U.S. Deer Herds in Trouble


Historians believe that nearly 30 million whitetails existed across about 80% of the U.S. before its discovery by European. The mule deer range was about half that size, and their numbers were estimated about one-third that of whitetails. North America’s forests, mountains and deserts thrived with deer before white man’s arrival. By the end of the 1900s, these magnificent animals had declined to a status of endangered. How could this have happened?

Declining Deer Population: Overhunting and Disease

The pre-colonization buffalo herds were also estimated to be around 30 million. Throughout the 1800s, buffalo were needlessly slaughtered and their population dropped to less than 2,000. With bison gone and cattle production not yet keeping up with immigration and the human population boom, deer were intensely targeted by meat hunters. Killed by the wagonloads, the U.S. deer herd dwindled to 1/60th of its 15th-century population.

The yesteryear disappearance of deer is mainly blamed on overhunting; however, the period of vanishing populations also paralleled the end of the Little Ice Age. This documented 300-year period of severe cold weather, suspected to end about 1850, impacted agriculture, health, economics, social life, emigration, and even art and literature (Google “Little Ice Age”). Earth’s continual rising temperature after this historic era of subzero weather caused the upsurge of deadly viral diseases in mammals.

Episodic Hemorrhagic Disease in Whitetail Deer

Episodic Hemmorhagic Disease In Deer 

Warmer weather proliferated the rise of a viral infection in deer dubbed Episodic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD), interrelated to Blue Tongue (BT). It was first documented in 1886 and again in 1901 on a northern section of the Missouri River when whitetails were found dead along this large tributary of the Mississippi. The last century-and-a-half-plus trend toward earlier springs, less rain in summer and fall, and warmer winters accelerated this deer disease.

This lethal virus is carried by a tiny biting fly called a midge. Its larvae live in mud along any stream or pooled water. When it pupates and emerges during dry years, infected adults fly off and bite deer, transferring the disease. After the disease is contracted, a perfectly healthy deer usually dies within 8 to 10 days. It’s speculated that eventual immunity in deer cannot be attained due to sporadic outbreaks controlled by the inconsistency of drought years.

9/22/2014 9:48:51 AM

Highee, Illinois was, and is, overpopulated with deer in some areas and under-populated in others. Our deer managers are too lazy and under-staffed to manage this wonderful resource regionally. Disease will be an ongoing problem, which will make the job of managing even tougher. Our Natural Resources people set goals and aren't attentive enough to even follow their own guidelines. I'm sure you have some of the same problems in NY.

9/19/2014 9:19:56 AM

While I only know about the deer population and related issues in New York State, I can report that we have a vast over population here because of diminished hunting and lack of other predators. Wish that we had the same restraints on deer population as reported in this article! As a result of the numbers we have associated problems such as a vanishing understory in our forests due to over-browsing, especially seen in the Shawangunk Mts dying Chestnut Oak forests. Also we have a high rate of deer-auto collisions that can be and have been fatal to drivers or at least damaging to both deer and auto. The world is out of balance in both states as far as deer populations.

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