Deer in Virginia

Virginia wildlife managers changed their management objectives for white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) at the start of the 21st century, in contrast to the last three centuries of wildlife management. Instead of trying to increase the herd, officials are now trying to reduce deer populations in many counties and cities across Virginia.

Suburban property owners have shifted their traditional "protect Bambi" or "coexist in peace" attitudes, and have started to ask wildlife officials to stop the deer from eating all the backyard plants. In Loudoun County, Lyme disease associated with deer ticks became a political issue in the 2012 presidential election. In a non-traditional twist, political conservatives advocated for government actions to prevent a "massive epidemic threatening Virginia."1

The pre-colonial deer population, estimated at 400,000-800,000 animals, was dramatically reduced by overhunting. By 1931, it had dropped to perhaps just 25,000 deer. The Virginia Game Commission (now the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries) started imported deer from other states in 1926, and restocked areas until 1992. Healthy does can produce two fawns each year, so the deer population can double in just one year if predation (including hunting) is low.2

restocking efforts that began in 1926 focused on counties west of the Blue Ridge
restocking efforts that began in 1926 focused on counties west of the Blue Ridge
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.6)

The Lacy Act in 1900 prohibited commercial sale of wildlife, ending market hunting. State regulations limited harvest of female deer (does), while authorizing the shooting of male deer (bucks). Since one buck can inseminate many does, shooting bucks while protecting does is an effective way to increase the population.

Stricter enforcement of deer hunting laws had an impact. It is easy to distinguish the sexes during the Fall hunting season because only bucks have antlers. Prohibiting or limiting the shooting of antlerless deer - does and young deer born the previous spring - while steering hunters towards bucks resulted in greater reproduction the following spring.

A substantial amount of the population increase after World War II was caused by the transformation of habitat since World War II. Farms abandoned since the agricultural depression in the 1920's, and the population migration to the cities during World War II, developed into young forests. As the suburbs grew in the 1950's, deep woods and open farm fields were replaced by a patchwork of shrubs/small trees intermixed with lawns. Animals that needed unbroken blocks of woods, such as the pileated woodpecker and wood thrush, lost habitat. As a result, their populations dropped.

Deer benefitted from the increase in "edge" habitat, with twigs and food within four feet of the ground and thus accessible for browsing (in contrast to older forests, where new growth is concentrated far out of reach at the top of trees). The creation of sheltered locations and the elimination of most predators, especially where leash laws for dogs were enforced, led to higher reproductive success. The baby boomer population after World War II was accompanied by a parallel boom in deer in the suburbs.

In rural areas, hunting pressure has been sufficient to keep deer populations in balance with the available habitat. Hunting pressure is far less in most suburban areas, where hunting is limited or banned in order to reduce the danger of stray shots hitting houses, cars, or people.

The impact on the habitat has dramatic in places such as Manassas National Battlefield Park. Low-growing vegetation has been eliminated by over-browsing, leaving no shelter for ground-nesting birds to raise their young. Exclosures (fences excluding deer from a patch of ground) have revealed that the reservoir of seeds in the ground can produce new plants of species that are missing outside the exclosure. At some point in the future, the seed bank will be exhausted and the species diversity at the park will be permanently altered. The habitat there could support 15-25 deer per square mile, but the average population between 2001-2011 were 148 deer per square mile.3

deer browse lines are revealed when azaleas bloom, and the only flowers are above the height of a deer's reach
deer browse lines are revealed when azaleas bloom, and the only flowers are above the height of a deer's reach

cedars are not preferred food for deer, but when populations exceed the carrying capacity the deer will eat everything
cedars are not preferred food for deer, but when populations exceed the carrying capacity the deer will eat everything
Source: National Park Service, Antietam NB, Monocacy NB, and Manassas NBP, Draft White-tailed Deer Management Plan and EIS

Wildlife management, including hunting regulations, are a state (not Federal) responsibility. Since 1947, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) has required hunters to stop at a big game check station to record their deer kills, which provides essential data to assessing the population. In 2006, there were 1,100 check stations, operated by volunteers.

