4 Most Endangered Whitetail Destinations in America

4 Most Endangered Whitetail Destinations in America

It would not be hyperbole to say that we’re quite possibly living in the “golden age” of whitetail deer hunting.

Deer populations might be higher now than ever before and, at least since records have been kept, bigger, older bucks have never been more numerous. Hunters smash world and state records every year. The good times sure seem to be rolling.

But this isn’t true across all aspects or locales within the whitetail range, nor is it guaranteed to remain true into the future. All good things can and do come to an end.

The future of deer and deer hunting, as is the case with almost every aspect of the natural world today, exists on a precipice. Serious threats like disease, habitat loss, resource management, and public opinion all loom on the horizon. Four specific threatened locations, in particular, stand out as representative of larger issues threatening our nation’s deer hunting future. These are, in our estimation, the four most endangered whitetail destinations in America.

Read on for an introduction to these special yet threatened whitetail locales. And find out what we can do as deer hunters and stewards of the land to address the challenges in these specific locations and across the nation.

Southwestern Wisconsin

Greatest Threat: Chronic Wasting Disease

Southwest Wisconsin, a world-renowned big buck destination, is also ground zero for chronic wasting disease. The 100% fatal neurological disease impacting whitetails and other deer species has now spread to 29 states across the country. CWD is widely recognized as possibly the greatest existential threat to the future of whitetail hunting, and no place is it more ubiquitous than Wisconsin’s driftless area.

In some regions here, hunters are observing population-level impacts and CWD prevalence rates have hit as high as 30%. In more practical terms, this means that some areas of the whitetail-crazy state of Wisconsin might be experiencing the beginnings of downward trends in populations due to CWD. Almost one in three deer tested in these areas are testing positive.

While CWD’s large-scale impact on deer populations is no joke, an equally concerning risk is the impact that positive tests have on the desire to hunt and eat deer at all. While transmission from deer to humans hasn’t been documented, it’s theoretically possible—akin to what happened with Mad Cow Disease in the 1990s. For this reason, the CDC currently advises hunters not to consume venison from a CWD-positive deer. The result of all this is that a lot of hard-earned venison is getting thrown in the dump already, and things, hypothetically, stand to worsen.

This worst-in-class state of affairs is partly due to a passive approach to CWD management that Wisconsin adopted in 2012, moving away from their “earn a buck” rule, stopping targeted population controls, and making testing in known CWD areas only voluntary.

“Because of the passive management approach taken by Wisconsin, CWD is endemic to five southwest counties, has spread to surrounding counties, and has been found in 38 of the state’s 72 counties,” said southwestern Wisconsin resident, hunter, and land consultant Doug Duren. “In some areas in those counties where prevalence is being studied, over 50% of adult bucks and over 35% of adult does are CWD positive.”

In conversations with other area residents, Duren heard anecdotal reports of seeing fewer older deer and mature bucks, increasing numbers of late-stage infected animals in need of putting down, and already dead deer.

“One member of a group of hunters with a lease in Iowa County, Wisconsin told me they decided to give up their lease and find opportunity elsewhere as every buck they killed in the past three years tested positive for CWD,” he said. “This is a cautionary tale.”

While there is no single simple fix to this problem, the recently introduced Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act would designate $35 million in badly needed funding for CWD research and another $35 million for management and surveillance that would certainly help the situation in Wisconsin and beyond. Click here to let your senators know this is an issue of supreme importance to deer hunters in your state.

Northern Great Plains

Greatest Threat: Grassland Habitat Conversion

We’ve lost approximately 50 million acres of grassland habitat across the United States in just the last 10 years. That’s like the entire state of Kansas worth of dynamite whitetail habitat wiped off the map. Grasslands, which are now considered one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, are particularly vulnerable in the Northern Great Plains where prairie is being turned over and converted to cropland at a rapid rate. Farmers converted 600,000 acres in 2019, about 550,000 in 2018, and another 500,000 in 2017.

These grasslands support songbirds, upland game birds, small mammals, pollinators, and robust whitetail populations. They also filter air and water, reduce erosion, and sequester meaningful amounts of carbon. Anecdotally, some of the very best whitetail hunts of my life have taken place in these landscapes, both because of their awe-inspiring beauty and abundant deer herds. But if recent trends continue, that might not be possible for long.

Fortunately a wide array of stakeholders, from wildlife conservation organizations to decarbonization advocates, recognize the value that grasslands provide and are engaged in ways to protect them.

One of the first points of opportunity lies with the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill. This bill finances some of the most crucial private land conservation programs in our nation. The Conservation Reserve Program, which compensates landowners to keep portions of their land out of agricultural production and instead implements conservation practices, is the most glaring area of need. Due to inadequate funding and below-demand-level acreage caps, we’ve lost 20 million acres of CRP-enrolled ground since 2007. Leading into the 2023 Farm Bill, one obvious ask is to invest in a stronger CRP program with increased acreage limits and more competitive leasing rates.

The North American Grasslands Conservation Act (NAGCA) is also at play over the next 12 months, which would fund voluntary private land conservation and restoration practices on grassland habitats across the country. Call or email your senators and local representatives and urge them to support a robust CRP program in the 2023 Farm Bill and vote “yes” on NAGCA. For a deep-dive into this threat and the promise held by the NAGCA, listen to this episode of the Wired To Hunt Podcast.

Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests, North Carolina

Greatest Threat: Mature Forest Management

The hills and hollers of North Carolina’s national forests were once home to healthy and huntable populations of whitetail deer and grouse, but numbers of both have declined precipitously in recent decades. As is the case in many other parts of the eastern United States, the likely culprit is maturing forest and a lack of diversity in age structure and forest composition. In layman’s terms, our eastern forests are big, dark, and old. None of which is terribly conducive to deer and the vast majority of other plant and wildlife species that thrive in the presence of diversity, sunshine, and edge.

“Deer populations are down all over the place on national forest land as an artifact of restricted active forest management, and research is just now showing what happens when plans for timber harvests or prescribed fire are shelved for too long,” said National Deer Association (NDA) Director of Conservation Matt Ross. “The University of Georgia recently announced that deer numbers in the North Georgia mountains have dropped by almost two-thirds over the past few decades due to lack of management.”

Natural disturbances such as fire or wind damage or timber management practices, such as logging or prescribed burns, could all help revitalize these landscapes. But across millions of acres of eastern public lands these management practices are becoming increasingly difficult to implement.

The controversy brewing around the management of North Carolina’s Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests represents a much larger issue impacting deer and deer hunters across much of the eastern United States. Forest Service lands are managed for multiple uses, including resource extraction, wildlife conservation, recreation, and more. The challenge is to find the right balance between these different uses and satisfying the various stakeholder groups that care so much about each.

Increasingly, recreation-focused and environmentalist groups have fought to reduce or roadblock management practices on Forest Service lands, such as logging, which would in their view diminish the wilderness character of these landscapes or damage the ecosystem. While ostensibly well-meaning, these calls to protect the forest are in some cases sending wildlife populations into steep decline across wide swaths of the nation.

There is no easy solution here, as is the case with so many public lands challenges. But if we want to see wildlife thrive across eastern public landscapes, it will be on hunters to speak out in support of smart, science-based management practices on these lands while also being open to and understanding of the need for balance alongside other stakeholder uses.

Every 10 to 20 years, the USFS must create, publish, and accept comments on a strategic management plan for each Forest Service unit. This can be a heated process that has been ongoing in recent years with the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. These are important opportunities for the hunting community to speak up, educate others on the benefits of active management and a diverse forest structure, and to demonstrate our shared love for these landscapes.

“Certainly it’s important that our national forests provide a balance of opportunities,” Ross said. “But when efforts to simply manage the landscape for forest/wildlife health and resiliency, which is at the heart of the USFS mission, are routinely challenged in court like in the case of Nantahala and Pisgah, time marches on and all we can do is sit back and watch the quality of wildlife habitat degrade.”

With these challenges in mind, the NDA has launched a national initiative to help improve 1 million acres of public land by 2026 by way of “stewardship agreements” with the USFS in which the NDA will act as a contractor and partner to help facilitate increased management activities. You can become an NDA member here to help support this work and more.

Texas

Greatest Threat: Captive Deer Industry

The great state of Texas sports one of the most robust and proud deer hunting cultures in the nation, but it’s also home to what some consider the greatest threat to deer hunting in all of America: the captive deer industry.

The debate around the captive deer industry is complicated, long-standing, and fraught, but the issues can be distilled into two main categories. First is the well-documented risk of spreading CWD by way of the transfer and sale of captive deer. Second is the negative impact that captive deer shooting facilities, and the media created around them, can have on the public perception of hunting in America and the North American Model of Conservation.

Texas is home to more captive deer facilities than any other state by a long shot, with 858 locations. The conditions present at such facilities, with high numbers of animals in close quarters, are well known to be a perfect storm for the spread of CWD. Not to mention the fact that given the transactional nature of captive deer breeding, many animals are sold and shipped across wide swaths of the country, potentially cross-contaminating new herds of deer all along the way.

While there have been increasing amounts of testing and monitoring of these herds for CWD, the effectiveness of these efforts are feared to be sub-par at best. “The profit motive is so great, it is common for deer breeders to hide infections, or simply not test, and thus spread the disease,” writes Whit Fosborg, CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

All of this makes Texas a likely ground zero for future CWD issues, a perfect example being a 2021 investigation that identified the release of more than 1,700 deer from seven Texas captive deer facilities that could have been exposed to chronic wasting disease. “Overwhelmingly, the CWD hot zone maps radiate from captive facilities across the state,” said Texas resident and bowhunter K.C. Smith.

Furthermore, the proliferation of captive deer facilities and “canned shooting preserves” threaten to shine a poor light on the larger hunting public, potentially hemorrhaging support for the free-range pursuit of whitetails in Texas and elsewhere. While the vast majority of non-hunters support hunting for food, those figures reverse when considering “trophy hunting.” Animals that are custom-bred to grow the largest antlers possible and then housed in high-fenced small enclosures and sold off to be shot by the highest bidder represents the most egregious example of what trophy hunting could be percieved as. Regardless of whether or not most high-fence facilities fit this description, the worst offenders are unfortunately what most people notice. We as whitetail hunters risk being defined by our most fringe element, especially in the Lone Star state.

It’s important to note that many of the high fence deer facilities in Texas very well might be well-managed and owned by good honest deer-loving people, Smith was quick to remind me. This is not as cut and dry of an issue as some non-Texans want to believe it is.

“I have an easy set of values to live by: don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff,” he said. “However, when the deer ‘owned’ by another person are threatening to take away the future of my kids’ and everyone’s deer hunting, something must be done.”

Support for the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act will help just as much here as in Wisconsin, as would advocating for greater oversight of the captive deer industry in Texas and beyond.

Feature image via Matt Hansen.

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