The Return Of The Whitetail To Carolina

The Return Of The Whitetail To Carolina

In the mid-20th century, deer began to recover from near extinction in North Carolina. This is the story of a critical moment in the history of deer management in our state.

North Carolina Wildlife Officer Lee Boone with some of the does checked in on one of the first public-land doe hunts in North Carolina.
Photo courtesy of John C. Oberheu.

(Editor's Note: Author John C. Oberheu was present at some of the first modern-era doe hunts on public land in North Carolina. The recovery of the deer on these public lands and the need for new management practices with respect to that recovery marked the beginning of a sea-change in hunting big game in America. Even today, the recovery of the whitetail is one of the great success stories in big-game management and demonstrated the integral part that hunting would come to play in maintaining healthy big-game populations.)

* * *

In the late 1800s, North Carolina's white-tailed deer had been hunted almost to extinction. Most of the few that still remained were in the coastal wetlands where the dense pocosin thickets gave them natural protection.

"When I was growing up, the only deer anywhere in these mountains were on the Biltmore Estate," refuge manager Wayne Wiggins said, explaining how much things had changed during his lifetime. We were sipping coffee around the stove of the North Mills River check station in Pisgah National Forest. It was December 1958, and we had just finished checking in about 600 hunters taking part in North Carolina's first legal hunts for antlerless deer in over 30 years.

Wayne was the state's senior manager assigned to the 100,000-acre Pisgah Management Area. He and his four assistant managers protected its fish and wildlife and administered its hunting and fishing programs. He had lived and worked on Pisgah for so many years that he knew its mountains as well as his back yard. I was a young wildlife biologist assigned to examine the deer kills that hunters would soon be bringing to the check station.

"Biltmore had its own wardens who kept after the dogs and poachers," Wayne continued. "That's the only reason there were any left at all, and any deer that strayed off their land didn't last long. I was 25 years old before I saw my first wild deer."

Aside from isolated populations like that at the Biltmore Estate, most of the few deer that still remained survived because of the combination of dense cover, swamps, insects, snakes and other features of the coastal wetlands that gave the deer populations natural protection. Deer were also scarce in most of the other states. The total number in the entire nation had been reduced to less than 500,000.

With today's thriving deer herds, it's hard to imagine a time when it was rare to see a wild deer. Nowadays they are hunted in every county of the state, and there are so many that they often damage crops or the ornamental shrubs around our homes. It's quite common to see road-killed deer on the sides of our highways, and they are the cause of many auto accidents, including some fatalities. Hunter surveys show that over 200,000 are harvested each year in our state alone. How could things have changed so much from when settlers first came to America?

Deer were very important to both Native Americans and the early settlers who hunted them for their meat and hides. There were no laws for seasons, bag limits or methods of hunting. Deer could be taken by any means, year 'round, day or night. As cities grew, the value of deer meat and hides increased, and market hunting became common. Much of the deer's natural habitat was cleared for agriculture or for spreading cities. Deer were wiped out in some places and their numbers were severely reduced in the rest.

Around the turn of the 20th century, states began passing laws to protect deer. Citizens who were alarmed by the widespread market hunting convinced Congress something had to be done. Though regulating hunting of resident wildlife was reserved to state governments, the federal government had authority to control interstate commerce. The Lacey Act was passed in 1900, making it a federal crime to take illegal wild game across state boundaries to be sold.

In 1927, our state lawmakers were so concerned for the few deer that remained that a law was passed making it illegal to kill doe deer. Shortly before the start of World War II, the state started experimenting with stocking a few deer on some of the national forests. Since no hunting was permitted on these lands, the animals quickly adapted to the favorable habitats and soon began to flourish.

"Folks were real glad to see them back," Wayne told us. "But it wasn't until after the war that they started doing a lot of stocking and you could really start seeing deer. Before long, they were doing so good that the Raleigh office started talking about a buck hunt."

He told us that most people were afraid any kind of hunting would hurt the growing herds. Biologists explained that as long as only bucks were killed there would always be deer. After hunting started and deer continued to increase, the buck hunts became widely accepted. People still worried about killing too many deer, however, and there were only a few law-breakers who would ever shoot a doe.

Deer populations did well wherever they were given good protection from poaching and free-running dogs. Legal hunting in these protected areas became a major sport with a loyal following. In places where no one had seen wild deer for several generations, the hunts were important and very exciting. In spite of their growing popularity, however, hunters were taking only antlered bucks, so the numbers of does and young deer kept increasing.

In some locations, the deer began to prosper too well. Since one buck can breed several does, deer numbers kept increasing. Gone were their only natural predators, the Eastern cougar and the red wolf. Free-running dogs and poaching, the only other threats left for the growing deer herds, were watchfully controlled on the wildlife management areas.

In Pisgah Forest, clear signs of too many deer began to appear. Deer are browsing animals that nibble on the tender tips of trees, vines and shrubs, as well as grazing the herbaceous plants on the ground. In the winter months when the leaves are off the trees and most ground plants have died, this browsing on woody plants becomes their main source of food.

Plants are able to withstand moderate amounts of browsing, of course. However, as a deer population grows under conditions of a mortality rate that is much lower than the birth rate, the browsing becomes progressively more intense, until the plants within the reach of deer cannot grow as fast as the deer eat them.

As this happened on the Pisgah, a distinct "browse line" became more and more evident where the deer had trimmed all the edible forest plants to the highest level they could reach. Soon this open, park-like look was everywhere except at the forest edges, where dogs kept deer in check. In places where logging was done, young seedling trees couldn't grow back, because deer kept them nibbled to the ground.

