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The Growing Threat to Deer Populations in the US

There is a relatively small but significant number of misinformed people in the US who feel that deer hunting should be banned. The idea is that deer hunting is cruel and that the deer need to be ‘saved’. Not only is this untrue, but it also leads to the death of deer in ways that really is cruel. That includes one of the fastest-growing threats to deer populations in the US.

First, it needs to be mentioned that there are well in excess of 3 million deer in the US, according to the US Fish & Wildlife service. That number is growing. In fact, the deer population is currently growing at roughly double the rate of the harvest rate in the US, even after counting the number of deer that are harvested.

Put in a simpler way, for every deer that is harvested, the deer population increases by about two more deer. 

When there are more deer than the land is capable of supporting, nature handles it in a couple of ways. First, the deer die of starvation. There simply isn’t enough food for them to eat and since a deer herd eats the same foods in the same area, the entire herd suffers. Whole deer herds have been wiped out by starvation, which is a particularly cruel way to die because it is a painful, lingering death.

The second way nature deals with an overpopulation of deer is death by disease. This is becoming a growing threat to deer in the US and the disease that is becoming a continually larger threat is CWD or Chronic Wasting Disease. 

CWD affects all members of the Cervids or deer family. This includes elk, moose, and caribou. It is sort of the deer equivalent of ‘mad-cow disease’ that affects bovines or cattle, except that it doesn’t appear to affect the predators that eat the contaminated meat. In an infected animal, the brain tissue becomes spongy and gradually dissolves. CWD is 100% fatal and it is incurable. There are also no vaccines that can be used to prevent it. 

Deer with CWD often have an emaciated appearance, as if the animal is starving, though it is eating a great deal. They are also driven by thirst. They lack coordination and often appear to stagger about. The problem is that these symptoms only appear in the later stages of the disease, so the deer have been spreading the disease for some time by the time this is even noticed.

The disease is spread through bodily fluids found in the blood, saliva, urine, and feces.

First recognized in 1967, CWD has spread to at least 25 states and 3 Canadian provinces. This is also a lingering death and as with starvation, entire herds can be wiped out. Further, little can be done to prevent the spread of the disease. The USFW service will put down animals exhibiting the signs of CWD, but as mentioned, by that time the deer have been spreading the disease for weeks or longer.

Because of the nature of CWD and the way it is spread, the more densely the population of deer in an area is, the faster CWD is apt to spread. 

CWD is a far greater threat to deer populations than deer hunters are. In fact, deer hunting in the US is closely regulated, but in the early stages of CWD, even trained wildlife biologist can’t tell that the deer are infected just by observing them. 

Nature is quite adept at controlling the over-population of animals and the way that it happens is usually not very nice. Deer hunting may be among the few ways that this disease can be kept from spreading or at least slowed down, by thinning out the population of deer and making it possible for some deer to survive without contracting the disease. Shooting a deer is also usually a swift way for the deer to die.

  • Question of

    Before reading this, which of the following did you think was the biggest threat to deer populations in the US?

    • Hunting
    • Starvation
    • Preditors
    • CWD
    • Habitat loss
    • other
  • Question of

    Were you aware of how deadly CWD was to deer?

    • Yes
    • No

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Written by Rex Trulove

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14 Comments

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    • The hunting organizations are the ones that are doing most of the work and funding to protect and help the deer. If it wasn’t for hunting organizations, deer would almost certainly be extinct from large areas of their current range.

  1. I had never heard of this disease. But I have often heard that deer and other wildlife were often eventually by ticks sucking their blood. They basically die from blood loss. I also am not for hunting wildlife. I know that hunting is regulated and enforced but to what degree…? Still a big thanks for this great post. I am sure other Virilians were not aware of all the implications of a too large wildlife population…

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    • A big problem has been that people have a tendency of being afraid of big predators, such as bears, cougars, and wolves, so in many of the more populated areas, the predators have been wiped out. The deer respond with a population explosion. In areas where deer hunting is banned, the problem rapidly becomes enormous and at a much faster rate than in areas where hunting is allowed.

      When there is a population explosion for a species of animal, it nearly always impacts other animal species in the area and eventually it results in a crash of the population of the original species. CWD most likely started in an area where hunting pressure was light or non-existant and the deer population was huge. I’ve seen deer herds that have starved to death over the course of weeks. It is enough to give me nightmares. CWD is nearly as bad.

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    • In the US, nearly all of the work that has been done for habitat restoration, protection of deer, laws enacted for deer, and so forth, has been done by deer hunters or has been funded or initiated by hunters. One of the reasons there are so many deer in the US is because of the care and study given to the deer by hunters and hunting organizations. If it wasn’t for the hunters, large areas of the US would have no deer at all.

      I’ve seen a large deer herd starving to death, too, and it isn’t a pretty sight. The deer not only suffer, but they also destroy a great deal in the feeble attempt to get enough to eat. They will kill trees by trying to eat the bark and will even eat the siding off of houses. When they do die, they also cause a huge increase in the number of flies and vermin, which cause problems for other creatures, including humans.

      Growing up, most of the meat we had on our dinner table was venison. Hunting organizations are widely recognized as being among the first and largest conservation groups and the efforts support and protect a lot more animal species than just deer.

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    • This disease has even been found in some captive deer herds. It is more apt to be found in the areas that have the largest deer population and the worst part is that if one deer in a herd has it, it is just a matter of time before all the deer in the herd are infected. Since deer and elk sometimes intermingle, it can be passed to elk herds easily, too. I still have hopes that deer might build up a natural immunity somehow, but for right now, the outlook is rather bleak.

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