Goodbye, 'Mr. Deer'

Goodbye, 'Mr. Deer'

The late C.W. "Bill" Severinghaus dedicated his life to studying North America's white-tailed deer. His work has affected every deer hunter in the U.S. since 1949.

"The white-tailed deer is New York's most important big game animal, so it is inevitable that it would be the subject of much concern and study by sportsman, game officials and biologists. The management of this magnificent animal has been a controversial subject for many years.

Legendary deer biologist C.W. "Bill" Severinghaus works with a student while studying whitetail behavior in New York.
Photo by Charles J. Alsheimer.

"Almost every community has its individuals or groups that are vitally interested, in one way or another, in any legislative or management measure that affects the local deer population. Each group is a strong champion of its own interests and convictions with a desire to create a simple panacea that will solve the problem, even though the solution must be acceptable on a statewide basis."

These words were penned in The History of the White-tailed Deer in New York, published in 1956 by C.W. Severinghaus and C.P. Brown, game research investigators for the New York State Conservation Department.

That work was a phenomenal piece of research, the first of its kind, covering the abundance and distribution of white-tailed deer from pre-Colonial times. Using graphs, maps and charts created long before computers became available, the booklet explains deer management in New York State from the first statewide law in 1788 (which established a closed season from January to July) to the first doe seasons in 1954.

During a career that spanned four decades, C.W. "Bill" Severinghaus became one of the most prolific and productive whitetail research biologists, whose work has been referenced in every major white-tailed deer book and publication. An internationally recognized authority on the biology, life history, management and population dynamics of whitetails, he conducted research throughout the U.S. and Canada, authored over 160 scientific papers and eventually became known as "Mr. Deer."

In 1949, determining the age of white-tailed deer through tooth development, wear and replacement, became the biologist's most notable research. After examining some 18,000 deer, Severinghaus and fellow researcher Jack Tanck worked up a system that is still the standard for estimating a deer's age. (Continued)

Though more accurate methods are in use today, the Severinghaus-Tanck method is still the only one that the average layman can use in the field.

Severinghaus conducted a lot of research in the Adirondack Mountains, in particularly the 50,000-acre wilderness called the Moose River Plains. In his study of trails and runways, he observed that deer trails used during the 1890s in the "Plains" area along the South Branch Moose River in New York were still heavily used during the winter of 1951.

These winter trails provided Severinghaus with an index for malnutrition. He used trail counts versus tracks in winter for determining the foraging ability of deer.

"When individual deer tracks outnumber deer trails and group tracks, deer are foraging enough to maintain their physical condition," he concluded. "Conversely, when deer trails and group tracks equal or outnumber individual deer tracks, their foraging range has become so restricted that they are unable to secure adequate nourishment." His trail index is still used today in whitetail winter yarding areas everywhere.

Some of Severinghaus' New York State deer biological research determined the mobility of whitetails, showing that deer can jump up to 7.5 feet high and leap 29 feet horizontally. He found the ratio of antlered does to antlered bucks to be one in 2,500 to 2,700, along with the hair depth of the winter coat of white-tailed deer; the variations of fertility of whitetails relative to range conditions; the number of calories they expend at rest and under stress; the annual weight cycle and the weight of deer in relation to range; ways to minimize deer damage to forest vegetation through aggressive deer population management; and relationships of weather to winter mortality and population levels among deer in New York's Adirondack region.

In the 1950s, there were too many deer for the available food source over much of the central Adirondacks. The region was still recovering from the massive logging of the late 1800s that had eliminated many of the deer's old wintering areas. Their remaining winter yards were consequently overloaded.

The effects of overbrowsing take much longer to correct than the re-population of deer. And since regulated hunting is the most practical means of controlling wild free-ranging deer, DEC biologists advocated an open season in 1954: Deer of both sexes were legal game in two large essential wilderness tracts in New York's north woods.

A long stride was taken toward implementing sound management plans to achieve a better balance between the deer population and the carrying capacity of the winter range.

During a span of three decades from the 1960s into the 1980s, Severinghaus conducted annual Adirondack Whitetail Deer Forums throughout the Adirondack region to inform and educate the public. Some attendees with strong opposing views began threatening him with harassing phone calls -- and even bodily harm!

At one of the deer forums, the issue of a doe season was such a hot topic that posters condemning the practice were posted all around the village where the forum was held. During the annual deer forums held in different towns across the region, security was required at one point.

At one of the Adirondack Whitetail Deer Forums, a group that distrusted deer biology brought 15 deer carcasses with the exact data on such information as their fertility, ages, what caused their deaths, and dates of death. They challenged Severinghaus and fellow researcher Jack Tanck to come up with the same data.

The two men took on the massive butchering job and determined the exact physiological information for each of the dead deer.

These examinations conducted by Tanck and Severinghaus convinced skeptics that the two knew exactly what they were talking about.

These examinations conducted by Tanck and Severinghaus convinced skeptics tha

t the two knew exactly what they were talking about. The scientific information that Severinghaus had presented all those years to an often deaf and hostile audience wasn't a pack of lies after all!

During the last week of February 1964, Severinghaus was studying the effects of population reduction on the home ranges of female whitetail deer.

What started out as research on the effects of high-density overcrowding on winter deer yards turned into a media nightmare.

Supervising wildlife biologist Severinghaus and conservation aides killed 54 bucks, does and yearling deer to examine the health of the population in the crowded yard and heavy snow conditions.

To examine the herd's overall health, they took reproductive organs and leg samples and departed the remote wilderness area.

A few days later, one newspaper read: "Unwarranted Slaughter: The slayings carried out by what were termed State Conservation Department biologists during the last week of February have drawn the wrath of at least three county board supervisors in the form of strongly worded resolutions, 'extremely heavy response' from interested citizens, and have made the pages of at least 76 newspapers throughout the state and as far away as Chicago."

Pictures of the dissected deer graced the pages. Severinghaus was vehemently condemned for what became known by many as the "Moose River Massacre."

Go to any computer search engine and you'll find nearly 900 references to the work and documents of C.W. (Bill) Severinghaus since he graduated from Cornell University in 1939.

Severinghaus introduced the world of whitetail deer to an entire generation of laymen, stood his ground in difficult times and always backed his assertions with facts. His pioneering research is still applied today wherever a whitetail roams the woods.

In 2007, Bill Severinghaus passed away at the age of 90.

Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III is the most published whitetail photographer and author in the country. In a recent interview, he said, "Severinghaus was a pioneer in the forefront of educating people and in getting whitetail research to the general public."

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