitetail’s northern range, the amount of suitable winter habitat is shrinking, and so are deer herds in response to killer winters.” And with the polar vortex of winter 2014 that ushered in record breaking prolonged snow and cold, the impact due to what is sure to be high deer mortality will be felt for years to come.



“Deer starvation during tough winters is a natural phenomenon technically, however, deer don’t starve to death. They die from malnutrition,” writes Ozoga. “The result of stomachs filled with indigestible, poor quality food.” He further explains:

The rate at which deer can digest food depends on its cellulose content, with succulent food being more rapidly broken down than fibrous foods. The very slow rate at which low-quality browse – such as spruce, balsam and timothy grass – passes through the digestive tract explains why deer starve with full stomachs.”

Adding to this already tough dilemma is the deer’s vulnerability to predation, especially as the snow-pack deepens and food sources shrink. With undersized deer yards whitetail escape routes are severely reduced, forcing them to flounder in bottomless snow when being chased by wolves, coyotes and cats.


The sad reality revealed by Ozoga is:

Deer hunting in the North is not headed for a comeback. In fact, during the next several years, we deer hunters are probably in for some of the poorest hunting experienced in the past 40 years or so. And that extends all the way from Alberta, Canada to the Northeastern United States. The real problem is the steady decline in suitable habitat for wintering whitetails, contributing to a preponderance of malnourished does that give birth to stunted fawns destined to die soon after birth.” (Or reabsorbed to preserve the life of the doe.)


Drought & Disease


As big of a mortality factor winter is to whitetails in the northern climates, lack of water is just as deadly to deer residing in the Midwest and south. Not only does lack of water have an effect on habitat, reducing food supplies for deer, but with prolonged lack of rain many water sources cease to exist leaving the land parched and littered with dead deer.

Dr. Grant Woods writes:

There are other impacts of drought stress on whitetails than the obvious reduction in forage, and therefore, herd quality, One of the worries I have when droughts occur is E.H.D. (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) and B.T. (bluetongue). These are both viruses but are genetically different. However, the signs and/or symptoms of both viruses can appear similar. In fact it requires samples and testing to confirm which virus is present in sick or dead deer.

Unlike CWD, EHD/BT is not spread from deer to deer through direct contact. Rather it is transmitted from deer-to-deer by biting midges (called sand flies, gnats, no see ums, etc.). Research indicates that the scale of EDH/BT outbreaks is more closely related to the population levels of midges than deer. In other words, reducing the deer population probably won’t decrease the level of an EHD/BT outbreak.

Populations of the biting midges, and therefore EHD/BT outbreaks seem to explode when a drought has occurred resulting in lots of mud or moist soil being exposed. If rain occurs following such a drought, there is usually a huge hatch of the midges. Should widespread rain occur during sometime from July until it frosts, conditions could be perfect for a very large EHD/BT outbreak. Usually less than 25% of a deer herd dies during an EHD/BT outbreak, but there have certainly been cases where more than 50% of the herd dies.”


Land Development & Human Encroachment

Whitetails are highly adaptable and as Dr. Valerius Geist rightly states, “Currently they exploit the urban savannah we created and the agricultural lands that sustain us. The whitetail just adjusts, fits in, and thrives.” However, as more and more land is gobbled up for human consumption, the deer’s habitat continues to shrink. Adding to this influx of new homes and neighborhoods are the additional vehicles that traverse back and forth through roadways that whitetails also use.




In a Washington Post November 2010 article titled, Deer Overpopulation Taking Economic Toll, it was stated, “Statistically, car crashes make whitetail deer the deadliest animal in North America. Last year an estimated 1.1 million deer-vehicle crashes resulted in about 150 human fatalities, more than ten-thousand injuries, and insurance payouts of over $3.8 billion.”

Cambronne opines, “We’ve created a new type of habitat that’s perfect for deer, and they’ve adapted to this new terrain and exploited it in ways we’re only now beginning to fully understand.”




The Psalmist rightly states, “Every beast of the forest is mine,” giving ownership to Him who created the white-tailed deer. As stewards of this creation it is up to us to use wisdom in order to responsibly manage both the land and animals that inhabit it. In so doing we must remember we are not the rightful owner, only users, and despite our arrogance, we cannot control the weather, disease or the actions of human beings. That’s the Creator’s job.


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Posted in: Whitetail Deer