Skip to main content

The Return Of The White-tailed Deer

July 2024
13min read

There is a common belief that wildlife conservation has been a losing proposition. The destruction of the buffalo herds, the fate of the passenger pigeon, are common knowledge. In our own time we see the whooping crane and the California condor at the very brink of extinction. But wildlife conservation has not been without its successes. And none has been more spectacular than the restoration of the Virginia white-tailed deer to the woodlands of the East and the Middle West.

Originally, some thirty varieties (subspecies) of the white-tailed deer occupied North America. Most inhabited the fringes of the great eastern hardwood forest that reached from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. West of the forests mule deer and elk predominated, although some whitetails roamed the thickets in the bottomland around the rivers of the Great Plains. The little Sonoran whitetail inhabited the foothills around the great southwestern desert, and pockets of local abundance of other subspecies occurred in the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. North of a line running roughly from Minneapolis to Portland, Maine, dense forests of spruce, fir, and pine provided little food for deer.

The whitetail attained greatest abundance on islands and around marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and in the brushlands and grasslands that separated the eastern hardwoods and the Great Plains. It never penetrated deeply the virgin timber of the uplands, where the interlaced crowns and limbs of giant trees shaded the earth, checking the development of the lush undergrowth deer need for food. But even on the uplands occasional breaks in the forest canopy permitted the growth of deer foods and the presence of deer. Lake shores and riverbanks supported thickets of underbrush. Beavers, common on all eastern streams, helped the deer by their cutting and flooding activities. Hurricanes and tornadoes cut swaths that were soon reclothed with seedlings, shrubs, and vines growing among tangled windfalls.

Most of the eastern Indians led a semi-nomadic existence, moving on every few years under the pressure of enemy attack or because of exhausted crop fields. All the woodland tribes used fire extensively—to clear garden patches and homesites, to minimize surprise attack, to drive game, or to improve hunting. Burned lands encircled most Indian villages for miles, and any land abandoned or not intensively cultivated was soon revegetated with ideal deer food and cover. Indeed, the Indian probably helped create many more deer than he killed.


This was most of the story of the eastern deer before the seventeenth century. How many there were then no one knows. But the pattern of white exploration and settlement probably gave a misleading impression of abundance. Colonization began on coastal lowlands, as at Jamestown, or on abandoned Indian lands, as at Plymouth, and exploration of the interior usually followed the rivers, through some of the finest deer habitat in the East.

Colonial agriculture was an extension of Indian methods in that the white man also used fire to clear the land. But colonial farming was far more expansive, and rarely did the white man permit the land to revert to forest. Cleared lands not used immediately for new settlements were burned repeatedly to maintain grasslands. Increasing numbers of cattle, sheep, horses, goats, and swine were raised largely on the open range and competed with deer wherever suitable deer range developed. Not long after the Revolution most of the virgin forests east of the Appalachians had been cut and the lands burned over —in many cases, not once but dozens of times.

Still, in spite of such destruction of their habitat, deer persisted. There were lands between the widely spaced towns where light burning and logging improved their range. There were morasses—like Virginia’s Dismal Swamp—that defied destruction by fire and drainage. There were rocky ravines and mountains too rugged for farming or grazing. All of these harbored deer. But they also provided refuges for the cougar and timber wolf, traditional natural enemies of the whitetail. And they soon became the haunts of that even deadlier predator—the meat and market hunter.

Venison and buckskin became staples of the colonial economy with the first landings at St. Augustine, Jamestown, and Plymouth. Once the Indian learned that a venison haunch was worth a yard of calico or a trade axe, he trapped, snared, and shot deer wherever he encountered them. By 1630 many coastal tribes had access to European firearms, and one Indian hunter with a gun could kill five or six deer in a day.

Deer declined rapidly along the Atlantic seaboard throughout the seventeenth century. On February 4, 1646, the town of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, ordered a closed season on deer hunting “from the first of May till the first of November; and if any shall shoot a deere within that time he shall forfeit five pounds …” The ordinance set a pattern for laws adopted by most of the colonies by 1720.

The preamble of the Connecticut law reflected official concern over the future of the deer: The killing of deer at unseasonable times of the year hath been found very much to the prediudice of the Colonie, great numbers of them having been hunted and destroyed in deep snowes when they are very poor and big with young, the flesh and skins of very little value, and the increase greatly hindered.

