Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series.
Deer appear in paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira, on the north coast of Spain, going back 36,000 years.
The white tailed deer has been in North America for about 4 million years, making the white tail one of the real veterans of nearly all varying habitats in North America, ranging from Nova Scotia west to southern Alberta, sweeping south into Central America, with gaps west of the Rockies.
To put that in perspective, modern moose have only been in North America about 15,000 years, having migrated through Berengia about the same time the ancestors of native Americans began to trickle across.
In North America, moose have much more serious problems with winter ticks in affected habitats than deer have. For example, deer go through winter with an average of about 300 winter ticks, while moose may accumulate from 10,000 to 90,000 winter ticks, a condition which is probably a serious factor in why moose are in trouble all along the US-Canadian border from Maine to Minnesota. Winter ticks are beginning to show up in New York as well. Are white tails simply more efficient groomers, or could there be a connection related to longevity in habitat, and the ability of animals to adapt to parasites and challenges not found in previous habitats?
Deer on the food chain
Deer have played a major role in human nutrition and survival for a very long time. European immigrants to America, learned from native Americans about utilizing all parts of the white tail. Deer numbers rose and fell in the 19th century with market hunting by both native Americans and the growing numbers of settlers and immigrants, joining individual hunting, along with deforestation and destruction of deer habitat. State regulation of hunting slowed down the hunting free-for-all, and helped increase deer numbers, but two other factors in the first decades of the 20th century led to an explosion of deer.
Everything in nature is connected. The increasing suburbanization and the expansion of farming in America had the effect of moving more people into deer habitat, while introducing deer to our orchards, crops and gardens, thereby increasing their ability to making a living and reproduce. The more deer saw, heard and smelled human activity, without being shot at, the more it helped to inure them to the dangers of our presence.
In an environment without humans, gray wolves tend to be the number one controller of both deer and western coyotes, the latter in competition for safer prey, smaller than moose, elk and bison, but the accelerating persecution of gray wolves, which included poisoning campaigns and bounties led to an explosion of both deer and coyotes. Predators tend to strengthen the health of prey populations by detecting and eliminating disease and weakness. An unfortunate example of why we shouldn’t eliminate predators is the reappearance of chronic wasting disease, an infectious disease in deer which is slowly spreading in areas where wolves had historically kept it in check.
As wolf habitat in the lower 48 dwindled to Minnesota, the only state which kept the Federal wolfers out, western coyote numbers exploded out west, leading to a manifest destiny in reverse, with coyotes increasingly moving east under and over the Great Lakes, exploiting available wolf habitat in the lower 48, and causing further hybridization of Algonquin wolves in Ontario and Quebec, already averaging 20% western coyote going back tens of thousands of years, long before there were any humans in North America.
Yes, you read that correctly. Wolves have the most dangerous job in nature for two reasons. An alpha female may deliver 4 to 7 pups every Spring. While it is much safer for wolves to go after deer, snowshoe hare and beaver, pressure to produce food compels wolves to go after much larger, more dangerous prey, such as moose, elk and bison. Moose, for example, are so dangerous in defending themselves, that wolves test 20 moose for each one they decide to take a chance and attack. As though that factor in intself didn’t make a wolf’s life dangerous enough, in wolf economics, the pack has to defend a territory large enough to contain enough prey for the pack to make a living, and if a neighboring pack’s territory is not producing, they’ll be invading another pack’s territory, which will result in wolves killing each other over access to prey. Add these factors to our inclination to shoot and trap wolves, and wolves are lucky to reach their fifth birthday in the wild.
Gray wolves tend to kill coyotes, just as coyotes kill fox, routinely and opportunistically eliminating the smaller predator, as a means of creating a larger base of smaller, safer prey, but starting in Minnesota and heading east over Lake Superior, young male wolves, who “disperse” from, in other words, leave Mom and Dad’s territory, to seek an unguarded territory, or a territory they may be able to take over, may discover that female wolves don’t generally disperse as far as males, so they may end up defending a territory no other wolf wants, and they may end up mating with a female coyote.
Deer hunters tend to bemoan the impact of eastern coydogs, more accurately termed coywolves, because of their hybridization with Algonquin wolves, on the deer population in the Northeast. But the coyote impact on deer numbers is much greater on fawns than it is on adults, partly thanks to our assistance with traffic accidents supplying deer as roadkill. A study by SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry a few years back concluded that, excluding fawns, 92% of deer eaten by coyotes in New York were killed by cars. About 60% of fawns reach maturity, while 80% of fawn mortality is caused by predators, including bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bobcats, lynx, fishers, eagles, and even foxes. Other fawn mortality factors range from car accidents to getting caught in fencing or under farm equipment, or natural causes like starvation and drowning.
More recently, hunting generally, and deer hunting in particular, which peaked among baby boomers in 1982, while rising in some states, and falling in others, is in a fairly steady decline nationwide. We’ve lost 10% of all hunters in the last ten years, with less than 4% of Americans involved in hunting today, at exactly a time when, having largely eliminated wolves, nature’s tool for deer control, we need more human hunters to control deer numbers. For those concerned about health and red meat, venison is much leaner than beef, and probably half the calories.
Controlling deer without natural predators is no easy problem. Highest deer densities are often found in thickly settled suburban areas, where it is unsafe, and often illegal, to fire rifles within 500 feet of a dwelling, or shoot arrows, and the deer take a heavy toll on gardens and landscaping generally. Some towns and villages are experimenting with immunocontraception, to cut down the number of does breeding. Such methods may require multiple doses, and may only be good for a couple of years. Other towns employ specially vetted deer hunters to control local deer populations. Habitat carrying capacities, which increase as deer learn how to eat more human planted and invasive vegetation, determine how many deer a particular area can support, which means as you eliminate deer, other deer come in from surrounding areas.
This is a lesson we seem to refuse to understand. As we eliminate animals from habitat, for example beavers, they are replaced by other beavers who are attracted to the habitat for the same reason the removed beavers were. It’s good beaver habitat. The same thing happens with deer, but because deer eat a much wider range of vegetation, and learn to eat our gardens, as well as invasive plants, they expand the areas they can make a living in. We always treat the symptom, rather than the cause, and end up throwing nature’s balance further out of whack.
In New York State, we have just under a million deer, with 60 to 70 thousand in the Adirondacks, and about 70,000 vehicle deer collisions statewide annually. Hunters took about 225,000 deer in New York State in 2018. As elegant and visually appealing as white tails are, their lives tend to be violent and short, with the average age of death for deer being about 3 years old. As a sign of the times, the mosquito, which for 80 years was the most likely animal to be involved in human mortality in the lower 48 states, just as it is in most moderately temperate countries, was knocked out of first place by the white tailed deer, because of the number of people killed in accidents involving deer.
Photos by Joe Kostoss, “Eye in the Park,” courtesy of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge