A comeback or too much success?
Despite our tangled relationship with the species, let’s be thankful for the amazing white-tailed deer.
After years of enjoyable effort every fall, I got a deer a few weeks ago.
This latecomer to hunting squeezed the trigger on his fussy old muzzleloader and brought down a healthy young buck at 50-plus yards.
I took a moment to pay respects and admire this beautiful animal. Its thick gray-brown coat. Its big, brown and now lifeless eyes. And I felt sad, excited and thankful all at once, feelings that quickly vanished as I moved to the tasks of gutting and hauling the deer out of the woods in the waning daylight.
But while I focused on the tasks at hand, my thoughts also darted to the complexities of the species I was dragging: Odocoileus virginianus, possibly the most widely distributed big-game animal in North America.
It has fed generations of North American hunters, from paleo-Indians 10,000 years ago to my grandfather and father, to my own family. We owe it to the deer and to ourselves to step back once in a while and appreciate our tangled relationship with this beautiful and much-hated, much-admired creature.
“Deerly” held beliefs
Everyone has an opinion about white-tailed deer, and for some folks, those thoughts are strong. Please forgive the brash generalizations, but a few perspectives go something like this:
The deer-hunter: New Hampshire could use a few more deer, especially big bucks.
The anti-hunter: Let deer be deer. Don’t hunt them.
The tree-grower: There are so many deer, it’s hard, if not impossible, to regenerate the forest.
The deer managers: The N.H. Fish and Game Department tries to strike a balance in managing deer numbers for an array of interests, including: allowing hunting for recreation; growing timber; avoiding deer-vehicle collisions, among others.
Of course, the many shades of gray among the above aren’t the loudest voices.
The last deer in town
It’s a challenge to hunt deer in New Hampshire. Just ask hunters. The statewide success rate is 10.8 percent. So, for every 10 hunters who try to bag a deer every year, roughly one succeeds.
Comparing success rates state-by-state is problematic. But if you look at another metric, New Hampshire is at the low end of 1.43 deer killed per square mile, while Maryland and Delaware are at 10.3 and 10.1, respectively. But there’s a lot to unpack in those stats, including differences in deer and hunter density.
If it’s challenging to get a deer in New Hampshire today, it was a lot harder in the 1800s and early 1900s, when whitetails were virtually wiped out from generations of unregulated harvest and market hunting.
When William W. Hayward published the “History of Hancock” in 1889, he wrote, “The last [deer] shot in town was killed by Isaac Fitch in 1818, near Antrim line.”
North American model
Gradually, and more so since the 1940s, deer recovered, thanks to the resilience of New England’s forests and significantly improved management. Deer, black bear, wild turkey, moose, several waterfowl species and others have recovered in part from acts of Congress and the vision of what would become known as the North American model of wildlife conservation. Among its tenets is that wildlife is a public resource — not a private commodity to be bought and sold — and that it must be managed by science.
Funded by hunters’ license fees and a federal excise tax on hunting firearms and ammo, hunters were and remain the key to this model. Based on the emerging science of wildlife management, agencies like N.H. Fish and Game eliminated market hunting and established seasons, bag limits and hunter education.
Now there are 44,000 resident hunters in New Hampshire — mostly deer-hunters — and another 14,000 non-residents who hunt here. And their activity pumps $60.5 million into New Hampshire’s economy every year.
The model has worked pretty well for years. But it’s not perfect.
Magnificent mammals or ‘mountain maggots’
For one thing, the numbers of hunters is on the decline. So that restricts the ability to fund management of deer and other wildlife.
Second, the recovery of white-tailed deer has been way too successful in many parts of the country, where deer ruin crops and shrubbery, devastate forests and native vegetation, pose hazards on the roads, and help the spread of Lyme disease.
In his book “Nature Wars,” author Jim Sterba notes the deer’s sliding reputation. “When they were scarce, whitetails were seen almost universally as elegant creatures, a thrill to watch leaping a fence, tail high. As their numbers grew, perceptions changed. They became nuisances, even menaces. Some people called them defoliation machines, long-legged rats, or, as some Pennsylvanians dubbed them, mountain maggots.”
The spread of suburbia and development across the Eastern seaboard has created the perfect environment for whitetails: edge galore. And along with suburbia and a declining connection with nature has come less understanding and tolerance of hunting. The result: more edge, more deer, fewer hunters, fewer hunting opportunities and more people complaining about more deer.
In states where deer have become so numerous, communities, or corporate properties, have had to hire sharpshooters to reduce deer numbers. And the cost can be upwards of $300 per deer, with the meat usually going to a local food pantry.
In such places, deer managers are increasingly talking about allowing limited, very controlled programs that would allow the sales of venison. Some models suggest having state-approved clubs be certified to remove deer in overpopulated sites and sell the meat to local farmers’ markets.
The notion of allowing even limited sales of venison remains controversial and would be less likely here in New Hampshire than in parts of Connecticut, New York or New Jersey, where deer densities can approach 100 or more deer per square mile.
By comparison, New Hampshire’s deer densities are 5 to 15 per square mile.
Thankful for deer
But when you set aside the numbers and debates about management and you talk to hunters, you have stories. You hear stories of challenging hunts, stories of passing the tradition and stories about amazing deer.
I’ve enjoyed many days hunting deer. I’ve seen gorgeous sunrises. I’ve watched does so close I could’ve poked them with my muzzleloader. With my son this year, I watched three black bears just a few steps away. I’ve learned many square miles of wonderful countryside right here in our backyard.
I’ve learned to appreciate how elegant, mysterious and perceptive deer can be.
And this year, I have a few more reasons to be thankful for the amazing white-tailed deer.
Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.