And in 1705 the General Assembly at Newport, Rhode Island, noted that it hath been informed that great quantities of deer hath been destroyed in this Collony out of season … and may prove much to the damage of this Collony for the future, and … to the whole country, if not prevented.


There were scattered convictions, but none of these colonial laws was effectively enforced, and by the mid-eighteenth century there were few deer left to protect near the larger communities. Frontier farmers still lived off the land and took their venison when they wanted it. Along the edges of the retreating wilderness Indian and white market hunters still combed the thickets for game in all seasons, far from the reach of the nearest “deer reeve,” the officer appointed to track down poachers.

After the Revolution, along the valleys of the Ohio, Wabash, Cumberland, and Mississippi, and on the southern shores of the Great Lakes, the destruction of the wilderness continued on a grander scale. And by this time the market hunters, still operating in the van of civilization, had reached the prairie fringes, the most productive part of the original whitetail range. A spreading network of canals, roads, and rails kept them near to the markets of the East. On a single day in 1818 a party of hunters in the township of Medina, Ohio, killed three hundred deer, twenty-one black bears, and seventeen wolves. (On the average this meant about twelve deer per square mile.) In the winter of 1859 meat hunters killed the last of Iowa’s original deer by hatcheting them in deep snow. Similar slaughters occurred regularly throughout the Middle West as long as deer could be found in numbers large enough to warrant the effort.

With the opening of the West, the center of the market-hunting activity shifted to the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. There most of the burden was borne by the bison, the pronghorn, the elk, the mule deer, and the bighorn sheep. But thewhitetailsinthe vulnerable range along the prairie bottomlands ended in the stewpots of wagon trains, cavalry patrols, and riverboat crews.

In New England and the states bordering the Great Lakes, land clearing and meat hunting had eliminated most of the deer within their original range. But logging of the northern conifers had created new and better range in the North. By 1870 deer had become common in the northern counties of Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Maine, where fifty years earlier there had been few or none. To the deer, however, the cutting of the conifers was a mixed blessing. Each of the logging camps employed hunters to provide fresh meat for the lumberjacks. And the market hunters, who by now had exterminated the deer farther south, flocked into the newly developed range.

Using dogs, guns, steel traps, and wire snares, a skilled hunter could average ten deer a day. In December, 1872, Litchfield, Minnesota, shipped six tons of dressed venison to markets in Boston. In 1880 the freight offices in Michigan alone handled more than one hundred thousand deer destined for Chicago and the East.

This direct slaughter was bad enough; but the fires that followed logging in the northern pine woods around the Great Lakes were worse. In the wake of the timber cutting, dry, pitch-filled slash—discarded treetops and limbs—covered hundreds of thousands of acres, awaiting only a spark to ignite it. One of the first sparks hit the stumplands upwind of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, on October 8, 1871. Before the fire burned itself out, it devastated more than 1,280,000 acres and snuffed out the lives of some twelve hundred people (see “Fire Makes Wind: Wind Makes Fire,” in AMERICAN HERITAGE , August, 1956). Fires swept the north country repeatedly until the turn of the century, killing nearly every living thing in their paths, including deer, and converting millions of acres into weedy wastelands where no deer could survive.

By 1880 scientists and a few pioneer conservationists were beginning to express concern for the future of the white-tailed deer as a species. Ten years later the deer population in North America hit rock bottom. The Appalachians and most of the country west to the Rockies were practically without deer. Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, West Virginia, New Jersey, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska all counted their whitetail herds at near zero. The “last deer” in Indiana was shot near Red Cloud in 1893. Southern Maine and southern New Hampshire had none.

Only the wilder parts of the Adirondacks, the Arkansas mountains, the remote swamps of the southern shore, and the Gulf coast gave refuge to the deer. T. S. Palmer of the U. S. Biological Survey (antecedent of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service) estimated the wild white-tailed deer population of the United States and Canada in 1890 at around three hundred thousand. His agency spent considerable effort in encouraging people to raise deer in captivity, since the future of the whitetail seemed to rest with those kept in fenced deer parks.

But even as the decline continued, seeds of restoration had begun to sprout. In northern New England and the Maritime Provinces logging was converting the original coniferous forests into young mixed hardwood-deciduous woodlands ideally suited for deer. Rocky soils and an inhospitable climate discouraged any massive invasion of agriculture. By 1890 deer had spread throughout northern Maine and New Hampshire and deep into New Brunswick and Quebec, far north of their original range. In this region the wolf, the only significant northern deer-predator, teetered on the brink of extinction.

