These two deer (a 9-point and a doe) were having a snack in the 100' wide shrub buffer inbetween my office and the highway. Apparently honeysuckle is DELICIOUS!
Where we grew up in southeastern Virginia (1970s through early 1990s), there were very few deer. The deer we did see we were very unhealthy. 15 years later in the Mid-Atlantic states, the deer population has exploded, causing outbreaks of disease, destruction to habitat, and roadkill fatalities to humans....all at a disturbing scale. So how did this happen?
As you may have heard me theorize before, at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago, white-tailed deer composed only a minor portion of the large grazing animals in the Mid-Atlantic. Elk and "wood bison" ruled the day. As climates and hunting continued to affect the bison and elk unfavorably, deer became more prominent on the landscape. Unlike elk and bison, deer are able to exist quite happily in a human-modified agricultural landscape.
Fast forward to the 1970s. In the Mid-Atlantic, deer hunting was still a very popular pasttime, but farms were being abandoned and/or developed into subdivisions at a very quick pace. Deer populations initially did not respond well to these new "habitats." However, as these patterns continued, deer populations exploded for a few reasons:
1) firearms regulations prohibiting hunting in many suburban counties
2) failure to recruit new/young deer hunters as hunters aged
3) failure of state wildlife agencies to encourage proper deer harvest management
So what do all those things mean? The first one is pretty self-explanatory. As one of the early forms of gun control, many counties with urban centers passed unilateral "discharge ordinances." These laws state that while you may own as many guns as you like, you may not discharge a firearm within that county. Some of you guys out west must be thinking, "That's impossible!" Trust me, it's our life out here, and it's why bow hunting has regained such popularity. There's simply less acreage to hunt, and that acreage decreases yearly.
Second is also key. Fewer people are pursuing deer. Why? First, older hunters are dying, or getting out of hunting due to age/illness. Second, hunter education is no longer taught in schools. Not even after school. In the words of Maryland's deposed idiot governor Glendenning, "Hunter Education puts guns in the hands of children." Of course, a minor nuance is that Americans who complete hunter education are about 500% less likely to die of a firearm injury than the general population (OK, I have no data to back that up). It's getting harder and harder to recruit new hunters into the fold, partly because hunting access is on a severe decline (see #1 above).
Third....ahhh.....this is where I bless the Quality Deer Management Association, who advocate deer management strategies designed to grow a healthy herd and large, old, healthy bucks. So many folks, until the last 5 years, have REFUSED to get involved with proper deer management. How can you have a healthy herd, or trophy bucks, if you harvest no does, and harvest every 1.5 year old deer that walks by? Unfortunately, a huge sector of hunters (until recently) honestly believed that they were doing a favor to the deer herd by shooting small bucks. What the hell kind of sense does that make? None. Only in the last several years have state DNRs started to advocate "managed trophy hunts" and extensive doe harvests. For instance, I live in a "unlimited antlerless deer" county because the density is so high. I can harvest does all winter if I prefer. The only thing stopping me is my distinct lack of skill.
All over the mid-atlantic, deer densities are at record highs. The deer are all over the highways, in peoples' yards, and are putting a real dent in ecological succession of "natural" woods.
I hope to get out next week to get one. Wish me luck!