Notes from the Deer Wars: Science & Values in the Eastern Forest

The science is clear: over-abundant white-tailed deer are having powerful and negative impacts on the eastern forest. The human values around this issue, though, are anything but clear. Are environmentalists -- and tradition-bound deer hunters -- willing to pull the trigger?

One of the biggest threats to the eastern forest also happens to be one of its most charismatic creatures: the white-tailed deer.

Recently, a group of Conservancy scientists and land managers called over-abundant deer a bigger threat to forests than climate change.

The white-tailed deer is arguably the most studied wild animal in the world, but this is more than a science issue. You cannot talk about deer without addressing competing human passions, values and traditions.

This is true anywhere the white-tailed deer roams in the United States. It is especially true in Pennsylvania, a place where opinions on deer management have probably ignited more bar fights than politics or religion.

I’m at the Conservancy’s Woodbourne Forest Preserve in north-central Pennsylvania to see how science can potentially help solve the deer issue.

In this case, I’ll admit it: I’m not here as an impartial observer. I love white-tailed deer. I love watching them, reading about them, and yes, hunting them.

I have hunted deer for more than 30 years. I grew up in central Pennsylvania, where the first day of deer season was an official school holiday. Deer hunting is a family tradition, a way to get good meat, even an obsession.

I understand the passion behind the issue. Believe me, I do.

I am here to see firsthand how that passion for deer can perhaps be summoned to help the forest rather than harm it.

From Deer Sanctuaries to Deer Wars

The recovery of white-tailed deer was a highly successful conservation effort. Too successful. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
The recovery of white-tailed deer was a highly successful conservation effort. Too successful. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

When Woodbourne Forest Preserve was established in 1954, a tradition of protecting deer was already well established in Pennsylvania – despite some ecologists warning even then that deer populations were too high.

Early in the 20th century, white-tailed deer (and many other North American species) faced serious trouble. Some predicted imminent extinction. The sighting of a deer in Pennsylvania was a front-page news story.

Wildlife sanctuaries – where no hunting was permitted – were considered vital for the protection of species. Woodbourne’s strict “no hunting” policy seemed perfectly valid and scientifically justified in 1954.

Around the country, strict game laws and the regeneration of forests proved successful in the recovery of white-tailed deer. Far too successful.

Without market hunting and with plenty of new habitat, deer flourished. There were few large predators remaining to keep populations in check. There were lots of does and a small number of young bucks, since hunters targeted antlered deer.

The forest suffered.

“Look into a typical eastern forest, and you’ll have really big dominant trees, and you’ll have ferns or other undesirable vegetation that deer don’t find appetizing,” says Mike Eckley, conservation forester for The Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania. “You don’t have seedlings. You don’t have saplings. You don’t have intermediate trees. None of them can survive because deer eat them as soon as they sprout.”

Lots of ferns and little understory: signs of a deer-damaged forest. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
Lots of ferns and little understory: signs of a deer-damaged forest. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Deer were altering the entire forest – changing the composition of native trees, shrubs and other plants. This has a cascading and often negative effect on habitat, thus influencing insects, songbirds and other mammals.

Woodbourne – where nature was “taking its course” – was becoming a haven for over-populated deer. By the 1990s, it was clear: the “no hunting” policy was not benefiting the forest.

“It was a contentious issue at the time,” says Eckley. “Should we allow hunting at a wildlife sanctuary? Does pulling the trigger on a wild animal have a place here? That is difficult for some people to accept.”

The Woodbourne preserve committee – made up of neighboring landowners and local community members – had to give formal approval any management action taken on the preserve. Any management action would have to be shown to be necessary due to extraordinary circumstances.

The science was crystal clear in this case. Deer were altering the forest. The committee approved a plan to allow a local hunting club to hunt deer there during Pennsylvania’s two-week rifle season.

Allowing hunting does not completely solve the problem. Not at Woodbourne, and not anywhere in Pennsylvania. This, too, had become quite clear.

In the early part of the century, hunting regulations were very conservative to protect a recovering deer herd. Hunting of does was minimal, and sometimes outlawed. Hunting was directed at bucks. This allowed the deer population to grow. (The complete story of how deer populations expanded is covered in excellent detail in two recent, highly readable books: Jim Sterba’s Nature Wars and Al Cambronne’s Deerland).

That hunting regulation system became an entrenched tradition. Hunters became accustomed to seeing 30 or more deer a day. Paradoxically, the biggest opponents of killing more deer were deer hunters.

Conservation biologists knew more deer had to be killed. Deer were destroying the forest. They ate the profits of farmers and loggers. They caused millions of dollars of damage (and lost lives) in vehicular collisions. Something had to give.

This gave rise to what journalist Bob Frye named the Deer Wars. He wasn’t exaggerating.

Is it any wonder deer management incites powerful passions? Photo: © Kent Mason
Is it any wonder deer management incites powerful passions? Photo: © Kent Mason

The Pennsylvania Game Commission, charged with managing the state’s deer herd, brought a biologist named Gary Alt to help solve the problem of too many deer in the late 1990s.

Alt was a popular bear biologist in the state. I’ve seen him speak to 800 college students forced to attend his lecture. In minutes, he had them roaring with laughter, and later, in tears. By the end of his presentation, he received a standing ovation.

Alt was one of the most gifted science communicators I’ve encountered. He got it. He brought this skill and his considerable scientific cred to the deer management issue, shaping a system that would kill more does and allow bucks to mature. This was the management, he argued, needed to bring the deer population to an ecologically sustainable level.

By the end of his tenure, Alt received death threats instead of standing ovations. He wore bullet-proof vests wherever he went. He was disheartened and disillusioned, a casualty of the Deer Wars.

The science was not enough, no matter how well it was communicated.

There have been a lot of extremely intelligent people who have attempted to address the deer issue scientifically and have hit the wall,” says Eckley. “Some conservationists see this as an issue you cannot win. Too many others have tried, and failed.”

Eckley doesn’t believe that. At Woodbourne, the Conservancy is working with deer hunters as partners. It offers an example of one way, at least on a local level, conservationists may be able to solve this contentious issue.

Deer Hunting for Conservation

Deer hunting is a cherished tradition in rural Pennsylvania. Photo: Mike Eckley/TNC
Deer hunting is a cherished tradition in rural Pennsylvania. Photo: Mike Eckley/TNC

We’re sitting in a little cabin owned by the Little Elk Lake Hunting Club, who hold the lease to hunt deer on Woodbourne. We’re eating steaks and sausages, sipping some of Eckley’s homemade elderberry wine, with two hunt club members, Donald Hettinger and Mark Baldwin.

We’re not talking science; we’re talking hunting. They’re running through some of the bucks they’ve killed here, their observation of how the deer behave, where they like to put their stands. It’s clear that those two weeks of deer hunting season are the biggest two weeks of the year.

“I’m up here, doing what I love, surrounded by my cousins and nieces and nephews,” says Hettinger. “We’re all here. When else can I do that?”

Eckley is also a hunter; he brought the deer steaks from a deer he harvested last year. It’s clear he understands the hunters’ passion. He understands that they may not be motivated by what’s best for songbirds or understory plants.

The Conservancy's Mike Eckley (left) discusses deer management with deer hunter Donald Hettinger. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC
The Conservancy’s Mike Eckley (left) discusses deer management with deer hunter Donald Hettinger. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

There is middle ground.

Eckley has been working to make deer hunters not just lease holders but full partners in conservation. As part of their arrangement, they record their deer observations and deer killed.

They have been trained to age deer – in fact, in the cabin is a tool that shows hunters how to age deer by looking at their jaw bones.

He has been encouraging them to hunt more does. And he has been bringing them the latest science.

Last year, he helped host a seminar put on by Penn State’s Cooperative Extension to educate hunters on deer impacts. The workshop began by reviewing deer biology, food preferences and reproduction.

“It was hard-core biology, for deer hunters,” says Eckley.

The hunters then headed afield and were taught how to estimate deer density by counting piles of deer scat, and then were taught how to measure deer impacts on plants.

“Deer hunting tradition here runs deep,” says Eckley. “We are slowly changing opinions on what an acceptable deer herd is. It’s going to be generational. There is going to have to be a change of values.”

One of the most hopeful signs of change is in hunters embracing another philosophy: quality deer management.

Trophy Hunting or Valuable Conservation Tactic?

White-tailed deer are beautiful animals, but they are also wreaking havoc on forests. Photo: © Kent Mason

The Quality Deer Management Association is a hunting organization that is interested in healthy deer herds and large whitetail bucks. The key to growing big bucks, proponents maintain, is to lower the doe population, allow bucks to reach maturity and to provide lots of quality habitat.

