Notes on White-tail Deer Populations in WV Ė A Foresterís Perspective

By David A. Warner, January 2005

I grew up in southern Illinois and spent a great deal of time in the Oak-Hickory forests of that area, where I learned to love and appreciate wildlands and nature. We certainly saw deer there in Illinois but deer were somewhat uncommon. When we saw deer, we often saw bucks. Not just bucks, but bucks with 8 and 10-point racks and even larger. Of course, in Illinois the deer are fattened on corn and soy beans and the soils are deep and fertile with ample rainfall, so there may not be a good comparison, but the main thing I remember about deer in Illinois is they were relatively rare in the 1960ís and 70ís.

I moved to WV in the 1970ís and I killed my first deer on my first WV deer hunt. I killed the next several with vehicles, which Iíd never done in Illinois. Although Iím no great hunter, and certainly not a trophy hunter, if I go looking for venison in this part of West Virginia, its highly unlikely I wonít come home with some meat.

As a forester, I probably have a somewhat different perspective on the deer population than say hunters or other nature enthusiasts. I see the impact of a high deer population on the forest vegetation, especially in the understory layers where they have the highest and most immediate impact. The dense vegetation layer, presence of tree seedlings, forbs, shrubs, and wildflowers, even the accumulation of fallen leaves that forms much of the litter layer on the forest floor, has largely disappeared over the past 25 years. I have watched the natural condition continue to deteriorate until now wildflowers are a rare sight and browse lines, only seen before in areas of extreme concentration such as in Canaan Valley State Park, have become present almost everywhere in Hampshire, Mineral, Hardy, and to some extent Morgan Counties.

I used to see oak and other tree seedlings surviving under the forest canopy virtually everywhere. In the last five years I can only remember seeing a few scattered oak seedlings in maybe a couple of places in Hampshire County. I have not seen trillium or most other once-common wildflowers for years, except in a few small, isolated places in Hampshire County. Areas that were timbered heavily 20 years ago or more have a good stand of young oak established. Many places cut within the past 10 year or so, have virtually no regeneration, largely due to the out-of-control deer population that consumes everything in reach.

Iíve taken trips into Pennsylvania and seen areas the PA DNR thinks has an extremely high deer population. Contrasted to what I see every day, they donít even begin to have a deer problem. The PA DNR is building protective deer exclusion fences at the rate of about 5-6,000 acres per year. Inside these fences they have ample tree seedlings and wildflowers that have apparently popped up from dormant seed lying latent in the soil. Outside of the protected areas there are still some scattered oaks and other tree seedlings and occasionally a few wildflowers. In this part of WV the situation has persisted so long I worry about the return of many of our native wildflowers. We donít know the dormant seed viability for most of these species.

Other wildlife also depends upon this same habitat. Wildlife is directly dependant upon the vegetation of the area and the habitat management. As this habitat continues to be degraded, it cuts into its capacity to support native species, and is probably part of the reason we are seeing such an increase in exotic invasive plants.

Although we enjoy seeing wildlife, maximizing wildlife populations so that we can enjoy them, is not necessarily healthy for them or the rest of our ecosystem. Exceeding the natural carrying capacity, or the population that can be supported without degradation of the environment, is inviting disaster. Weakness, stress, diseases, and even starvation are likely outcomes to wildlife populations if the carrying capacity is exceeded for an extended period of time.

High deer populations have resulted in an increase of wildlife-related vehicle accidents, crop damage, and animal nuisance problems. Costly feeding programs would be required to sustain these populations.

Deer hunting is a traditional pastime and even a cultural experience in West Virginia. Hunting continues to be important to residents and adds $400,000,000 to $500,000,000 annually to the stateís economy. Since most predators have been eliminated, hunting is also important in regulating deer populations.

The deer population in this part of West Virginia has been high for over twenty-five years and in some areas may be three to six times the carrying capacity, which for white-tail deer is about 18-20 per square mile. The WV DNR roughly equates this population level with a harvest of 4-5 legal bucks during the hunting season for each square mile (640 acres). A buck harvest that exceeds 4-5 per square mile indicates an over-population, which may be damaging to the ecosystem and its ability to provide good habitat not only for deer, but for other species that are part of the natural ecosystem.

Hunters today are accustomed to seeing more deer than is healthy for the environment, and have an expectation of seeing deer at these levels. If they donít see a decent buck on opening day, they donít think there are any deer around, yet many continue to pass up the chance to take one of the numerous antlerless deer that wander by their stands.