DGIF revises the deer hunting regulations annually, and has defined roughly 100 management units between 26-1,112 square miles (with an average of 401 square miles). The state does not seek to maintain the highest population level of deer at the "biological carrying capacity" in order to maximize the sale of hunting licenses. Instead, DGIF has lengthened hunting seasons and started to encourage harvest of antlerless deer:4

Deer population management is based on the concept of cultural carrying capacity – the number of deer that can coexist compatibly with humans. Liberalized hunting regulations enacted over the past decade appear to have stabilized herd growth in most areas...

Although frequently described as overpopulated, most of Virginia's deer herds are managed through regulated hunting at moderate to low population densities, in fair to good physical condition, and below the biological carrying capacity of the habitat. However, deer herds are above cultural carrying capacity in a number of areas of the state.

deer population in Virginia now exceeds the number thought to be here when European colonists first arrived
deer population in Virginia now exceeds the number thought to be here when European colonists first arrived
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.3)

In rural areas, farmers can get permits to kill deer that are damaging crops. In suburban areas, recreational deer hunting is not sufficient to keep the population close to the cultural carrying capacity. The state has sought to increase hunting pressure in such areas by authorizing special urban archery seasons and implementing a site-specific Deer Management Assistance Program. It allows landowners to get extra authorizations to kill antlerless deer, after establishing a quality deer management program.

In some suburban counties, state hunting regulations are not the strictest constraint affecting deer hunting. Loudoun and Prince William counties have ordinances that ban use of firearms within 50-100 yards of a public street or occupied dwelling, so the subdivision roads/houses scattered across those counties limits hunting opportunities. Some counties have fewer restrictions on use of bows and arrows, allowing archery hunting from tree without any limits.

Fairfax County has no acreage of distance restriction for archery hunting. In 2014, when Prince William considered clarifying its weapons ordinance and proposed to ban archery hunting within 100 yards of a house or public road, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries made clear that it supported use or archery hunting to reduce excessive deer populations:5

...the acreage requirement to discharge archery equipment for the purpose of hunting is both unnecessary from a safety standpoint and will render a larger portion of the urban landscape off-limits to deer management.

restrictions on shooting within 100 yards of occcupied dwellings or public roads blocks deer hunting in most of Prince William County, even the Rural Area northwest of Manassas Battlefield
restrictions on shooting within 100 yards of occcupied dwellings or public roads blocks deer hunting in most of Prince William County, even the Rural Area northwest of Manassas Battlefield
Source: Prince William County, Hunting Restrictions Maps - Gainesville

Home Owner Associations (HOA's) also restrict behavior on private land and common areas. In Fairfax County, the Reston Association has approved hunting efforts after other efforts to deter over-browsing (including spraying chemicals thought to make vegetation un-tasty to deer) were not effective. In 2014, the appropriately-named Hunters Woods subdivision in Reston obtained approval for an archery hunt.6

The City of Fairfax is changing from suburban to urban, with nearly all available parcels already developed ("built out"). Within the city limits, the only parcel large enough to permit hunting was the Army-Navy Country Club golf course.

In 2013, city officials started a unique experiment in Virginia to control the deer population. The City Council rejected proposals to authorize archery hunts, and approved a privately-funded program to sterilize does. About 30% of the female deer population was sterilized (at $1,000/doe). After state and local officials approved spotlighting and use of bait, the organization doing the sterilization planned to capture 90% in 2014-15.

The hope was that sterilized deer would remain and occupy the habitat and block in-migration of fertile deer from Vienna and Fairfax County - which was expected to occur if the deer in Fairfax City had been removed in an archery/firearms hunt. Over time, as deer die from natural causes or collisions with cars, local deer population levels would be lower than in nearby jurisdictions.7

While reducing the deer population to the cultural carrying capacity has become management objective for most of Virginia, the 2006 Deer Management Plan did propose increasing the number of deer in the Appalachian Plateau physiographic province and in the ridges/valleys of the lower (northern) Shenandoah Valley.

healthy does can produce two fawns each year
healthy does can produce two fawns each year
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, White-tailed Deer Fawn

As described by Mark Taylor in his Roanoke Times column:8

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.

in 2006, deer populations on private lands were below desired levels only in three southwestern counties, where habitat was increasing as strip mines reforested
in 2006, deer populations on private lands were below desired levels only in three southwestern counties, where habitat was increasing as strip mines reforested
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.43)

Public opinion did not mirror the professional opinions of the state wildlife agency. Local officials thought their residents desired to increase the population, or to maintain rather than reduce it, and did not agree with the cultural carrying capacity as determined by the DGIF.

