How We Saved Whitetails
November 23, 2016
"'¦ long after the elk and the buffalo have passed away, and when the big-horn and prong-horn have become rare indeed, the white-tail deer will still be common in certain parts of the country." — Theodore Roosevelt Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, 1885
There's no question Theodore Roosevelt was a smart man and an astute observer, at least in regard to conservation. But as Roosevelt was hunting his way across the Western United States, white-tailed deer populations were facing a bleak future back East. They were on the brink of extirpation in his home state of New York. They were already gone in Vermont, Indiana and Illinois. In other states, their numbers were limited to isolated pockets in rugged mountains and deep, dark swamps.
How could such a consummate conservationist, one who socialized, hunted and traveled with America's most respected naturalists, have not understood what was happening to America's deer population? And on the flip side, how could anyone have ever imagined the remarkable comeback that would follow?
It's true that whitetails seemed like an inexhaustible resource at one time. Accounts vary, but the first explorers to land on the shores of North America all came to a singular conclusion: Deer, along other with big and small game, were uniformly abundant.
"I can not express what quantities of deer and turkeys are to be found in these woods'¦" wrote French explorer Louis Armand in 1687 as he traversed New York. Prior to that, Father Andrew White, one of the founders of the Maryland colony, said in 1634 that whitetails were so plentiful that "they are rather an annoyance than an advantage." Other explorers recalled "deere [sic]'¦in great abundance" from Florida to New England.
BOOM TO BUST
Initially, the arrival of more settlers and their westward expansion only helped deer populations. Fearful of attacks and concerned about the competition for fresh meat, colonists snared, trapped and shot wolves, "beares [sic]," "wildcats" and "lions" at every opportunity, thus eliminating the whitetail's natural predators. At the same time, settlers felled acre upon acre of forest for their own use and for a thriving European lumber market. Those clearings created even better deer habitat. Whitetails were thriving throughout the 1700s and into the early 1800s.
But as thousands more European immigrants arrived, they began to treat deer and other game as a limitless food and hide supply (many deer were shot solely for their skins.). They cleared even larger tracts for crops and cattle. The wild landscape was beginning to change rapidly, and this time it spelled bad news for deer. By the mid-1800s white-tailed deer were in trouble.
One account from Westchester County, New York, suggested the last deer in the county was shot in 1861. New Yorker and author Hermon C. Goodwin wrote in 1855 that "an occasional buck'¦may be seen bounding through the southern limits of this county."
Things were equally bleak in much of the United States. The last known deer in Georgia's mountains was killed in front of a pack of dogs in 1895. Just 500 remained in Oklahoma in the early 1900s, and whitetails were virtually eliminated from Ohio by 1904.
THE NICK OF TIME
Not everyone was content to watch the last deer disappear. Just as Roosevelt was preaching a broader, nationwide conservation ethic in an attempt to preserve some high-profile species like bison, individuals were taking it upon themselves to protect and preserve whitetails. Plantation owners in the South patrolled their land in an effort to deter poachers. Such efforts, however, likely arose from greed as much as conservation. Many of those plantation owners were hunters, and they wanted the deer for themselves.
Landowners who owned large tracts in the Northeast also undertook efforts to protect deer by limiting hunting and keeping trespassers at bay. In some cases, they also adopted winter feeding programs, though those were later deemed ineffective.
As more residents expressed concern, more legislators acted. New York, for example, shortened its season in 1886 and reduced the bag limit from three deer to two in 1892. Twenty years later, the New York Conservation Commission adopted a buck-only harvest rule. Some parts of the state were closed to deer hunting entirely. Most other states adopted strict limits, including buck-only regulations. For the first time, many regions or entire states were completely closed to deer hunting.
FROM HERE TO THERE
But restrictive bag limits and even closures weren't enough. In order to restore whitetails, American hunters, game managers and even politicians agreed that deer would need to be restocked.
One man, a forest ranger from north Georgia, transported five fawns from North Carolina's Pisgah National Game Preserve to a pen near his home in 1927. Known as the "barefoot ranger" for his tendency to avoid shoes, Arthur "Kingfish" Woody vowed to bring deer back to Georgia after witnessing the eradication of his beloved whitetails.
Ironically, it was his father, a farmer from Suches, Georgia, who killed the last known north Georgia whitetail in 1895. Woody used his own money to buy deer at every opportunity, including three from a passing carnival. He even drove his own car, a 1926 Dodge, to pick up five fawns in North Carolina. The deer, named Nimble, Billy, Nancy, Bessie and Bunny Girl, would be the impetus for the return of Georgia's once-burgeoning deer herd.
Woody wasn't alone. What started out as a gradual, disorganized and often random effort slowly evolved intoefficient and thorough operations that lasted well into the 1970s in some states.
Private citizens, state game agencies and organized groups set out to catch, buy and otherwise acquire deer at every opportunity. America became engaged in the wholesale restocking of its premier big-game animal.
The effort took many forms. An hour north of New York City, members of the elite Tuxedo Park Club, whose mission included "the protection, increase, and capture of all kinds of game and fish," brought in 15 deer from an unknown location in 1896. The animals were kept in a pen until 1905, when members opened the gates and freed the herd, which had grown to 50, to roam the club's sprawling wooded grounds.
