We spend so much time hunting deer in the fall and trying to spot them in the offseason. Capturing our hearts and imagination, they are one of the most important wild species in our country. Nearly every community in the country east of colorado has a population of whitetail deer. Let’s talk a bit about whitetails as a species. The more we deepen our understanding of how this iconic mammal thinks and what motivates them, the better we will be as hunters, outdoorsmen, and stewards of the natural world.
Whitetail deer are the most widely distributed wild ungulate (hoofed mammal) east of the Rockies. West of the Rocky Mountains, mule deer and blacktail deer can be found in their place. There are now more whitetail deer than there were when Columbus discovered America. The current best estimate of the US population of whitetails is right around 35 million deer. At 4 million deer, Texas contains about 10% of the whole whitetail population in the United States. The lone star state tops the list for the largest whitetail population in the country, by state.
Deer are browsers by nature. This means that they eat leaves, shoots, and fruit of higher growing plants. Deer are not ruminants and cannot properly digest grass, though they may occasionally eat it. True ruminants, who get all their nutrition from grazing, have multiple stomachs to help break down the grass they eat. Cows, elk, and antelope are ruminants and grazers, unlike deer. The whitetail deer’s preferred foods are plants with woody stems, shrubs, vines, hard and soft mast, and even poison ivy. Though browsers by nature, deer are highly adaptable animals and have been known to pretty much find something to eat in every environment they are in. This nutritional adaptability is one of the things that has allowed them to flourish throughout the country.
Whitetail deer are prolific breeders, mating once a year during a period known as the rut. 40% of female deer breed in their first year when they are fawns. Adult females breed every year of their life. During the rut, bucks may breed as many as 7 different does per season. Bucks will fight and posture with each other for breeding rights with certain does. Generally speaking, the size of a buck’s rack is a true indicator of his fighting ability and dominance over other smaller bucks. During this intense period of rutting activity, bucks will often neglect to eat and push themselves very hard often losing significant weight. This can put them at a disadvantage going into winter. Does will have between 1-3 fawns when they give birth the following year between April and June. With this high birth ratio and the fact that does breed every year, a population of 100 does can produce 180 offspring every year. This helps to explain the rapid increase in deer populations in areas with no predators and little hunting.
A Part Of Our Culture
The whitetail deer has come to symbolize our connection to and relationship with the natural world in the United States. In wild areas, deer live like they always have. In suburban settings, they have adapted and are now thriving in those areas too. As more deer live in areas of higher human population densities, negative human-deer encounters increase. These include car accidents, damage to landscaping, and, occasionally, damage to physical property or human injury caused by rogue bucks.
Negative interactions are increasing as deer and human populations spread. Deer are able to find suitable food almost everywhere, and they produce abundant offspring every year. Humans, too, have pushed into formerly wild places. As a result, the need for hunters to manage the population of deer is more important than ever.