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What Many People Don't Understand About the US Deer Population

There is a point of confusion for many people living outside of the US in regard to the population of deer in the US. In fact, many people inside the US don’t understand it either.

Usually, this comes up in relation to the number of deer that are hunted and harvested every year. There seems to be a notion among a lot of people that the deer population is being wiped out by hunters. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The deer population is rapidly increasing throughout the US.

To understand this, a person only needs to look at the actual numbers. To use Montana as a representative example, it should first be mentioned that there are five kinds of deer in the US; mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and caribou. Each of these has subspecies as well, but when talking about the deer population, we are only talking about mule deer and whitetails.

Montana has both mule deer and whitetails. These sometimes interbreed, but the offspring are usually counted as one or the other kind of deer, depending on their physical traits.

Montana is also a state where deer hunting is a very large industry. There are lots of resident hunters and a large number of people come here from out of state to hunt every year. While the type of deer that are harvested are separated by whether they are mulies or whitetails, it is probably most helpful to say that around 5,000 deer are harvested every year in Montana.

That sounds like a lot of deer, doesn’t it? Several hundred more deer die every year from car collisions. However, this actually isn’t many deer, even counting those killed by cars. The reason this can be said will be seen below.

According to Montana Fish, Game and Parks, the population of mule deer in 2016 was 366,033. The number of whitetails in 2016 was 220,740. That is a total of 586,773 deer.

In 2017, just one year later, Montana Fish, Game and Parks placed the count of mule deer at 386,075. The population of whitetails for the same year was 235,316. That is a total of 621,391 deer in the state in 2017.

That is a population increase of 34,658 deer in just one year. That is despite the deer hunting pressure and the number of deer killed by cars. In fact, it also doesn’t count the number of deer killed by wolves, bears, cougars, or other predation. It doesn’t even count the number that perished due to starvation (winter-kill) or because of forest fires. The population of deer still grew by almost 35,000.

The population growth varies from year to year, primarily due to the harshness of the winter and the amount of winter-kill, but this one year span is fairly constant and representative.

This is just one state. The US Fish and Game estimated that in 2017, the total population of deer in the United States was about 3.3 million. This number is growing every year, regardless of the number of deer that are being harvested by hunters and it doesn’t count the number that are captive-raised.

The point is that the killing of 5,000 deer in Montana doesn’t have much effect on the population increase, which grew in just one year by roughly seven times more deer than were shot. If anything, hunting pressure is actually helping the deer population.

A person might wonder what would happen if deer hunting stopped. This has actually been tried in some locations and as one might expect, the deer population dropped slightly. That isn’t necessarily a good thing, though, because the main reason that the population fell is that far more deer perished of starvation during the winter.

Starvation is a cruel, lingering death that impacts every member of the herd. The weakest die first, which would mean the fawns and yearlings. By the time they die, the healthier members of the herd are weakened to the point where they often also die of starvation.

Deer hunters provide a vital service. The deer herds are also not being wiped out by hunters. The fact is that the population of deer in the US continues to grow.

What do you think?

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Written by Rex Trulove

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    • Throughout the US, increasing the hunting pressure results in stronger herds that flourish more, with fewer deer dying from starvation. Deer populations are closely monitored in the US. This isn’t true of all countries, however.

      A growing threat to deer populations in the US, though, is CWD or chronic wasting disease. This article doesn’t address that, but I should write about it.

    • Yes, and so many people don’t realize that it isn’t just one deer in the herd that suffers, it is the entire herd. A herd of 30 deer can all end up dying of starvation; bucks, does, yearlings, and fawns. It isn’t rapid, it is very painful, and I don’t think anyone would enjoy seeing it, though it is a very powerful learning experience when people do witness it.

      One person even asked if it would be helpful to import a pair of Bengal tigers to deal with the overpopulation of deer, while also helping the tigers. However, it wouldn’t work even if the tigers could be persuaded not to eat any of the other plentiful animals including cattle, sheep, people, cats, and dogs. If the tigers ate nothing but deer, it still wouldn’t make a difference. An adult tiger eats about 50 pounds of meat per day. Deer usually weigh between 100 and 300 pounds. It is doubtful that the pair of tigers would even account for 500 deer in a year. That doesn’t even put a dent in the increase of almost 35,000 deer in Montana alone.

    • The inescapable logical solution to the tremendous increase in deer population is also simply stated. We need to harvest more deer…a lot more deer. It is the reasonable way to overcome the situation and it is the most humane thing to do. The extra deer that are harvested could also be used as a tremendous off-set for the number of hungry people within the US.

      The local food bank here periodically gives away venison, mostly ground, but that primarily comes from local hunters who’ve found themselves with an excess. Ours is a tiny town, typical for Montana, but with about 1,000 people in the whole valley, our food bank serves over 100 families each year. Imagine how many could be helped and how helpful it would be if there were even 4-5 more deer per year, entire deer and not just ground, that were donated.

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