East of the Appalachians the industrial age had drastically changed land-use patterns. Thousands of marginal farmers, unable to compete with the flourishing agriculture of the West, had abandoned their worn-out farms, taken factory jobs in town, or had gone west. In the Piedmont region of the South the boll weevil, the end of slavery, and competition with foreign markets had forced the abandonment of thousands of cotton fields. The deserted land was soon invaded by quicksprouting, fast-growing pines. By 1885 there were millions of acres of maturing “old-field” pine forests in the eastern United States. Pine alone is a poor deer food, and these new forests supported few deer; but the maturing of the pines brought a new logging boom to the East that was in full swing by 1890. And as the pines were cut, they were replaced by the scrubby, mixed hardwood-coniferous forest that makes ideal deer range.

Coinciding with the return of this largely deerless deer habitat was the development of the modern conservation movement. For the first time more than a few people began to recognize values in wildlife other than those measurable in meat, hides, and feathers. In large part this concept originated, somewhat incongruously, with sport hunters in the eastern cities. Until about 1830 the pursuit of game for sport had been primarily a pastime of the wealthy. But the postGivil War era had produced a new middle class with money, leisure, and, often, a desire to escape temporarily from urban living. Lavish tourist camps and hotels blossomed on the shores of wilderness lakes and rivers. Most of these resorts offered, among other outdoor diversions, excellent deer hunting.


As interest in recreational hunting spread, pioneer conservationists sought ways to increase the limited supply of deer. Game laws had changed little since colonial times. As recently as 1870 the deer-hunting seasons ran from three to seven months, bag limits were nonexistent, and the use of dogs, flares for night hunting, and salt licks were accepted sporting practices.

Gradually, one state after another tightened its game laws. In 1873 Maine adopted the first bag limit for deer—three for any one hunter in any one season. Michigan and Minnesota imposed five-deer limits in 1895, and Wisconsin a two-deer limit in 1897. Weeks and even months were lopped oil’ theopen hunting seasons, and most states prohibited deer hunting entirely in counties where deer were scarce; in 18g8 Massachusetts closed the whole state to deer hunting for a period of five years. By the turn of the century every state north of Virginia and Arkansas had outlawed night shooting and the use of dogs for deer hunting. Moreover, by this time nearly every state had an official agency entrusted with the protection of wildlile.

Many of these reforms were aimed directly at the market hunter, whose importance to the economy was on a sharp decline. Most were initiated and fought through by sportsmen who had organized politically potent fish and game protective associations. The market hunter was finally forced out of business by a federal law (the Lacey Act of 1900) that banned interstate shipment of game killed in violation of state laws.


By the turn of the century both the deer and their habitat were receiving real protection for the first time. Their old natural enemies were nearly gone. People were fighting forest fires instead of setting them and watching them burn. Slate and federal forestry agencies were replanting old burns. The cover was returning to the land.

The response of the deer to these near-ideal conditions, especially in the Northeast, was explosive. From the islands of cover where they had survived precariously for nearly a century, deer pushed out in all directions. Those in northern New England spread southward into the farming counties. The deer in southeastern Massachusetts fanned out into the central counties and southward into Rhode Island and Connecticut. Adirondack deer rcpopulated the Catskills, western Vermont, and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. By 1908 Ernest Thompson Selon, the best-known naturalist of the day, guessed the deer population easl of the Mississippi to be about five hundred thousand.

This natural spread and increase was assisted by sportsmen’s organizations and the newly organized state game agencies. In 1878 a sportsmen’s club in Rutland County, Vermont, had purchased seventeen captive deer (ten of them from the keepers of the New York State Prison at Dannemora) and had released them in woodlands closed to hunting by the state. By 1895 this nucleus had increased to several hundred.

The success of the Vermont experiment inspired several eastern states to adopt a similar approach. In Pennsylvania it succeeded almost beyond belief. Soon after 1899 the Pennsylvania Game Commission began to purchase deer and release them in state forests. In 1905 the first units of an extensive deer refuge system were stocked with animals live-trapped in state forests. Two years later there were enough whitetails to warrant limited hunting. In 1907 hunters bagged two hundred bucks in a state where there had been no wild deer at all less than twenty years earlier.