In Dickenson and Wise counties, local officials did not sense that their residents supported DGIF's objective to increase the number of deer. In contrast, in Highland and Amelia counties the DGIF objective was "stabilize population," but local officials thought the public supported increasing the number of deer. In both counties there are large blocks of state-owned lands that attract hunters during deer season, and the local perception may reflect the economic impact of wildlife-related tourism.

opinions of county/city administrative officials about how they believe their residents consider the deer population (too small, just right, or too large) during 2005
opinions of county/city administrative officials about how they believe their residents consider the deer population (too small, just right, or too large) during 2005
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.77)

The following maps from the 2006 Deer Management Plan show the pattern of how deer populations were restored:9

Virginia deer distribution in 1938 (estimated 50,000 deer)
Virginia deer distribution in 1938 (estimated 50,000 deer)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.7)

Virginia deer distribution in 1950 (estimated 150,000 deer)
Virginia deer distribution in 1950 (estimated 150,000 deer)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.7)

Virginia deer distribution and relative abundance in 1970 (est. 215,000 deer)
Virginia deer distribution and relative abundance in 1970 (est. 215,000 deer)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.8)

Virginia deer distribution and relative abundance in 1980 (est. 425,000 deer)
Virginia deer distribution and relative abundance in 1980 (est. 425,000 deer)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.8)

Virginia deer density estimates by county in 1988 (estimated 575,000 deer)
Virginia deer density estimates by county in 1988 (estimated 575,000 deer)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.9)

Virginia deer distribution in 2004 based on population index (antlered buck kill/deer habitat in square miles)
Virginia deer distribution in 2004 based on population index (antlered buck kill/deer habitat in square miles)
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.9)

Links

the idealized version of cute deer causes public reactions to deer management proposals that involve hunting
the idealized version of cute deer causes public reactions to deer management proposals that involve hunting
Source: Aria Soha
deer stand at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge
deer stand at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge

References

1. "Loudoun County, ground zero in Lyme disease debate, attracts Romney-Ryan offer of help," Washington Post, October 4, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-state-of-nova/post/loudoun-county-ground-zero-in-lyme-disease-debate-attracts-romney-ryan-offer-of-help/2012/10/04/3c5588ae-0dc3-11e2-bd1a-b868e65d57eb_blog.html (last checked July 2, 2014)
2. Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, June 2007, p.4, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/deer/management-plan/ (last checked July 3, 2014)
3. "Park Service deer control plan at Manassas battlefield won’t include public hunting," Washington Post, August 30, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/park-service-deer-control-plan-at-manassas-battlefield-wont-include-public-hunting/2013/08/30/05b589c6-118b-11e3-bdf6-e4fc677d94a1_story.html; "Draft White-Tailed Deer Management Plan And Environmental Impact Statement Antietam National Battlefield, Monocacy National Battlefield, And Manassas National Battlefield Park, Maryland And Virginia," National Park Service, 2013, p.ii, http://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectID=35457 (last checked July 2, 2014)
4. "Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, June 2007, p.12, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/deer/management-plan/; "DCAP (Damage Control Assistance Program)," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, pp.11-12, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/deer/dcap.asp (last checked July 2, 2014)
5. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF), letter from DGIF Director to Chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the County Executive, June 30, 2014, deerletterDGIF.pdf
6. "Reston permits a deer hunt in a residential neighborhood, update on Fairfax City project," Washington Post, July 2, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2014/07/02/reston-permits-a-deer-hunt-in-a-residential-neighborhood-update-on-fairfax-city-project/?wpisrc=nl_buzz (last checked July 2, 2014)
7. "Fairfax City to try a new approach to deer: surgical sterilization of does," Washington Post, December 18, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/local/wp/2013/12/18/fairfax-city-to-try-a-new-approach-to-deer-surgical-sterilization-of-does/; "Legal Deer Hunting...In Fairfax City?," Fairfax City Patch, July 2, 2013, http://fairfaxcity.patch.com/groups/politics-and-elections/p/legal-deer-huntingin-fairfax-city (last checked July 2, 2014)
8. Taylor, Mark, "A vision for deer," Roanoke Times, May 12, 2006, http://www.roanoke.com/outdoors/wb/64786 (last checked May 12, 2006)
9. 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)
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


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