Friday, June 5, 2020

The resiliency of white-tailed deer

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


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Steve and Wendy Hall run the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center in Wilmington. They've been rehabbing and releasing wild animals for over 45 years, specialize in predators, keep wolves as the cornerstone of their educational program, and have lived in the Adirondacks for the past 20 years. The Adirondack Wildlife Refuge became a non-profit about 10 years ago.Visit to learn more.

11 Responses

  1. Phil Terrie says:

    When I was researching the history of white-tailed deer in the Adks (long time ago, to be sure) the explanation for the sudden increase of the Adk deer population in the early 20th century was said to be the opening of the canopy by logging and fires, not the extirpation of wolves. Before the dramatic boom in Adk logging, which started roughly 1880, the closed canopy of the Adk forest meant minimal new growth where deer could reach it. That and deep snow in the winter meant a relatively small native deer population. Logging and fires led to an explosion in deer numbers, which have been declining ever since as the forest matures in much of the Park. There is a classic article on the history of deer in NY by C W Severinghaus and C P Brown.

    • Thanks for the information Phil, and it makes a great deal of sense. There are always many factors bringing change. Most of my remarks about the increase in deer numbers were more general in scope, pertaining to the country as a whole. I don’t believe that we had any grey wolves in the Adirondacks. I’m no expert on DNA, but I believe our wolf was the newly renamed Algonquin wolf, generally associated with the area of Algonquin Park, but probably the progenitor of our “coydog”. The DNA between red wolves of the Carolinas and Algonquin wolves is suspiciously close, with high content coyote, and to muddy the waters further, a 2016 study claimed that there is only one species of wolf in America, the grey wolf, and that eastern wolves, Algonquin and red, are simply variations of the grey wolf. Now here is where my poetic license will run amuck: I believe the Algonquin wolf, already with its DNA muddied by 20,000 years ago (before any humans in North America), stretched from Ontario and Quebec, down through New England and the East Coast. Then we arrived! Starting with the pilgrims, we slowly pushed east towards the Appalachians with farmers and livestock folks. In those days, there was none of the new green environmental science or even discussion. If you saw a predator, wolf, puma, bear etc, you shot it. We succeeded in splitting the populations of Algonquin wolf north and south, and as happens in natural selection, the two populations began evolving on their own. I never saw any coyotes in the ADKs when I was a kid, but the 20th century slaughter of wolves opened many habitats to western coyotes, who began pushing east over and under Lake Superior, injecting more coyote DNA into eastern states. My favorite book on coyotes is “Coyote America” by Dan Flores. Steve

      • AG says:

        “starting with the pilgrims”??? huh? there were people here before the pilgrims. and contrary to people thinking they were primitive… they actually helped mold nature. they tracked buffalo and moose and lived alongside wolves affecting wolf behavior too… they burned forests in controlled manner all the way up into Canada. ecological/human interaction didn’t start with the pilgrims (nor were the pilgrims even the first europeans on this continent – not by 100 years).
        As to the “Red Wolf”. Those are in less cold areas. Generally speaking the colder the area the larger the predators are. Algonquin wolves are speculated to be so much smaller than the grey wolves in northern ontario and quebec because of the migration of wolves from the west who – as noted in the article had the run of the land because euro-americans wiped out the wolves. most wolves in Ontario are the size of wolves in Michigan and Minnesota – not the Algonquin ones.

