Deer in Virginia

Virginia wildlife managers changed their management objectives at the start of the Twenty First century, in contrast to the last three centuries of wildlife management. Officials are now trying to reduce deer populations in many counties and cities across Virginia. The latest Deer Management Plan from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries proposed increasing the number of deer in only the Appalachian Plateau physiographic province and in the ridges/valleys of the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley.

As described by Mark Taylor in his Roanoke Times column:1

Poor habitat, due in part to limited logging and generally poor, infertile soil, is a limiting factor on national forest lands. In some cases, even though the populations are low, what deer remain could be overly taxing the maturing forest's limited early successional plant growth, the forage needed by browsing whitetails.

Elsewhere, the deer population is far from reaching the habitat's biological carrying capacity. But that is not the index biologists use to estimate ideal populations. The important index is cultural carrying capacity, which takes into account habitat, hunting and other recreational demands, and damage issues.

That capacity has been met or exceeded across most of the state, which is why the plan is geared to reducing the population in so many areas, while keeping it stable elsewhere.

The 1999 population objectives (with distinctly different plans for public and private lands):

1999 Virginia deer population management objectives for private land
1999 Virginia deer population management objectives for private land
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 41)

1999 Virginia deer population management objectives for public land
1999 Virginia deer population management objectives for public land
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 42)


The 2006 population objectives:

2006 Virginia deer population management objectives for private land
2006 Virginia deer population management objectives for private land
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 2006 Deer Management Plan (p. 40)

2006 Virginia deer population management objectives for public land
2006 Virginia deer population management objectives for public land
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 2006 Deer Management Plan (p. 40)

Deer Restoration in Virginia

From the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries "1999 Deer Management Plan"2

Population Decline, 1600-1900. ----Following colonization, Virginia's deer population began to decline. Frequently cited as standard factors causing the decline of white-tailed deer in colonial Virginia are habitat loss due to deforestation and agriculture, over-harvest, and lack of effective law enforcement. Extensive over-harvest may have been most damaging. Although clearing and conversion of forests to agriculture should have benefited Virginia's colonial deer herd, improvements in habitat conditions apparently were negated by continued over-harvest.

In 1699, to address declining deer herds, Virginia was one of the first colonies to set a closed season for hunting deer (from February 1 through July 31). By 1738, separate seasons had been established for bucks and for does and fawns.

The over-harvest of Virginia's deer resource was characterized by several distinct stages. During early European settlement, venison and deer hides were essential staples of everyday colonist life. Nearly every colonial law that was passed to protect deer in Virginia contained an exemption for settlers living on the contemporary western frontier. As evidence of the pioneers' dependence on deer as a source of food and clothing, it was not until 1849 that counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains established a closed season on deer.

Commercial trade in deer hides, which peaked around 1700, followed subsistence hunting. Between 1698 and 1715, approximately 14,000 hides were exported from Virginia to Europe annually. Market hunting followed the commercial trade in deer hides. One market hunter in northwestern Virginia was reported to have killed over 2,700 deer prior to 1860 for an average price of 10 cents per pound.

Market hunting effectively ceased with the passage of the federal Lacey Act in 1900 which outlawed the buying and selling of wildlife and gave the federal government control over the interstate transport of wildlife.

Like most southeastern states, Virginia's deer herd reached its lowest point during the early 1900's. By 1900, the deer herd in nearly all of Virginia's Mountain and Piedmont physiographic regions had been extirpated. In an article that appeared in the predecessor to Virginia Wildlife, Game and Fish Conservationist, the 1931 statewide deer population was estimated to be approximately 25,000 (Figure 1; B).

Population Restoration.-----When exactly deer numbers began to increase significantly in Virginia is unknown. One noted white-tailed deer authority has suggested that, from a North American perspective, deer abundance did not increase significantly until the 1930's. The principal factors that contributed to the significant increase of white-tailed deer in Virginia over the past 60-70 years were reforestation, farm abandonment, protective game laws, effective law enforcement, and restocking. The latter three of these are now the responsibility of the VDGIF.

After the formation of the Virginia Game Commission in 1916, a considerable amount of time and effort was spent on deer management. Initial management efforts to protect remaining deer herds included establishment of shorter seasons and a season bag limit. Annual deer harvests during the 1920's averaged approximately 620 deer for the 33 counties that had open deer seasons. In 1924, the General Assembly restricted hunting to a 45-day buck-only deer season between November 15th and December 31st with a bag limit of one deer per day, two deer per season.

In 1926, the Game Commission initiated a deer restoration program. Early records of this restoration effort are incomplete. In its early stages, 1926-1950, 1,305 deer were imported from out-of-state sources into Virginia. Virginia has received deer from more states (11) than any other state in the southeast. The average cost of deer purchased out-of-state was $50/deer, with costs ranging from $25-125/deer. The last deer was imported into Virginia in 1950.

Following a slow start, the number of deer released per year peaked at 375 deer in 1940 (Figure 2). After a four-year reduced effort during World War II, restocking activities resumed at a moderate level for ten years and averaged approximately 40 animals annually. During the nine-year period between 1958 to 1966, restoration efforts were suspended completely.

Nearly all the 1,980 deer stocked after 1967 came from a single source, the Radford Army Ammunition Plant(s) in Montgomery and Pulaski counties. Restoration efforts conducted in the 1980's and 1990's, which involved about 450 deer, were directed primarily at two far southwestern counties, Buchanan and Dickenson. With the exception of several western Piedmont counties that border the Blue Ridge Mountains, nearly all restocking in Virginia was done west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In all, more than 4,200 deer were released.

The following maps, extracted from the 1999 and DRAFT 2006 Deer Management Plans, also show the pattern of how deer populations were restored. As suburban populations have expanded into deer habitat since World War II, conflicts have increased between deer and homeowners with gardens, and with commuters driving at dusk on roads that deer cross.

Virginia deer distribution in 1938
Virginia deer distribution in 1938
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 8)

Virginia deer distribution in 1950
Virginia deer distribution in 1950
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 8)

Virginia deer distribution in 1970
Virginia deer distribution in 1970
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 9)

Virginia deer distribution in 1980
Virginia deer distribution in 1980
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 9)

Virginia deer distribution in 1988
Virginia deer distribution in 1988
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 1999 Deer Management Plan (p. 10)

Virginia deer distribution in 2004
Virginia deer distribution in 2004
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, DRAFT 2006 Deer Management Plan (p. 13)

Virginia deer restoration, 1926-1992
Virginia deer restoration, 1926-1992
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, DRAFT 2006 Deer Management Plan (p. 10)

Links

deer stand at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge
deer stand at
Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

Deer hit by a car (roadkill) or hunted illegally (poached, and butchered for the meat)
Deer hit by a car (roadkill) or hunted illegally (poached, and butchered for the meat)

Jurisdictions harvesting more than 3,000 deer in 2009-2010
Jurisdictions harvesting more than 3,000 deer in 2009-2010
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Deer Kill Data

References

1. Taylor, Mark, "A vision for deer," Roanoke Times, May 12, 2006, http://www.roanoke.com/outdoors/wb/64786">www.roanoke.com/outdoors/wb/64786 (last checked May 12, 2006)
2. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, "1999 Deer Management Plan," p.6-7, www.dgif.state.va.us/hunting/va_game_wildlife/management_plans/deer/deer_management_plan.pdf (last checked May 12, 2006)


Habitats and Species
Virginia Places