Despite the growing calls to stock deer, many states were slow to undertake such labor-intensive efforts. Tennessee's deer herd was nearly extirpated by 1900, but it wasn't until the early 1930s that state officials started importing whitetails from North Carolina. Alabama stocked 105 deer from Michigan in 1928, but efforts didn't really ramp up until 1945. Florida also lagged, bringing in just 28 deer, all from South Carolina, prior to 1949.
Stocking picked up dramatically in the mid-1940s, as World War II was winding down and more resources, including money and manpower, became available. But a second and arguably more important factor also played into the increased efforts — an excise tax on hunting equipment was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. The Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration Act, or Pittman-Robertson Act, provided a huge funding boost to state game agencies, which were required to use the money for game-specific programs.
When American soldiers returned from the European and Pacific theaters, they bought guns and other outdoors equipment as they renewed their interest in hunting, providing a burst of funding.
The deer populations began to inch upwards as well, thanks to careful management, some tighter regulations and better enforcement. Meanwhile, biologists perfected capture methods, and they learned how to safely transfer deer, mostly via truck and livestock trailer.
In some instances, trapped deer were kept in pens in an effort to build their numbers for later stocking efforts. That didn't always pan out. Disease outbreaks, and in isolated instances, feral dogs, decimated some captive herds. A better and more viable alternative was simply to release deer and provide them with protection from poachers through regular patrols by game wardens. Release areas were chosen on the basis of habitat, as well as the cooperation of local residents. In most cases, those locals were glad to help the recovery effort while also increasing the possibility of hunting whitetails once again in the future.
Some local residents couldn't wait. Restocking efforts in the Cohutta Wildlife Management area in northwest Georgia were abandoned after locals refused to stop hunting the deer and allowing their hounds to run year-round, despite pleas from those assigned to protect the newly released whitetails. That behavior continued, to some degree, for decades. Finally, in 1960, the Georgia Game and Fish Commission gave up due to the "lack of cooperation from the local people, courts, judges, juries and the indiscriminate use of dogs.'¦"
TO CATCH A DEER
Before they could be stocked, though, the deer had to be caught, which proved to be a formidable task. For one, they were scarce in the earliest days of restocking efforts. Those areas with enough deer to trap were often remote and rugged. It was also expensive, at least in states with low deer populations. That's why many states simply bought deer from other states. According to one report from Georgia, the average price of a live deer was $35.
At first, wildlife professionals had little experience catching deer, so they experimented with a number of methods. The earliest efforts relied on box traps baited with either corn or salt. Those traps, however, weren't foolproof. Deer were sometimes reluctant to walk into the large wooden boxes with raised trap-doors, especially when natural food was abundant. Deer trappers also had to contend with everything from wayward cows to scavenging raccoons and hogs.
Frustrated with the results of the box traps, some crews set up a long net and then used dogs to run deer into it. It almost worked, but in one instance the dogs caught and killed the first deer before it made it into the net. Another deer ran through the net. As a result, the net method was soon abandoned.
Others began to find success, however. Tennessee officials had better luck with box traps, and found a way to utilize dogs. Hounds were turned loose on two islands in east Tennessee's Cherokee Reservoir. Tired of being chased, deer took to the water in an attempt to swim to the mainland. Once the deer entered the water, capture crews simply tossed a rope around their necks and dragged them into the boat. While that turned out be an effective technique, biologists were still attempting to find the perfect method of sedation. Nothing was more dangerous during the entire restocking effort than actually handling a flailing, kicking whitetail. Although there are no readily available accounts of anyone being killed by a captured deer, there's no question it was dangerous work.
Dr. Frank Hayes, a veterinarian with the University of Georgia, and Dr. Seldon Feurt, a pharmacist at UGA, worked to create a drug that would temporarily sedate deer. Their first mixture blended powdered strychnine and honey. It worked, but too many deer perished from the mix. Researchers ultimately tested 165 drugs and combinations before finally settling on nicotine.
As techniques improved, the capture and stocking efforts became more efficient, and most residents were willing to give restoration plans the time needed to succeed. However, when Georgia officials opened the deer season in the early 1940s where Arthur "Kingfish" Woody released his first deer, the retired ranger was dismayed. He wasn't opposed to hunting, but argued the population was not yet sufficient to withstand the pressure. Thankfully, it was.
Other states were gradually allowing more hunting throughout the 1940s and 1950s as well, but managers were cautious, keeping some regions closed and allowing limited buck-only harvest in others. Tennessee hunters killed 113 deer in the Cherokee National Forest in 1949. Just nine bucks were taken in western New York in 1927, but the harvest jumped to 10,000 by 1947.
Today, estimates of the whitetail population across North America range upwards of 27 million animals — a far cry from 500,000 in 1900, and unimaginable to hunters 100 years ago.
Unfortunately, New York resident Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, before he saw the rebirth of the whitetail population in his state. He may have not foreseen the tumultuous ride that would become the saga of America's most beloved and popular game animal, but he most assuredly would have been proud of the final result.