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Hunting and Controlling the Exploding Deer Population in North America

deer hunting
I have never been a hunter. As a matter of fact when my dad would take me quail hunting as a kid, I would run out into the field and try to rescue any that still seemed to be alive. That didn’t go over too well.

Back in 2012, in the name of fashion, I did go on a stag hunt in Scotland and shot a mighty buck we named Clovis who later became a leather bag. It wasn’t until I moved back down South that I started to understand the environmental case for hunting, specifically deer and hogs.

A bit of history

Bruce Lampright, Naturalist at Brays Island in South Carolina explained to me that a well-managed deer herd is a key asset to a healthy ecosystem. Early European settlers to North America took out big predators like panthers and red wolves in the South, so the deer herds really took off. When the first white settlers arrived, there were around one million whitetail deer in North America and now we have that many in South Carolina alone. We have created a perfect living situation for deer with agriculture and open grazing areas where they thrive.

Deer hunting guide

As Bruce explained, it is incumbent for us to regulate these herds to maintain a balanced ecosystem similar to that prior to settlement. Sometimes you see a straight vegetation-free line when looking in the forest and that’s caused by deer. And that is not good. Deer are eating everything in reach and that destructive appetite reduces the habitat for songbirds that are really suffering around the nation (apparently even the Audubon Society is pro-deer culling in response to declining bird populations). If we don’t cull the herds, species that also rely on the deer’s favorite foods are lost, sometimes forever.

Now in the case of hogs, which are not a native species to the Americas (and which we can think the Spanish for releasing en masse in the 1500s), they have taken over virtually all of the American South. Hogs will devour anything they can fit in their mouth, plant or animal, including bird eggs, baby birds, raccoons, and opossum. Americans have brought in the Russian boar for hunting and some have bred with feral hogs. We have some species that are endangered because of these hybrid hogs, like several types of salamanders that have nearly disappeared completely. Hogs can have multiple litters a year and, with a little math, you can see how devastatingly large their populations can become in just a short period of time. A similar situation is happening at Lake Tahoe, which straddles the border of California and Nevada,  because people are stocking the lake with fish that aren’t native to that ecosystem.


We also spoke to Joe Hamilton, who is a renowned wildlife biologist and the founder of the International Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).  Hamilton has been awarded the Career Achievement Award from The Wildlife Society and in 2011 was named Conservationist of the Year by Budweiser Outdoors. QDMA works with farmers, motorists, schools, and lawmakers to ensure the future of whitetail deer and their habitat, and they have 200 branches across the nation that host both fundraising and education events annually.

Deer hunting guide
Photo by Jake Rossman Jake Rossman

Hamilton was proud to tell me that South Carolina had no buck limit until this year, meaning prior to 2017 there was no cap on the number of male deer hunters could kill. In the past, 90% of the bucks in a herd were killed each year and that was wreaking havoc on the population. Does were not being bred because there weren’t enough bucks or they were breeding later in the season, which resulted in them producing fawns later when food is scarce. Because of this, deer populations were exceeding the seasonal care capacity of the land. This resulted in declining body weights of deer from lack of proper nutrition and yearling bucks (1.5 years old) that were stressed nutritionally and producing only spike antlers their first year.

Hunters need to understand basic concerns such as:

  • Letting bucks mature before they are harvested.
  • Enhancing deer habitat through wildlife habitat management and improved forestry practices and maintenance of local vegetation.
  • Balancing the sex ratio by taking down does as well as bucks.

A few tips about deer hunting

Mr. Hamilton was kind enough to enlighten us with his knowledge and this is just the tip of the iceberg. For more more information be sure to download their ‘Guide to Successful Deer Hunting’.

  • If you shoot and leave a deer, you can be fined. When you reduce it from life to death, you have to do something with that carcass.
  • Know what to do with the deer once you need to remove it.
  • Know where your local processing center is.
  • Learn how to field dress an animal (videos on the website).
  • Become a member of QDMA and meet fellow hunters, since members are always happy to help.

deer hunting

Driving defensively in deer country

Education isn’t just for the hunters. Joe reminded us that motorists kill their fare share of deer each year as well. Some tips to remember include:

  • Deer are most active at dawn and dusk.
  • Deer are creatures of habit. If you learn to read the environmental conditions and see the edge of an agricultural field, that is a really good place for deer to cross a road and that’s why you usually see a deer crossing sign in areas like this. Take these warning signs seriously.
  • There are seasons when deer crossing is more common, such as during the rut (when they mate and when bucks are less cautious, since they are looking for as many does to mate with as possible).
  • Don’t blow your horn or flicker your headlights, as it just confuses and startles deer, making them more apt to dart in an unexpected direction.
  • Deer whistles do not work.
  • If you see one deer cross the road, always expect a second deer. They travel in family groups–or a buck could be chasing a doe.

What is the motorist to do if a deer is hit?

Report the incident to the State Highway Patrol and to your insurance company. If the deer is killed and you wish to take it, please contact the local Wildlife & Marine Resources Department. Also, if the deer is injured, do not risk personal injury by handling the matter yourself. Call the department mentioned above and a Wildlife Conservation Officer will be notified immediately.

Living with Deer

While we all love seeing a deer in our backyard, it can cause tangible problems with neighbors and the environment. The main issue is that people have moved to the country to get away from city life and they have moved into deer habitat. These people have relatively long commutes to and from work during the two most active times for deer: early morning and late afternoon. This alone accounts for an increase in deer/vehicle collisions. People in these suburban areas also tend to landscape with plants that deer love to eat, and these plants are heavily fertilized, making them more palatable than most native vegetation, and thus much more attractive to deer.

Deer hunting guide
Photo by Jake Rossman Jake Rossman

Another issue is that people become emotionally attached to the deer and because of this misplaced attachment, the “No Hunting” signs go up. This can complicate matters, since herds still need to be culled–again, remember, there are no longer wolves, bears, and cougars preying on these animals. And, to speak plainly, if hunters can’t control deer numbers, it’s the motorists and other native species that suffer the consequences.

The good news is that deer populations are becoming healthier and better managed thanks to education and regulated hunting. We hope this guide will help hunters and non-hunters alike better understand what we need to do to keep deer and their environments in balance.

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