Should the Feds Manage Deer in the US?

Should the Feds Manage Deer in the US?

Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison think the federal government should lead the nation’s efforts on managing deer and elk. Why? They think hunters and state wildlife agencies aren’t controlling the herds’ impacts on society, other wildlife, and forest habitats.

In a report published April 3 in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Conservation Science, the three researchers charge state wildlife agencies for catering too much to recreational hunters. Their paper “Where have all the Flowers Gone? A call for federal leadership in deer management in the United States” claims state-agency deference to less than 10% of the population (hunters) lets deer herds overpopulate, thus neglecting the states’ obligations to manage wildlife for all citizens.

They write that overabundant herds cause “declines in biodiversity and overall ecosystem health,” and increase chronic wasting disease in deer and elk, and tick-borne diseases in humans. Professors Bernd Blossey and Darragh Hare at Cornell, and Donald M. Waller at UW-Madison say many U.S. forests have lost biodiversity because overpopulated deer herds prevent trees and plants from regenerating by devouring them. They also cite “substantial health and economic losses on U.S. highways, where 2.1 million deer are killed annually…injuring nearly 60,000 people with over 400 human fatalities at a cost of over $10 billion.”

They write that forests in the East and Midwest can’t deliver the benefits of healthy ecosystems because of excessive white-tailed deer, while forests in Western states “can become equally problematic” from too many elk, mule deer, and black-tailed deer.

Devouring Flowers

“Evidence collected over the past 150 years indicate that across the eastern U.S., forest understory carpets of trilliums, lilies, orchids, and other charismatic wildflowers have been replaced by near monocultures of sedges, ferns and, increasingly, introduced plants,” the authors wrote. Noting, “Canada yew has vanished from much of its range.”

They cite deer as the “important stressor” for those declines, writing: “White-tailed deer populations have increased beyond their ecological carrying capacities, (and are) the main reason for widespread forest devastation.”

Their report says deer-caused problems go beyond the plants they eat. “Insects, birds, small mammals, nutrient cycling and forest carbon storage capabilities can all be (damaged). Introduced plants and earthworms thrive where deer are abundant. High earthworm populations eliminate leaf litter, which decreases litter invertebrate abundance, which, in turn, leads to collapses in salamander and ground-nesting bird populations.”

Such concerns aren’t new, of course. State-employed biologists dating to Aldo Leopold in the 1940s have warned of deer overbrowsing habitats, including whitetails in Wisconsin and mule deer in New Mexico.

Likewise, state lawmakers usually side with voters, not scientists. Lawmakers left Leopold standing alone after the UW-Madison professor prescribed antlerless deer hunts in Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Those hunts reduced the herd but outraged hunters, who labeled it the “Crime of ’43” and hung Leopold in effigy. Sixty years later, Pennsylvania lawmakers helped force wildlife biologist Gary Alt into early retirement only five years after the governor installed him as chief deer manager to help restore the state’s overbrowsed forests.

Tackling & Shackling

And now, 20-some years later, even with CWD spreading across North America, state wildlife agencies seldom get far with herd-reduction plans before lawmakers and reluctant hunters tackle and shackle them.

In a 2023 paper titled “Sociological and political challenges to minimizing the impacts of CWD on deer populations,” state deer biologists Jason Sumners of Missouri and Mike Tonkovich of Ohio note that public opinion routinely crushes data-driven science. They wrote, “Despite liberal bag limits and expanded opportunities, (some hunters) are either unable or unwilling…or directly opposed to strategies designed to reduce deer populations.”

But Sumners and Tonkovich also note that society can enable that resistance. Farmers pushed for smaller deer herds decades ago, but gradually learned to tolerate crop damage, which isn’t small. A 2002 study estimated deer cause annual crop losses exceeding $900 million in the U.S., and wildlife damage compensations exceeded an estimated $4 billion.

Hunter numbers, meanwhile, have dwindled, while those who remain increasingly view antlerless hunting as an obligation or afterthought, not a bonus opportunity. As deer herds grew in response, hunters increasingly held out for a buck, preferably one with bigger antlers than last year’s buck.

“Hunters have enjoyed unprecedented success and mature buck harvest opportunities,” Sumners and Tonkovich wrote. “Agencies must dissuade hunters from harvesting a buck first by providing ample antlerless harvest opportunities early in the season…Long hunting seasons and large deer populations encourage procrastination. Hunters continue to hunt ‘their’ buck and defer antlerless harvest ‘until later.’”

Sumners and Tonkovich note that fighting CWD and restoring habitats require a common goal: lower deer numbers. “If we are to manage CWD, agency focus must be on managing for smaller, biologically/ecologically sustainable deer herds,” they wrote.

The two state-employed biologists end their paper by suggesting wildlife managers might need to look beyond hunters for solutions. “We are on a collision course with CWD fatigue, increasing deer numbers, fewer deer hunters, and high levels of conflict with the public,” they wrote. “We must continue to experiment with our approach. If we can’t make CWD relevant to most hunters, perhaps we should work on making deer more relevant to a much broader constituency.”

Antlerless Harvests Vary

Nick Pinizzotto, president and CEO of the National Deer Association, agrees that deer hunters can be “their own worst enemy” by not managing deer numbers, but said critics generalize too much. Pinizzotto told MeatEater that antlerless kills vary greatly by state and region. Hunters in southeastern states, for example, generally shoot more antlerless deer than do hunters in the Northeast and Midwest.

NDA data from 2022 show Georgia hunters led the nation by shooting 83 antlerless deer for every 100 hunters, followed by Mississippi, 74 per 100 hunters; Alabama, 72/100; and Maryland and South Carolina, 69/100. In contrast, big whitetail states like Ohio trailed with 41/100, followed by Pennsylvania, 40/100; Iowa, 38/100; Illinois, 36/100; Missouri, 33/100; Wisconsin, 29/100; Michigan, 25/100; and Minnesota, 18/100.

Pinizzotto also said critics should acknowledge hunters and anglers bear the nation’s largest burdens for conservation funding, not only through license fees but also excise taxes on guns, ammo, archery gear, and fishing tackle. In contrast, other outdoor recreationists routinely oppose gear taxes on tents, canoes, kayaks, backpacks, or binoculars.

“I acknowledge state and local politics hurt deer management, but I doubt things would be any better at the federal level,” Pinizzotto said in a telephone interview.

Waller, a longtime UW-Madison botanist, researcher, and deer hunter, said that he, Hare and Blossey don’t disagree with such criticisms, and know their proposals are controversial. In a telephone interview, Waller said they received angry feedback from academic colleagues who reviewed their paper, but thinks those criticisms improved it.

“We’re not asking the feds to bludgeon state wildlife agencies,” Waller said. “We just need widespread collaboration. It’s time to let data have its say in the U.S. and acknowledge deer are causing monumental ecological problems that aren’t confined by state borders.

“This isn’t without precedent,” Waller continued. “We address human diseases far more efficiently through the Centers for Disease Control than by individual states. We also have the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which helps states work with each other, as well as tribal governments and Canada and Mexico to scientifically manage waterfowl. Hunters help pay for it by buying federal duck stamps. Maybe that’s why waterfowl are one of the few bird groups not declining in recent years.”

Lethal Controls Needed

Waller said their plan won’t please animal-welfare advocates either because it calls for lethal controls, which could include paid shooters and even market hunting.

The authors conclude that managing deer for society’s common good is a moral responsibility because all plant and animal species require diverse, healthy ecosystems.

Feature image via Matt Hansen.

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