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Why is the Wild Deer Population Exploding?
(And the Controversial Benefits of Hunting Them)

In the early 1900s, there were about 500,000 white-tailed deer in the United States. Today, the number has exploded to 25 million to 30 million deer nationwide -- a figure that's close to the amount of deer that were present in 1607 when settlers landed at Jamestown.


There are an estimated 25 million to 30 million deer throughout the United States.

Back then, the abundant deer were a boon to settlers, but soon their hunting (deer were killed not only for meat but also for their hides) nearly eradicated the entire population. That is why, by the early 1900s, the deer population was dangerously low.

Around this time, states began to limit hunting and open space began being preserved (as opposed to all of it being cleared for agriculture). In just a few decades, about 30 states had not only revived their deer populations, they had too many of them.

And the population has continued growing, largely because deer's natural predators, wolves, are sparse and hunting has been on the decline. Whereas deer population in pre-European settlement times was about 10 or 15 deer per square mile, today some areas have 30 or 35 deer per square mile.

"In some ways we've been too successful at bringing the deer back," said Paul Curtis, an associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Cornell University.

Problems with Too Many Deer

A deer population that rises out of control has the potential to harm in a number of ways. Most directly is through an increase in deer-automobile collisions. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, some 1.5 million vehicles collided with deer in 2003, causing nearly 14,000 injuries and over $1 billion in vehicle damage.

Meanwhile, an overabundance of deer could threaten forests, and therefore other wildlife, across the country. According to one study, wild American ginseng and other forest-floor plants are in danger of going extinct because white-tailed deer eat them faster than they grow back. Another favorite food of deer, saplings, is also being eaten in devastating amounts.

deer hunting

Many states are now expanding hunting seasons and increasing bag limits to cull deer herds.

"There are no saplings, no underbrush for ground nesting birds," said Richard Parker, regional director of the Genesee State Park Region. "There will be no regeneration of the forest. In 40 to 50 years, as the current forest dies, there will be nothing to replace it."

Deer Management Programs Draw Controversy

Many states have begun implementing deer management programs to thin out deer populations. The most controversial are those that involve killing increasing numbers of deer, such as:

  • Hiring sharp shooters to cull deer herds

  • Expanding hunting seasons

  • Encouraging the hunting of female deer

  • Increasing hunters' bag limits

While thinning out deer populations, the increased deer kills have also supported the Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (FHFH) program, which is now active in over 25 states. FHFH has donated 1,600 tons of venison and other big game to soup kitchens and food pantries across the United States to help feed the hungry.

However, public opinion tends to look unfavorably on these types of deer management plans. While hunters don't want an excess of deer killed because the large population increases their chances of a kill, animal rights groups and non-hunters call for a more humane method of control, such as relocation or even contraception.

For deer problems hitting closer to home, such as in your backyard or garden, the United States Humane Society recommends the following humane methods to keep deer away:

  • Install an 8- to 10-foot tall, vertical, woven-wire fence

  • Hanging bars of deodorant soap (with wrappers intact) near the problem area

  • Hanging excrement from dogs or cats in cloth bags near the area

  • Scare devices, particularly those that are motion-activated and, when activated, play a loud noise, spray water, or turn on a bright light

Recommended Reading

Five of America's Most Dangerous Wild Animals -- How to Beware!

The 5 Great National Parks Almost No One Knows About



The Humane Society of the United States

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