Some environmentalists see quality deer management as the promotion of trophy hunting. And trophy hunting is held by certain groups as an ecological sin on a par with large dams and oil spills.

It’s true that quality deer management focuses on deer, and often big deer. It’s equally true that the goals of quality deer management mesh very closely with what forest conservationists want.

“There are hunters who have an interest in getting a trophy buck,” says Eckley. “Savvy conservationists recognize that interest is actually quite compatible with what we want for the forest.”

Even quality deer management can be a hard sell in tradition-bound Pennsylvania. The state has liberalized doe seasons, and has required that bucks reach a certain antler size before they can be killed.

The two hunters who hosted us expressed doubts it could work on a property as small as 650-acre Woodbourne Preserve. After all, many deer simply move off the property when hunting season starts.

“I have heard hunters say that quality deer management is elitist. I’ve heard hunters say that the regulations have caused deer to disappear from Pennsylvania,” says Jim Holbert, editor of Wildlife Management News and a quality deer management advocate. “There are too many barstool biologists here. The hunters need to understand the biology of the critter they’re hunting. If they don’t, that’s a huge hurdle.”

Eckley sees signs that hunters are changing. “A lot of older hunters think they need to see 30 deer a day or the herd is in trouble,” says Eckley. “But I think younger hunters are changing. They are starting to see that the deer hunting tradition can help forest conservation.”

Quality deer management isn’t the only solution. It’s a start. Even at Woodbourne, deer management is still a work in progress.

Eckley understands. Like me, he grew up on Pennsylvania deer hunting. He still has trouble sleeping the night before opening day. That may seem hard to understand for many readers. But it also allows him to relate to deer hunters.

Without that connection, addressing the problem of over-abundant deer is going nowhere. Fast.

The Conservancy's Mike Eckley (left) meets with members of the Little Elk Lake Hunting Club. Photo: George Gress/TNC
The Conservancy’s Mike Eckley (left) meets with members of the Little Elk Lake Hunting Club. Photo: George Gress/TNC

“Deer have a huge influence on the health of the forest,” says Eckley. “But deer also have tremendous cultural importance. They’re beautiful. They’re fascinating creatures. Hunting is important to many of us.”

“I’m a forester,” he continues. “When I go hunting, I see the impacts deer have on the forest. I understand why people would think deer shouldn’t be hunted at Woodbourne. I understand why hunters may not see those impacts. But we have to come to terms with this problem. We have to work together, or it’s not benefiting anything – not people, not forests and certainly not even the deer.”

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  1. Meredith Cornett says:

    So much to learn from this Pennsylvania example. Gets me thinking about how to better balance recreational hunting with other values (public safety and human health for starters).

  2. The herd was too large. That may still be a problem in places. Those of us who train hunting dogs were not sad to see a smaller deer population. A guy with a coon hound, beagle, or bird dog doesn’t need a landscape full of deer and low on other game. Money matters, and it seems that timber, oil, and natural gas has surged to the front of priorities. Well pads on public land are commonplace. Mature trees that generate lumber money seem to be a priority. Early succession growth is essential for all wildlife. The big woods of the Allegheny National Forest lack the browse that farmlands provide. PA is very much a place where there are deer hunters on private land and those on public. While an over browsed forest is not natural, neither is an approach that values timber and gas.

  3. If you want to see the difference in the DC region between a wildlife management area (deer hunted) and a park with no hunting, go to Thompson WMA near Front Royal and Catoctin Mountain Park in MD, in the spring. The difference is truly astounding, Thompson is absolutely bursting with bird and plant life, while Catoctin is silent and sparse in comparison. It becomes very easy to see why we need hunters – they help maintain healthy forests.

  4. Thanks, Matt, for this great post–and also for the DEERLAND mention and the links to my blog. Some important ideas here–especially that standing back to “let nature take its course” is not always our best option–or our most humane.

    And no matter how charismatic deer might be, our stewardship should extend to the ENTIRE ecosystem, and to all those other creatures out there in the woods. As you noted, locally overabundant deer don’t just impact the plant community. They affect every plant, animal, and bird out there. Too many deer means less of everything else.

    I also agree with your assessment of how Quality Deer Management (QDM) fits into this picture. True, there might be times when hyper-abundant deer have hit a forest especially hard, and the only way it will recover is if deer densities are reduced to a level below what even QDMA members might prefer. But generally speaking, their goals are fairly congruent with those of botanists, ecologists, foresters, or professional wildlife biologists working for state agencies. Even though nonhunters–or even hunters who are more motivated by venison–might feel uncomfortable with the trophy mentality, QDM adherents know that overpopulated, poorly nourished deer rarely grow big antlers. They’d rather see slightly fewer deer that are larger and healthier–and maybe even have bigger antlers.

