August 07, 2023
The great success story that is America’s public lands is a grand one. Oftentimes, it overshadows talks of private-land adventures and accomplishments. It’s even led to a macho-man mentality that "true" hunters pursue game on public lands, while lesser men and women hunt private.
Of course, the latter portion of that statement isn’t true. Private-land hunters are just as noble and skilled as public-land voyagers. Both public and private offer different advantages, disadvantages and challenges. Both are beloved for various, and oftentimes different, reasons.
Over time, as state wildlife agencies have improved at compiling and analyzing harvest data, stark trends have emerged. While a vast amount of land in America is open to public hunting, the overwhelming percentage of harvested deer come from private lands. It’s clear that isn’t going to change anytime soon … if ever.
Private vs. Public Harvest Numbers
When it comes to whitetail data compilation and dissemination, there is no better resource than the National Deer Association (NDA). Kip Adams, chief conservation officer for the NDA, is a highly respected member of their staff and earlier this year he presented interesting harvest data at the Southeastern Deer Study Group Meeting in Louisiana.
According to Adams, during the 2021–22 deer seasons, more than 5.21 million deer were tagged on private lands. During that same timespan, approximately 700,000 were killed on public lands. "This doesn’t include the western U.S., as those states can’t differentiate the harvest data," Adams said. "But there’s only around 250,000 deer killed in the West, so even if all of them were on public land, the total would still be less than 1 million."
Clearly, many more deer are killed on America’s private soil than grounds open to all. That really isn’t surprising, though. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), private individuals and corporations own about 60 percent of U.S. land. Federal, state and local governments own the balance. Of course, nowhere near all of that is open to deer hunting; much of it comes in the form of un-hunted lands. Still, that breaks down to more than 600 million acres of huntable land.
So, it’s no shocker that more deer are bagged on private. What is interesting, though, is the large percentage of deer that come from private land compared to the land ownership averages.
"Nearly nine of every 10 whitetails shot in the U.S. are taken on private land," Adams said. "That’s not to diminish the importance of public-land hunting and management, but for our R3 and herd-management efforts, we need to realize most of those opportunities will occur on private land."
Drill down on the numbers and it gets even more interesting. For example, according to the NDA’s 2023 Deer Report, the top states in terms of percentage of deer harvested on private land include Texas (99 percent), Georgia (97 percent), North Carolina (97 percent), Kentucky (96 percent), Alabama (95 percent) and Virginia (95 percent). By contrast, the states with the highest percentage of deer taken on public land include Massachusetts (43 percent), New Jersey (30 percent), Rhode Island (28 percent), Florida (24 percent) and Delaware (15 percent). This is certainly a regionally impacted statistic.
More deer are harvested on public lands in the Northeast (and likely the West) than the Midwest or Southeast where private land ownership is far more prominent. Looking at each region, private-land harvests account for 81 percent of deer harvest totals in the Northeast, 91 percent in the Midwest and 93 percent in the Southeast. The West does not record this data, so it was excluded from the study. Overall, 59 percent of participating states reported more 90 percent of their deer harvest takes place on private land.
Changes with Time
How has this changed over time, though? "We don’t know," Adams said. "Our analysis for our 2023 Deer Report is the first time we have seen this data published. I suspect it’s been consistent for at least the past decade, but I’m not aware of any data on it."
Of course, public-land deer hunting is all the rage these days, especially regarding media output and consumption. Because of this, one would expect the near-future trends to produce greater percentages for public properties. Even with the sudden surge in interest, it likely won’t happen, though.
According to Adams, the future is projecting a continually skewed shift in favor of private lands. This ratio will likely be even more skewed in the future.
"I don’t know that [public land] is more popular among hunters, but it certainly gets more press," Adams said. "I think you’ll see a similar or slightly higher percentage on private land due to the habitat-enhancement efforts of private landowners."
What It Means for Deer Management
As more deer hunting efforts trend toward private properties, private-land managers will become even more important to the overall health and wellness of white-tailed deer. This includes management decisions on small and large scales. "Private-land managers are extremely important for habitat management, hunter access and deer-management programs," Adams said. "They’re also extremely important for educational programs and information for hunters on those lands."
Public-land deer hunters aren’t off the hook, though. They, too, must do their part and taking care of the resource is on them as well. Public-land hunters can help better manage the grounds they enjoy spending time on.
"They can work with their local, state and federal agencies that own the land to encourage enhanced habitat management and hunter access," Adams said.
Deer hunting in general faces many challenges. Habitat destruction, declining hunter numbers, important funds drying up, the spreading of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other heavy-hitting factors all pose significant threats. Still, both modern private- and public-land deer-management efforts
"Currently, there are more opportunities for private landowners to get technical assistance, antlerless tags, etc. than ever before, so that’s a great thing," Adams said. "The biggest challenges today across much of the whitetail’s range is the spread of disease and the inability or refusal to harvest the appropriate number of antlerless deer."
In addition to the challenges modern private-land deer managers face, public-land counterparts are also up against serious concerns.
"The average public-land habitat quality is below that for private land," Adams said. "Hunters and public-land managers want increased habitat management, but their hands are tied politically on far too many accounts."
The future of deer hunting will possibly hinge on how successful private- and public-land deer hunters are with the challenges they face. While some are universal, others are unique. To effectively combat the issues, continued data analysis is needed. Good data can save the future of deer management.
"Good data on harvest numbers, deer health, deer-age structure, deer productivity and habitat health are important for deer managers to set hunting regulations that allow hunters the opportunity to harvest the appropriate numbers of deer—bucks and does—annually to keep deer numbers in balance with what the habitat can support," Adams said.
So, in conclusion, most of America’s deer harvest comes from private lands. Public-land deer hunters must still do their part. And we must all band together for the betterment of white-tailed deer.