“When I was your age, it was the talk of the town just to see a deer track!”
Sound familiar? Many hunters in the 21st Century have heard similar statements from a father, grandpa, or friendly old-timer reminiscing about the days when whitetail deer were a novelty. Supposedly, the story goes, there was once a time not that long ago when whitetail deer almost disappeared entirely.
I’ve heard it all too, but the idea seems far-fetched. We’re all familiar with the story of the American buffalo and its infamous near-extinction during the 1800s, but it’s hard to imagine something similar happening to the cockroach among modern big game—the whitetail deer.
So what then is the truth of the matter? Did whitetail deer really almost go extinct, or was granddad full of shit?
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, it’s estimated that there were somewhere between 15 and 30 million whitetails living across the continent. They ate acorns in the oak savannas of the Midwest, nibbled maple leaves in the forests of the Northeast, and bedded for the day deep in the swamps of the South.
It was a status quo in place for thousands of years, but it changed in a relative instant with the arrival of settlers from across the Atlantic. Forests were felled, fields plowed, towns built, livestock set loose, and game shot—all at an astonishing rate. Deer in particular became popular targets for excess harvest as venison and buckskins became coveted products for use and trade.
Signs of overuse in New England were evident as early as mid-17th Century, with Rhode Island deciding to institute the first-ever regulated hunting season for whitetail deer in 1646 in an effort to the slow the free fall. But it was to no avail.
By the early 1800s, as explained by Richard Nelson in his “Heart and Blood,” whitetail deer populations declined by 35-50% from pre-Columbian levels. As the frontier marched west, so did the impacts of over-hunting.
“Around 1830, in Midwestern states like Illinois and Missouri, venison sold for two or three cents per pound and deer carcasses went for about a dollar,” Nelson wrote.
The resulting killing frenzy was perfectly illustrated by a Minnesota father son duo who claimed to have killed 6,000 deer between them in 1860.
“In 1880 the freight offices in Michigan alone handled more than one hundred thousand deer destined for Chicago and the East,” James Trefethen wrote in American Heritage Magazine.
This, of course, could not last.
As time marched on, more states reported fewer sightings, less venison, fewer buckskins, and eventually a disappearance of whitetail deer all together. According to “A Whitetail Retrospective,” published by the Boone & Crockett Club, it’s believed there were 500 or fewer deer left in states such as Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri by the turn of the 20th Century. And across Ohio, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, and Iowa, whitetail deer were believed to be eliminated completely.
The U.S. Biological Survey estimated that the whitetail deer population in America plummeted to around 300,000 individuals by 1890—a cataclysmic 99% decline from estimated highs of 30 million just a few hundred years earlier. If we assume these deer were evenly spread across the whitetail’s historic range in the Lower 48, the estimated deer density would have dropped to about .13 animals per square mile. That’s about one ear, a tail, and a single cloven hoof per square mile of God’s green Earth.
What Happened Next?
So, were whitetails truly on the doorstep of extinction? It seems so. But lucky for us, this was not the end of the story. Whitetail populations pulled back from the brink over the course of the 20th Century through the efforts of a nascent conservation movement, new science-based hunting regulations, and a series of reintroduction programs.
But most impactful of all might have been the Lacey Act of 1900. This bill was lobbied for by conservation titans Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnel, which outlawed the interstate shipment of illegally killed game. This, in effect, outlawed the market hunting of deer and other wildlife. This was the first federal law dedicated soley to protecting wildlife, and it was followed-up shortly thereafter by Roosevelt’s creation of the first public land designation dedicated to wildlife—the National Wildlife Refuge System. In subsequent years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service would be tasked with enforcing and managing these laws and refuges.
These combined efforts were so successful that we have the luxury today of enjoying a new golden age of whitetail deer in America. We’d be wise not to forget what got us here, both the good and the bad.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.