A Deer Management Lesson for Non-Hunters

If none of these deer die in the next two years, and each one bears two fawns each year, these four can become 36 deer and will have an enormous negative impact on their habitat.

(Or, Why Do We Need to Kill Deer?)

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

“Why do we need to kill deer?” is a question many hunters seldom think about, and a question most non-hunters can’t answer.

Growing up in a hunting family, I remember being told that if we don’t kill deer, we’ll end up with too many and it will lead to mass starvation. I was only a kid, and that’s the answer I repeated more than once.

That answer was true, but vastly oversimplified. In those days we were only a couple of decades removed from the early “deer wars” when Aldo Leopold warned of overpopulation in Wisconsin, and a decade from Roger Latham’s similar warning in Pennsylvania. Advocating for higher deer harvests, both men paid a heavy price.

Today, we have plenty of deer, but they are limited to much less habitat than they were 50 or 60 years ago. A person would need to be an idiot not to see that, because back then, lots of properties we hunted became today’s commercial, industrial, or residential developments.

“Why do we need to kill deer?” Some hunters might answer, “Because I’m built to kill deer.” Certainly, doing what we’re made to do brings fulfillment, but we’re “built” to do lots of things, so people find fulfillment lots of ways. Others might say, “I need to feed my family.” An honorable desire for sure, but in normal times any motivated and creative person can find many ways to feed those he loves. Such answers might be sufficient for some hunters, but not for the non-hunter, because those answers focus on the hunter.

What if we turn the question around, focus on the deer, and ask, “Why do deer need to be killed?” That’s the right question, because we don’t need to kill deer as much as deer need us to kill them.

Yes, that seems counter-intuitive, but it’s the truth. Deer must die, and in large numbers. If they don’t, they will make trouble. They won’t roam around in gangs with AR-15 rifles, stealing cars and dealing drugs, but they will create a different kind of havoc.

Most animals can be broadly classified as either predator or prey. Foxes and fishers (predators) eat plenty of mice (prey). Easy to understand—who cares about mice? But deer are also prey animals, and in most places today they have few predators. In southern New York and northern Pennsylvania, coyotes and black bears prey on white-tailed deer, but if that was the only way white-tailed deer died, not enough would die. So we need another predator to prey on deer. It’s a bi-ped with a high degree of intelligence who plays a critical role. And no, I’m not talking about Bigfoot.

If man does not trim the deer population back every year, they will indeed overpopulate, but what does overpopulation actually mean? It means much more than starvation. As deer overpopulate, they will eat more and more of the growing things they and other animals depend on. The average deer will be underweight—decreasing from perhaps 140 pounds as a healthy adult doe to 120, or 110, or 100. Lower body weight means they’ll bear smaller fawns. Those fawns in turn will be malnourished, take longer to mature, and in their first winter some of them will starve.

As the population continues to rise, deer will devour the best plant nutrition the habitat offers until it’s gone. Then they’ll eat less nourishing plants, whatever they can reach, until the landscape is bare of any edible vegetation from ground level to about six feet. Songbirds will disappear because deer have eaten all the shrubs—the part of the habitat where many songbirds nest.

Sooner or later a few deer will become diseased, and with the density of the population at an unnatural high, the disease will spread from deer to deer until many of them die from it. The population will crash.

This scenario is real. Every area where deer live can support only a limited number of deer. Trouble comes when that limit is exceeded. It will take years for the plants, the songbirds, and the deer to return.

The predatory role hunters play is a service to deer and to society. It does not add suffering; it reduces suffering. Hunters use bullets and arrows for quick, merciful deaths, but Mother Nature uses hunger, malnutrition, disease, starvation, and predatory animals which often eat their prey alive. Mother Nature acts more like Cruella de Vil than a caring, nurturing mother.

And that’s why deer need to be killed.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to give Steve the exact GPS coordinates of your favorite hunting spot, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015, 2018, and 2023 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.

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Steve Sorensen of Russell, PA is an award-winning writer whose column, The Everyday Hunter®, offers hunting tips, strategies, insights and occasional humor. His byline has appeared in the nation's top hunting magazines and he is a field contributor to "Deer and Deer Hunting" magazine. Steve is also in demand as an event speaker, presenting programs on do-it-yourself Alaska moose hunting, whitetail deer, wild turkeys, and eastern coyotes, with new programs coming. E-mail him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com to invite him to speak at your next sportsman's dinner (or to tell him where your best hunting spot is).