By the mid-1920’s deer seemed to be everywhere in Pennsylvania. Herds of forty or more could be counted along almost any country road in the evening. Dozens could be flushed from any wood lot. They were invading barnyards, cornfields, and orchards. Strollers on the outskirts of Harrisburg and Philadelphia were frequently startled by the snort of a frightened buck or thrilled by the sight of a doe’s white flag.

The great Pennsylvania deer bubble burst soon after 1925. Game biologists had begun to notice that the animals taken by hunters were becoming stunted. Antler development was so poor that sportsmen complained of seeing up to a hundred deer in a day but not one with a forked antler that would have made it legal game. Then, in the bitter winter of 1926, the deer began to die. They died singly, by dozens, and sometimes by hundreds, in snowbound, overbrowsed winter yards. Vernon Bailey, a leading federal mammalogist, tallied in a few weeks more than one thousand dead deer in four townships of one county.

Bailey’s verdict confirmed that already reached by the Pennsylvania Game Commission—a drastic reduction in the deer population had to be made if the state was to save its forests and any deer at all. Winter ranges had been stripped of all vegetation as high as a man’s head by thousands of starving deer.

Until then, Pennsylvania, like most states that then permitted deer hunting, allowed each hunter only one buck with at least one forked antler each year. But a buck usually mates with several does, and most spikehorns and other sublegal bucks are capable of breeding. Because of this, the deer population had doubled every two or three years in spite of a mounting annual buck kill. And each spring the does were producing hundreds of thousands of fawns for which there would be no winter food. In 1930 the Pennsylvania Game Commission, in the face of bitter public opposition, declared an open season on antlcrless deer. Between 1931 and 1941 hunters killed more than 725,000 deer in Penn’s Woods. This harsh but necessary treatment cut the herd from near the million mark to below a half million. In the years since, regulated special antlerless deer seasons, now generally accepted as a standard management practice, have stabilized the deer population at around an optimum four hundred thousand.

In the South and in the Middle West south of the Great Lakes, restoration of the deer came later. But all of the states in these regions profited by the techniques developed and the mistakes made by Pennsylvania, New York, and New England. As recently as 1930 most of the states between the Rockies and the Appalachians still had comparatively few or no white-tailed deer. South of the Potomac in the Appalachians, the only thriving deer herd was in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Elsewhere in Appalachia the mountaineers—law or no law considered any edible wildlife as fair game at any time.

During the Depression many of these families left the hills. Their farms, and sometimes whole villages, were absorbed into state and national forests and parks. Another vast tract of prime deer habitat—still almost without deer—quickly developed. And again the return of the cover coincided fortuitously with another major advance in the wildlife conservation movement.

Until 1937 practically all state wildlife agencies received little or no income except from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. And often state legislatures diverted large portions of these funds to highway construction and other projects unrelated to wildlife conservation.

Then in 1937 Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. The law earmarked the existing 11 per cent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition for use by the states in financing approved wildlife restoration projects. It also stipulated that to be eligible for federal funds, a state had to apply all hunting-license revenues to running its wildlife agency. Every state quickly complied.

In the East the white-tailed deer was one of the first principal beneficiaries. Within a remarkably short time restoration efforts in one state after another bore fruit. Small resident herds that had survived the dark days of the iSoo’s multiplied and spread. Transplants of a few animals mushroomed to thousands within a few years. And as its woodlands refilled with deer, one state after another reopened its long-closed hunting season. In 1965, when Kansas felt that it had enough whitetails to warrant an open season, every state east of the Rockies had again become a “big-game” state.

Although hunting is distasteful to many, it is, in the absence of the original natural checks on the growth of the deer population, essential to the well-being of the deer and of the forests on which they depend. In the autumn and early winter of 1968 hunters in the United States brought home nearly a million and a half white-tailed deer half again as many as existed in all of North America only fifty years ago! But that was less than a fifth of the summer’s whitetail population.

With nearly all of the suitable range in America fully stocked, this is probably all the white-tailed deer that the woodlands of America can support. But it is enough. The hit-or-miss conservation efforts of the past have been replaced by scientific research, law enforcement, and habitat management. In most states flexible hunting regulations keep the deer populations in balance with their food supplies and still assure the survival each year of a more-than-adequate breeding stock. As for the future, the constant demand of the American economy for wood products and for protected watersheds should assure the maintenance of the large blocks of young woodlands that deer must have to thrive. The white-tailed deer should be around in numbers for many years.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.