        • This article was submitted to the Almanack as a single article, but the editors broke it into two articles. Perhaps you didn’t see the other part? Bergmann’s rule says that animals of the same species in different climates and latitudes, tend to be larger on average in colder climates than members of the same species in warmer climates, as the larger animals are more likely to retain body heat, and survive to breed. That is why the bald eagles and wolves in Alaska are larger on average than their counterparts in the lower 48. Nowhere do I suggest that there were not other peoples in North America shaping nature generally and wildlife in particular with their activities. My point is much narrower: Native Americans saw themselves as integral parts of nature, and did not see predators as enemies, while Europeans, bringing and breeding livestock, saw predators as a threat and routinely shot them, an unfortunate tradition that sees taxpayer dollars used even today by Animal Wildlife Services, a unit of the USDA, to kill predators on taxpayer owned public lands, leased back to rangers at a fraction of fair market value. The longitudinal variation in wolf size is due to interbreeding with coyotes, whereby western gray wolves have no coyote component, while wolves in Minnesota are about 15% coyote, a trend that accentuates as you move further east along the US-Canadian border through Algonquin Park and New England. Western Gray wolves are found further north in Ontario and a gray was shot in southern Quebec a few years ago. There are still some Labrador Wolves. There’s a lot more detail on wolves at our web site,, and I recently published a book entitled “Wolves, Humans, Dogs and Civilization”, available at Amazon.

    • AG says:

      That is true – but where there are wolves – ungulates tend to keep moving… So the population couldn’t boom as much as it did. Natural balance.

  2. Kent says:

    There is no evidence that wolves once kept chronic wasting disease in check. It was likely introduced to penned deer in Colorado in the 1960s when there were few wolves.

    • It didn’t start in Colorado, it was first noted in Colorado in the 60s, categorized a few years later, and then found in other areas and species, in and out of captivity. I was aiming at a much wider point. The reason dogs are becoming medical surrogates is because they are genetically gray wolves with a wolf’s olfactory capability. Wolves are canis lupus, while dogs were reclassified from canis familiaris to canis lupus familiaris. We know from the 60 year Isle Royale study that wolves test 20 moose for each one they decide to attack. That’s not surprising since male wolves average about 90 lbs, while a bull moose is between 1,200 and 1,600 lbs, so caution is the order of the day. Generally we say that wolves are looking for vulnerability in the moose, lameness, youth or age. Moose between the ages of two and ten are generally safe from wolf attacks. I believe there is something more sophisticated going on. Just as there are many documented cases of dogs smelling tumors and other medical problems in owners, so can your dog detect your mood, as emotions are also accompanied by chemical changes in the body. Literally, you smell differently. Is this an ability that dogs developed 10 to 15 thousand years ago when we were breeding wolves during the agricultural revolution to expand their help to us by finding other capabilities beyond hunting and gathering, for example, protection, livestock herding etc., or is it more likely we were developing abilities the wolves already had into applications more helpful to farmers etc? All mammals suffer from the same basic diseases, and I believe when wolves test moose, e.g., they’re trying to smell cancer, arthritis etc. Do they know what these diseases and disabilities are? No, but they can do the math. They’ve smelled them before and have a track record for success or failure. Keep in mind that wolves have such dangerous jobs, their average age of death is about 5. Another way to look at this, thousands of years of civilization and the resulting lessening of fear from the dwindling odds of wild animal attacks, has resulted in a lessening of our olfactory capabilities, or at least the brain’s ability to translate the incoming information. 50,000 years ago, the question “What’s on the other side of that tree line?” had survival implications, as we were living outdoors with some of the most dangerous predators to ever roam habitat, short faced bears, saber tooth cats, dire wolves etc., and extremely limited weaponry, e.g., the earliest bows and arrows are only 50,000 years old. Just as we are primarily visually oriented creatures, and have an extensive database of visual experience which informs many of our day to day experiences and choices, so your dog, being a gray wolf, has an extensive database of olfactory experience to call on in judging what is happening, what may be important and what incidental. One handicap of being homo sapiens (or any other creature) is that you experience the world through a given set of capabilities, and it probably colors the way we look at other creatures and how they experience life. In short, dogs are great at detecting and being able to detect olfactory clues about their environment, because they are gray wolves, whose lives literally depended on such information.

  3. Kent Webb says:

    Evidence that Chronic Wasting started in Colorado in the 1960s when deer were kept in pens near sheep with scrapie, a related disease, is available here:

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