    And as you noted, there are plenty of tradition-minded trophy hunters who think we should only shoot bucks with large antlers, never shoot small bucks, and never, ever shoot does. For them, that’s the worst sin of all. If we can’t change how some hunters think about antlers, let’s remember that’s the alternative. So far the most part I’d have to agree that yes, anyone who cares about forests, especially in PA, should be cheering on the QDMA.

  5. Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments so far.

    Anyone who cares about these issues should buy Al Cambronne’s book Deerland. I reviewed it in a blog last year: I agree with Al’s assessment of QDM. I am a hunter interested primarily in venison, not trophies. I think it’s important to remember that quality deer management still has room for those hunting for meat. Killing more does makes sense biologically and ecologically, and it also provides opportunities for those of us who are out there for the healthful venison. Thanks again everyone for commenting.

  6. Sammy says:

    Very slanted piece by a fairly environmentally extreme author who is trying to paint his position as some sort of middle ground when it is anything but. Reasonable deer numbers do not pizz off the majority of hunters in a state and still allow for reasonable levels of biodiversity etc. Seeking ridiculous levels of extreme biodiversity that probably isn’t realist or natural in todays world is a joke. And that’s why Pas deer policies of the last 15 years have been largely unacceptable to most hunters. Things need to change for the better, and a lot of misinformation and half truths that comes from the greenie faction needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    1. Allen Pursell says:

      Sammy, you’ll get more respect if you don’t try to win your argument by putting people down. Calling Mr. Miller part of the “greenie faction”, and calling his arguments “a joke” without putting together a well thought out counter position of your own isn’t very compelling. What’s more extreme? Asking for forests where oak seedlings have a chance to replace the oaks we have now or being able to easily shoot all the deer we want because we selfishly don’t want to spend the time scouting and hunting that true skill requires? Is it extreme to ask that the deer population be reduced so that Pennsylvania doesn’t have the 5th highest rate of deer-vehicle collisions in the nation? Is it acceptable that according to State Farm Insurance that a licensed driver in PA has a 1 in 77 chance of striking a deer in the next year? How much expense do you think that imposes on the people of PA if the average repair cost is a few thousand dollars? Is that fair to those who don’t hunt? Based on these numbers I suggest that anyone who thinks the status quo is acceptable is taking the extreme position, especially since we hunters are the minority.

  7. There are a number of reasons for large trees and no understory other than native animals eating all the saplings,,I have been planting thousands of trees ” saplings and seeds of indigenous trees in my state “Tennessee” and can say the deer browse on a wide variation of plant life including saplings and yet the forest trees are doing very well at all ages and stages of growth,,20 years ago the deer population was very low and timber harvest was very high and most of the trees replanted were pines..the first 5 years animals including deer would benefit from this,,then after the pine forest progressed to the next 5 years the food supply was choked with efforts to reestablish hardwoods and creations of warm season grasses, proper burning,, and native browse the animals from birds to deer and all the other critters have flourished to a very healthy level..there are many human related reasons for our forest problems other than the creatures who live there 24 hours a day..Thanks Chris

  8. As a wildlife biologist and a hunter, PA’s deer policies for the last 10 years have been a giant success. People are killing almost as many deer, and far higher quality deer, then they were under traditional “Brown and Down” management. I hunted for years with my family in Bedford County and finally stopped after I let two fawns walk, only to hear them both get shot less than five minutes later….by members of my own hunting party. If y’all wanna kill tiny brown things, start growing rabbits or pheasants. They’re a lot cheaper and taste almost as good.

  9. Matthew says:

    I’ve seen the detrimental effect of deer overpopulation on my property. I’ve had to resort to putting chicken wire around many of my native plants that I’ve added over the years, otherwise deer will mow them to the ground and destroy them. Unfortunately they don’t eat invasives like silverberry and chinese privet. Limited hunting and an almost complete lack of predators has created a problem here, especially in undeveloped islands of land surrounded by roads and other development. The deer population most certainly needs to be heavily reduced in the piedmont of SC. Hunting and harvesting are 2 great steps towards population control.

  10. chris says:

    hunters were the first conservationists we are the key as teddy R noted in his memoirs