A lower population is needed to match the available food, as well as to improve the health of the deer, or improve the quality of the much-sought after big rack of antlers. The old practice of not shooting doe deer is no longer appropriate but is still adhered to by many hunters out of the traditional belief that doe hunting hurts the population.

A balanced herd has one buck to every three antlerless deer (one buck, one doe, one button buck, one yearling doe). An equal kill of bucks and does will keep a population balanced, but if the area is mainly hunted for bucks the ratio quickly becomes skewed. Up to 85% of the legal bucks may be harvested in a season, further skewing the population. Antler development on bucks is dependent upon nutrition, heredity, and age.

A deer harvest policy must be implemented so bucks mature and develop better racks. To balance the population, it is recommended that hunters harvest 7 to 8 antlerless deer per square mile. When the population is in balance the harvest should take at least three antlerless deer per square mile to keep it that way.

William N. Grafton, Wildlife Specialist with the WVU Extension Service suggests:

To decrease damage to crops, garden, landscaping, or forestland, you must reduce the deer herd. For quality, trophy bucks you need to lower the number of deer, especially does. Landowners should set goals and allow access to hunters who will cooperate to reach those goals.

The WV DNR and West Virginia University Extension Service developed the following Deer Harvest Guide:

If the number of bucks harvested on your land is --->

2

4

6

8

10

12

14

16

18

20

And you want your deer herd to:

Then harvest this many antlerless deer:

Increase rapidly

NONE

Increase slowly

1

3

5

6

8

10

11

13

14

16

Maintain present level

2

5

7

10

12

15

17

19

22

24

Decrease slowly

3

6

8

11

14

17

20

22

25

28

Decrease rapidly

4

7

10

13

16

19

23

26

29

32

Following this guide should keep the deer population at 30 to 40 deer per square mile (640 acres). Many foresters, trophy hunters, gardeners, and farmers suggest 20 deer per square mile. For a smaller deer herd, harvest more does. On properties with well over 40 deer per square mile, the habitat for most wildlife is degraded, plants cannot reproduce, food is scarce, shelter is destroyed, deer health is reduced and it is imperative to reduce the deer herd.

The harvest policies below would help manage the deer population and improve the heath of the herd as well as the size and quality of antlers on bucks harvested.*

1. Harvest no button bucks or yearling deer as half of the fawns are bucks. Take the larger, lead doe instead to reduce the reproductive potential and retain the buck to doe ratio.

2. Set a three-buck-limit such as the following: The first archery buck may be any legal buck. The second archery buck must have branched antlers. The first gun buck must have branched antlers (unless it is the third that year in which case it must be a trophy buck). The second gun buck or hunterís third must be a trophy buck for that particular hunter (based on hunter experience and prior kills). It should be best ever for that hunter by club consensus.

3. A crippled buck (blood trail of any sort) counts as a buck kill. Be sure of your shot!

4. Shoot AT LEAST one mature doe for each buck taken, to reduce the deer herd.

5. Hunting, walking through, or driving pine thickets is not allowed. Hunting from stands on the perimeters or shooting a deer seen in the thickets, or tracking a wounded deer is OK. These areas should be for resting and refuge.

6. Bow hunters should defer trophy buck kills to later in the season to allow mating of the better genetic stock. Take at least one doe per buck taken.

7. Data should be collected and reported to the DNR to continue monitoring and adjusting policies.

*These suggestions were adapted from Nick Castoís Old Oak Lodge policies. They are evaluated and updated carefully and have been used successfully for many years. Implementing these policies has resulted in trophy bucks for many of their members.

The Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry organization (FHFH) accepts deer from hunters and distributes the meat to agencies that can use it to combat hunger. FHFH uses simpler deer management rules to balance the sex ratio, reduce the herd, minimize damage, and improve trophy deer.

1. Harvest only mature bucks with antler spread wider than the ears.

2. Harvest only mature does to avoid taking button bucks.

3. Harvest three mature does for each mature buck.

4. Weigh the deer, remove and tag the lower jaw, and submit with other data to the DNR to help monitor the population.

Recent conversations with the WV DNR wildlife biologist in Romney indicate that although the 2004 buck harvest was down 30% in Hampshire, and about 25% in Hardy counties, these were celebrated as record kills in 1985. Hunters I know report seeing fewer deer this year and many seemed unhappy with their results. Yet when questioned, the kills still exceed the 4-5 bucks per square mile and most were not taking near that many antlerless deer.