Critter Corner No. 3 – White-tailed Deer by George Sly

In the first two installments of Critter Corner we looked at mammals quite typical of the wetland habitat which comprises much of the Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. These were the muskrat and its arch nemesis the mink. This time let’s look at a mammal which, at first consideration, would seem far removed from the wetland setting. The white-tailed deer is a member of the mammalian Order Artiodactyla, the so-called even-toed ungulates. This group of animals is characterized by having two functional toes on each foot. Usually a pair of vestigial digits, often referred to as dewclaws, are present as well. Certain bones of the feet are elongated which results in the ankles being well above ground. This adds to the overall long-legged appearance of these mammals. Such limb structure is well-suited for rapid locomotion, flight being the main method of defense in most ungulates. Subgroups (families) within the Artiodactyla include deer, cattle, antelopes, pigs, camels, giraffes, and hippopotamuses. Deer, such as the white-tailed, are placed in the Family Cervidae. In the United States other cervids include the mule deer, elk, caribou, and moose. One hallmark of the deer family is their possession of antlers. Antlers are bony outgrowths of the frontal bones of the skull and differ from horns, as found in cattle and antelopes, in a couple of ways. Perhaps the most prominent difference is that antlers are replaced each year. They begin growing in the spring and then fall off, or are accidentally knocked off, after the mating season when a decalcification weakens the antlers at their bases. In most members of the deer family, antlers are normally produced only by males. Horns on the other hand are permanent, have a bony core, an external keratinized sheath, and are found in both sexes.

The white-tailed deer, Indiana’s largest wild mammal, is so common now that no description is needed. This species is highly adaptable and therefore occupies a variety of habitats in Indiana including forests, forest edges, reclaimed strip-mined land, agricultural lands, and wetlands. At GPFWA, white-tailed deer are often seen and not just along the outer perimeter of the property. Their tracks and trails are common on the elevated levees of the property and GPFWA staff report seeing them out in the waters of the wetlands. They readily cross the shallow waters (deer are excellent swimmers too) and often feed on aquatic plants in the standing water.

The diet of the white-tailed deer is quite varied. In the summer, many types of plants are grazed upon. These include several types of cultivated crops. In the winter, when leafy vegetation is lacking, deer browse woody plants such as sumac, maple, dogwood, and sassafras. This species is now so abundant that people are often surprised to learn that the white-tailed deer was once extirpated from Indiana. J.O. Whitaker, Jr. in his Mammals of Indiana: A Field Guide states that the species was gone from the state by 1893. Although conversion of the landscape to agriculture may have been a factor in the white-tailed deer’s decline, a much more serious problem was severe, unregulated over-hunting. In fact the history of this animal should serve as a reminder as to why we need strong regulations regarding hunting seasons and bag limits for the wild game we pursue. Purdue University biologist Russell Mumford published a monograph in 1969 entitled Distribution of the Mammals of Indiana. The section of the publication referring to the white-tailed deer contains several anecdotal reports which make it quite clear why this animal was becoming rare in Indiana by 1850 and was gone by the turn of the century. Mumford cites a 1909 publication by W.L. Hahn in which Hahn reported that one man was credited with killing (by himself) 370 deer in the fall of 1822. Other similar citations include the killing of 70 deer in a single day “on an island in the Wabash River.” Mumford also mentioned an 1883 report by W.W. Goodspeed which referred to an episode in Warren County in which “hunters encircled 300 deer and killed about 160 of them.” With this type of unfettered hunting pressure, it was only a matter of time before the white-tailed deer joined mammals such as the mountain lion, wolf, bison, elk, and black bear on the list of species eliminated from Indiana by humans. The white-tailed deer present in Indiana today are the descendants of animals reintroduced into the state, beginning in 1934, by the Indiana Department of Fish and Game, forerunner of today’s Department of Natural Resources. According to the DNR’s informational website these deer were introduced, mostly into southern Indiana, from Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. Further immigration from Michigan helped build the northern populations of the state. Whitaker reports that subsequent population estimates for the species, following reintroduction, were: 900 in 1943, 1200 in 1944, and 2900 in 1946. By 1951 the population had climbed to 5000. Still, even during the 1960’s when I was a teenager, scaring up a white-tailed deer while afield was a noteworthy event. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell everyone of my sighting. This is certainly a far cry from today when an evening’s drive can reveal more white-tailed deer than once existed in the entire state. By 1991 the white-tailed population had reached an estimated 350 000 (McCreedy, 1996).

The white-tailed deer is THE big game mammal of the eastern United States and Indiana is no exception in regards to the popularity of deer hunting. The first regulated hunting season for deer occurred in 1951. Mumford states that 1,590 animals were taken in that first hunt. Today the annual statewide harvest of white-tailed deer is over 100 000 animals, including both sexes. Hunters harvested seven deer from the Goose Pond FWA last year. The positive economic impact of deer hunting in Indiana is substantial. McCreedy’s 1996 paper on deer management put the figure at over $100 000 000. Of course this is offset by the cost of deer-vehicle collisions and crop damage which, again at the time of McCreedy’s writing, amounted to annual losses of some $40 000 000. We must also take into account the ecological damage which excessively high white-tailed deer populations may cause. When deer become over-populated they can do serious damage to young woody plants. Such plants represent the future forest as well as forage and habitat for other forest-dwelling species. Too many deer can also do extensive harm to herbaceous flowering plant populations. This is not only detrimental to other woodland species from an ecological perspective but lessens the aesthetic impact for human forest visitors. The overgrazing problem has been particularly acute in some of Indiana’s state parks. This has led, in recent years, to the necessity of limited hunting, for herd reduction purposes, in these parks. In my estimation there is perhaps no other mammal in Indiana that can match the white-tailed deer in regards to its beauty, gracefulness, and agility. However, in the absence of bear or wolf or lion, it falls to us humans to protect the white-tailed deer from its own too much. Managing of the white-tailed deer in the Indiana of the 21st Century requires a complex balancing act. How do we maintain an ecologically sustainable deer population in the state? How do we lessen conflicts between humans and deer? The number of people who hunt seems to be in decline. What is the implication of this shift in human priorities in regards to managing deer numbers? Having brought this native animal back from state-wide extinction, we now find ourselves engaged in an exceedingly challenging exercise in wildlife management. Is it worth the effort? In spite of a couple of deer-vehicle collisions, I’d have to say yes. I still get immense enjoyment from observing this living icon of an older, primordial Indiana. Ask one of the quarter-million Hoosiers who purchase a deer hunting license and I’m sure they would say yes. Query any of those who understand the spiritual value of wild things and wild places and I believe they would say, absolutely. Yes, I imagine quite a few folks would say that efforts to maintain and manage a restored white-tailed deer population in Indiana are of great worth.

McCreedy, C.D. 1996. Sustainable management of a public resource: The white-tailed deer in Indiana. FNR-153, Dept. Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN ‘

Mumford, Russell E. 1969. Distribution of the Mammals of Indiana. Monograph No. 1. Indiana Academy of Sciences. Indianapolis, IN

Whitaker, John O. 2010. Mammals of Indiana: A Field Guide. Indiana University Press. Bloomington, IN