The animals themselves were beginning to show signs of starvation and stunting. Antlers were less developed and average weights dropped. There wasn't enough food. When the best food plants were gone, deer began eating plants that were less nutritious or sometimes even toxic for them. Some native plants disappeared. Once the natural habitat is damaged this much, it can take years to recover, even when deer numbers are greatly reduced.

Biologists knew the deer herds had to be cut back, and that hunting only bucks would be insufficient to manage the deer herd's population.

The state law that protected doe deer had to be changed, but it was hard to convince hunters that taking female deer could really help the herd and not adversely affect their hunting. Wildlife officials finally persuaded the state legislature to change the 1927 buck law, but hunters were still wary. They would come to the annual regulation meetings to fight any kind of doe season.

The first antlerless hunts were planned with great care. Only one or two days were scheduled. No one knew how many hunters to expect or how many deer they might kill. It was feared that too many hunters at one time might cause shooting accidents. The Wildlife Commission didn't want to limit the number of hunters that could take part in the hunts, because doing so would likely require either a lottery system or the problem of turning some hunters away. Instead, a rather unusual way of controlling hunter numbers was devised.

Because the first day of deer hunts almost always had the best success, it was also the peak day when most hunters wanted to go, and therefore the most dangerous day for accidents. Someone figured out that making shorter hunting hours on the opening days would make them less popular than later days that had longer hours. Most hunters believe the best hunting is at daybreak. By delaying starting times, it was hoped that fewer hunters would show on days when they could not begin hunting until later in the day.

Thus, the opening for the first day of the antlerless hunts was set for 2 p.m. This provided only four hours of hunting before dark. The second day of the two-day season started at noon. As crazy as this might sound, it worked very well for spreading hunter numbers over the two days. In following years when more days were added, the delayed starting times were relaxed but still used effectively to spread hunting pressure. As you might guess, late starts were not particularly well liked by hunters, but they were effective.

A second safety measure for the hunts was restricting them to antlerless deer. Shooting a deer with visible antlers would be a violation. This made it necessary for hunters to look carefully at each deer before shooting because spike bucks could easily be mistaken for does. Since they had to be very sure of what they were shooting, hunter accidents became less likely.

This rule served its purpose, but it also made a problem for law enforcement. Officers had to decide when a young buck's antlers should be considered "visible." Budding antlers grow under the skin until they become long enough to break through the scalp. These buds can be very short and difficult to see at a distance. It was decided that spike bucks would be considered antlerless until their horns broke through the skin.

Wayne Wiggins watched this first antlerless deer hunt with plenty of anxiety. Many hunters were also worried. These deer had never been under the gun, and they were noticeably less wary than the antlered bucks. Would it be so easy to kill the does and fawns that future hunts would suffer?

"A lot of our regular hunters didn't show up today because they don't like killing does," Wayne confided at the time. "They think it's unsportsmanlike, and will never, ever kill anything but a buck."

His statement would prove prophetic.

Even though many long-time hunters did not take part in these hunts, there were plenty of others who did. As expected, success on these first antlerless hunts was very high -- compared with earlier "modern-era" hunts. On that first day at North Mills, one out of every six hunters was successful and I checked out over 100 deer.

On the days following the hunts, refuge managers watched anxiously to see how many deer were left. Gradually, they were reassured. There were still plenty of deer, in fact, there were still too many.

Though these first antlerless hunts successfully increased the deer harvest, they did not reduce the herd as much as needed. When biologists recommended increasing the number of hunting days the following year, there was stiff opposition. The bucks-only hunting rule had been oversold. It had become so engrained that most hunters could not accept any more doe harvest. For two years, they blocked any expanded season.

Damage to native vegetation worsened, and the health of the deer continued to decline. A turning point was finally reached when there was a massive die-off on the Daniel Boone Wildlife Management Area. Dr. Frank Hayes of the Southeastern Wildlife Disease Study in Athens, Georgia, was called in to find the cause.

When Dr. Hayes and his team had completed their work, they set up a news conference to present their findings. You could hear a pin drop in the audience as he made his report. He showed slides of the many different parasites found in the dead deer, and described them as villains who were stealing deer from the hunters. He skillfully showed how the starved condition of the herd caused their weakened state, and this in turn allowed parasites to take over. More deer had died through starvation than the hunters had harvested.

He got the attention of those hunters! When the next year's hunt proposals included a four-day antlerless season, the hunters wanted to know if it was enough to turn things around. More die-offs on Mount Mitchell, Fires Creek and other management areas also helped convince them that doe hunting was needed.

Hunters gradually came to accept that antlerless seasons would not ruin their hunting. On the contrary, they found hunting was actually improved. More deer were harvested, and people discovered that does and young deer did not have the strong taste of big bucks. As herds came more in balance with habitat, weights and antler sizes increased. Eventually, antlerless hunts progressed to "either-sex" hunts, and deer numbers came under control. The severe browse lines once so clear in Pisgah Forest have gradually faded.

Today, white-tailed deer continue to do well throughout our state, and are hunted in every county. By 1996, the number of deer in the state was estimated at 1,000,000, and over 154,000 of them were legally harvested

during that season.

It is interesting, however, to note the findings of the most recent harvest surveys. Though equal numbers of male and female deer are born each year, it seems that more bucks are always harvested. As Wayne Wiggins predicted, some hunters have still not shaken the old stigma against shooting does.

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