The story below is an excerpt from our November/December 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Stumble across any local newspaper article about white-tailed deer and you’re likely to read a headline such as “Munching deer changing region’s forests” or “Deer on the move create highway hazard” or even “Too many deer destroy their own habitat.” So are these nimble herbivores really running rampant in the Southeast? Yes and no, says Charlie Killmaster, state deer biologist for the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources. It all depends on where you live.
Before European explorers settled the Blue Ridge, white-tailed deer had two primary, non-human predators: the eastern cougar and the red wolf. Widespread, unregulated hunting for food and the commercial fur trade quickly depleted the populations of all three. Then, in the 1800s, the deer lost much of their natural habitat when farmers cleared forests to grow crops, worsening the decline. Killmaster notes that, except for a few “relic” populations on hunting preserves and other private properties, “deer were largely extirpated from most Southeastern states.”
Along with the 20th century came a new way of thinking and a move “away from the wildlife exploitation era in the U.S. and into the wildlife conservation and restoration era.” By the 1920s, game wardens were enforcing new restrictions on hunting and fishing. The profession of “wildlife biologist” was born. And forward-thinking conservationists, like Arthur Woody, a forest service ranger who acquired five deer from North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest and another three abandoned by a traveling carnival and turned them loose in north Georgia, started restocking the region. A federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition provided the bulk of the funding for restoration efforts across the Southeast between 1928 and 1975, when wildlife biologists reintroduced 4,000 deer in Georgia alone.
Then the scales tipped. “I liken it to building a fire,” says Killmaster. “You ignite small areas all around the state, and each of those small areas that were stocked were growing and growing and growing. And then by the mid-1980s all of those little brush fires grew together and the population exploded. From 1975 to the early 1990s we saw an exponential growth in the deer population that really got out of control in a hurry.”
In response, hunting laws were loosened, and non-native coyotes began taking the place of predatory wolves, shifting the ecological balance once more. Today, although some reports estimate the number of deer in Georgia at well over 1 million, there is no way to tell exactly how many live there or in other Blue Ridge states, says Killmaster. But the population has definitely stabilized.
“We’ve seen the population skyrocket out of control and then be brought down under control, mainly within the last five to eight years, to a more biologically appropriate state,” he says. “For the majority of the state of Georgia, we are right where we need to be for the deer to be in perfect balance. And we’re trying to keep it there.”
Nevertheless, in some gated suburban communities with lots of green space, deer may seem to be taking over, while, according to wildlife experts, the population has once again dipped in the mountains. “I spoke with a gentleman this morning who said he had three deer in his back yard in the last few weeks, and that’s the first he’s ever seen in his yard in 46 years,” Killmaster says. “In some cases, it may be easier to encounter a deer in your neighborhood or in your yard than hiking the Appalachian Trail.”