Deer almost disappeared from Virginia in the 1930's, but there may be more white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the state now than at any other time in history. Current population estimates suggest there are 850,000-1,000,000 deer within the state, reflecting a dramatic increase in available habitat and a reduction in predation.1
At the start of the 21st century, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries managers changed the state's management objectives for deer. For the last three centuries of wildlife management, the goal was to increase the herd. Wildlife officials are now trying to reduce deer populations in many counties and cities across Virginia, to reduce the impacts of overgrazing, limit the risk of disease, and reduce the number of deer-car collisions.
Traditional "protect Bambi" or "coexist in peace" attitudes have changed in areas where excessive deer populations result in significant damage to shrubs planted in suburban yards. Property owners have started to ask wildlife officials to treat the deer as a problem species, and to thin the herds. 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."2
Native Americans may have used fire to alter the species pattern in Virginia's woods, increasing the percentage of nut-bearing trees (oak, hickory, and chestnut) that generated food each fall for deer and turkey (and maintaining grasslands in the Shanandoah Valley). If so, then "gardening" the woods would have created an artificially high population, but that was offset by hunting pressure. Bows and arrows were effective weapons for harvesting deer, which provided skins as well as food.
After the English colonists arrived in 1607, the 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. (Prior to that re-stocking effort, the Lacy Act in 1900 prohibited commercial sale of wildlife. That ended market hunting of deer and other wildlife for meat, except for personal use.)3
deer can double their population within just one year
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Healthy does can produce two fawns each year, so the deer population can double in just one year if predation (including hunting) is low. Because bucks will inseminate many different does, the most effective technique is manage control through hunting is
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 was an effective way to increase the population.
Stricter enforcement of deer hunting laws had an impact, in part because 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 deer population increase after World War II was caused by the transformation of habitat. Young forests grew up on farms abandoned since the agricultural depression in the 1920's and the population migration to the cities during World War II. As the suburbs grew after 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, but deer benefitted from the increase in "edge" habitat. The shrubs and young trees produced twigs and other food within four feet of the ground, accessible for browsing - in contrast to older forests, where new growth is concentrated at the top of trees and thus far out of reach from deer.
The creation of sheltered locations and the elimination of most predators, especially where leash laws for dogs were enforced, led to higher reproductive success by does. The human baby boom after World War II was accompanied by a parallel boom of fawns in the suburbs.
The increased deer in rural areas provided increased opportunitie for hunting, and that has been sufficient to keep deer populations in balance with the available habitat. Hunting pressure was far less in most suburban areas, where hunting was limited or banned in order to reduce the danger of stray shots hitting houses, cars, or people.
In the suburbs, low-growing vegetation has been eliminated by over-browsing. The impact on the habitat has been dramatic in places where the almost complete elimination of vegetation below four feet in height has eliminated any shelter for ground-nesting birds to raise their young. Without low-growing plants, the species diversity in the Eastern Deciduous Forest will collapse.
Forests can recover from excessive grazing pressure, if there are periods when young plants get a chance to grow high enough to survive herbivores like deer. Exclosures (fences excluding deer from a patch of ground) at Manassas National Battlefield Park 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, however, 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 populations between 2001-2013 were 139 deer per square mile.4
deer browse lines are revealed when azaleas bloom, and the only flowers are above the height of a deer's reach
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:5
|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. Northern Virginia cities/counties have ordinances that ban use of firearms within 50-100 yards of a public street or occupied dwelling; 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 or 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:6
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
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. As described by Mark Taylor in his Roanoke Times column:9
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)
Opinions of professional wildlife managers regarding how to manage the deer population do not automatically match public perceptions. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is government by a board that is appointed by the governor. Every governor wants support from the voters who hunt and fish, and the state wildlife management agency is sensitive to public opinion.
When preparing the "Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015," DGIF surveyed the opinions of local officials to evaluate how the scientific recommendations would be received in different areas of the state. On the Appalachian Plateau where the state agency proposed to increase the number of deer, local officials in two of the three counties (Dickenson and Wise) did not sense that their residents supported the recommendation. In Highland and Amelia counties, where the DGIF objective was stabilize population, local officials thought the public would prefer increasing the number of deer.10
In both counties there are large blocks of state-owned lands that attract hunters during deer season. The local perception may reflect the economic impact of wildlife-related tourism. Some hunters measure success by the number of opportunities to shoot at a deer, rather than by the Quality Deer Management objectives to offer opportunities to harvest a smaller number of larger/healthier deer. If more deer would result in more hunters, and more hunters would generate more economic activity, then the desire of local residents in Highland and Amelia counties to increase the number of deer could reflect the impact of hunter-based 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
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Deer Management Plan, 2006-2015 (p.77)
Jurisdictions harvesting more than 3,000 deer in 2009-2010
Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Deer Kill Data
Habitats and Species