Across the United States, the deer population has ballooned in recent years to an estimated 30 million. Once a rare sight, deer have become something of a pest, spreading disease and causing fatal car accidents at an increasing rate. The biggest issue is the impact of too many deer on the forest. With fewer bears and mountain lions around to keep their numbers in check, deer can reproduce with abandon and decimate the young trees and native plants that live beneath forest canopies.
To protect these crucial habitats and carbon sinks in order to help keep climate change from spiraling further out of control, scientists say deer population density in much of the country must be drastically reduced.
But with an aging population of hunters, only 41 percent of whom will shoot even one deer in a given season, it’s unlikely that recreational hunting as we know it could do the trick. That means the field is wide open for a shift in wildlife management.
The deer population in the United States has been exploding since the 1940s, a few generations after conservation-minded sportsmen began pushing the government to establish wildlife preserves and put major restrictions on hunting. Commercial hunting was made all but illegal, and over time, recreational limits were set depending on factors such as the time of year and sex of animal (there are often more restrictions on hunting females). The goal was to repopulate the deer, whose numbers had plummeted from a pre-settlement count of between 24 and 62 million to an estimated 300,000.
To the untrained eye it might not appear that a given forest is unwell. A 2019 study from the Journal of Applied Ecology study pointed out that “seemingly healthy forests can be at long-term risk due to insufficient juveniles,” meaning young trees, to replace older ones.
The authors found that over half the eastern U.S. forests were experiencing “regeneration debt” as a result of anthropogenic forces, including those associated with deer overabundance.
Under normal circumstances, when there is an opening in the forest canopy — say due to the natural death of an old growth tree or a climate disturbance, such as a storm — one or more young trees can grow large and help fill the gap. If instead those young trees are damaged or eaten, the forest will become thinner and store less carbon.
It’s tempting to reason that because hunting restrictions brought imbalance to American forests, the solution might be to simply … let people kill more deer again. But that’s a challenging proposition for a couple reasons: Some stakeholders are committed to a nonlethal population control strategy through the sterilization of female deer. And within the hunting community, reducing the deer population can feel like a conflict of interest.
Even for hunters convinced that there are now too many deer in some places, it’s not necessarily easy to participate in herd management. Federal law currently states that wild game species “cannot be sold, but can be harvested for personal consumption” or given away (with just a few exceptions).
In the Hudson Valley, Eli Arnow hopes to recruit hunters from his community and raise awareness about the ecological impacts of deer through working with the town’s conservation advisory council. So far, he’s only been able to get one friend on a hunt — someone already motivated based on her own education in forestry. But he’s convinced his argument holds sway, especially given the increasing interest in sustainable, local food sources. He feels that a culture shift in hunting is a crucial part of restoring forests, which, if protected from browsing, could happen in as little as 11 to 20 years, according to one study.
Arnow is aware that humans are to blame for many of the problems associated with too many deer. Still, he feels that hunting deer is a way for those like him to restore balance and connect with nature — a thought he remembers from his very first kill: “I am now a predator on this landscape, in a time when there are virtually no natural predators.”
Conservation Corner is a weekly article produced by the Forest County Land & Water Conservation Department. For more information contact Steve Kircher, County Conservationist-Land Information/GIS Director at 715-478-1387 or by e-mail at .