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3 Problems Facing White-Tailed Deer

Some unwieldy challenges pose threats to white-tailed deer across the United States today. While the problems aren’t new, they are ongoing and create uncertainty for white-tails. Can conservationists, hunters, and deer managers help find answers—or at least good preventions and accommodations—to minimize these threats?

These are three of the most prevalent problems facing white-tailed deer right now: disease, urban development, and predation. Let’s drill down on each and consider solutions that may help secure a more solid future for deer herds.

Three problems facing white-tailed deer are disease, urban development, and predation. 1.  Disease

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a deadly and widespread disease among white-tailed deer.

A collection station for deer heads to be tested for chronic wasting disease (CWD).

The most blatant challenge staring down white-tails is disease, and these two cervid sicknesses top the list: chronic wasting disease (CWD) and epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). We could devote pages to both—and researchers have—but here we’ll just cover the basics.

Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease

This article on EHD by the National Deer Association (NDA) describes it as a viral infection spread by midges, gnats, or “no-see-ums.” EHD pops up more in late summer to fall when heat and drought encourage midge reproduction in shallow, stagnant water.

The NDA explains that five to ten days following exposure, deer with EHD may appear weak, feverish, or develop a swollen head, neck, tongue, or eyelids. They may also have difficulty breathing or lose their appetite and fear of humans. Most deer not previously exposed to the disease will die within five to ten days.

Chronic Wasting Disease

As bad as EHD is… CWD is worse. Chronic wasting disease is caused by a wicked little prion that’s neither virus nor bacteria. It spreads by animal-to-animal contact through saliva, urine, and feces.

CWD stalks deer like the grim reaper once caught. This neurological disease is virulent, highly contagious, widespread, and 100% fatal—though infected deer may not show symptoms for 18 to 24 months. It causes brain degeneration, emaciation, abnormal behavior, and death. CWD is the most dreaded three-letter acronym among deer managers.

Do you know if your herd has contracted CWD? Click here to find out the symptoms and behaviors of deer with advanced CWD.

Solution

The onset of frosty weather will send midges into hibernation and end the season’s cycle of EHD. But for CWD? There is no cure or sure-fire prevention. There are opinions on how to slow the disease, but most draw heated debate from opposing sides. Feeding and baiting, including deer minerals, is one related hot topic that’s important to hunters, so let’s cover it briefly.

Baiting bans have cropped up across the country because some conservationists feel feeding helps transmit disease through deer congregation and saliva.  Others believe supplementing deer with feed and quality minerals like Trophy Rock is important since it creates a healthier animal that can survive challenges better.

Gene Price, a longtime Redmond Hunt team member, sat on the committee for the National Deer Association.  He’s heard the case from both sides and believes both have valid arguments.

“It’s tough to decipher who’s right,” he said. “Everyone has their own opinion, and you get a really split audience. Most hunters and conservationists like myself lean toward feeding deer to keep them healthier. Others say, ‘Nope, we’re not doing it because it could spread disease.’ It’s the great controversy of the white-tail world: How do we prevent CWD—or is it even preventable?”

There are three things most agree will help slow the spread of CWD:

  1. Stop transportation of all live deer. Doing so prevents infected animals from traveling to areas where the disease isn’t yet present.
  2. Don’t move high-risk deer carcass parts. For a list of parts, visit this site.
  3. Report sick or strange-acting deer to state wildlife agencies. This helps stop CWD in its earliest stage of arrival in new areas.

To learn more, visit the NDA’s Chronic Wasting Disease Resource Center.

2.  Urban Overpopulation

Overpopulation is a problem facing white-tailed deer in urban areas.

White-tail urban overpopulation often results in deer munching on foliage in  homeowners’ yards.

Deer need three things to survive: food, water, and cover. Urban development particularly in the eastern U.S. has hacked away at two of those necessities: food and cover. City limits continue to expand, and subdivisions and bedroom communities now engulf chunks of wooded land white-tails once used for foraging and fawning.

Development is a reality, and deer adapt, some finding shelter and feed in backyard bushes, trees, gardens, and birdfeeders. But forced urban living is a major problem for white-tailed deer and does create unique challenges. Here are some:

  • Civic ordinances prevent hunting within city limits, so deer become overpopulated.
  • Overpopulation results in large numbers of deer congregating, increasing the spread of disease.
  • Smaller home ranges mean cover, bedding areas, and food sources are at a premium.
  • Human-deer conflicts (like deer hit by vehicles) occur more because deer are moving about to find scarce food and cover.

Solution

They say you can’t stop progress, so what is the solution to the challenges of urban development for white-tails? One thing humans can do is minimize overpopulation through urban bowhunting. This is especially viable in residential subdivisions with large acreage. It does, however, require the cooperation and permission of willing homeowners.

“A good way to introduce urban bowhunting is to talk to and educate landowners as a group, maybe through homeowners’ associations,” Price said. “It’s a common and very rewarding way to help control deer overpopulation and improve the health of herds.”

And it also helps homeowners whose yards and landscaping have been munched on or mowed down by deer. Urban hunting can be a win-win for all.

3.  Predation 

Predators are a substantial problem facing white-tail deer, especially fawns.

Coyotes, bears, and bobcats are a substantial threat to white-tail fawns under 9 weeks old

It’s a natural part of life in the wild: predation—the prey of animals by other predators. Predation provides natural herd control but can become a threat to herd survival when predators become too populous in rural areas or factors like disease or harsh winters also take a toll on herds.

This Pennsylvania Game Commission site notes U.S. studies show predators—mostly coyotes, bears, and bobcats—have a substantial impact on white-tailed deer populations, particularly young fawns under nine weeks. Predation affects adult deer far less.

Solution

Price owns land in Ohio and manages a deer herd which struggles with predation from coyotes and bobcats. Fewer trappers and, in some states, increasing laws against trapping have increased threats to white-tails from predators.

“We try to find trappers to trap our farm, but we just can’t find any,” Price said, “so we try to control the coyotes by hunting and trapping them ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we’re out turkey or deer hunting, if a coyote comes by, that’s our primary target.”

Be aware of trapping and bounty regulations in your area before hunting predators or setting out traps.

Conclusion

Knowing the major problems facing white-tailed deer can help us better maintain and promote healthier herds. So what can you do? As you’re outdoors, watch for signs of disease in deer and report it to local wildlife agencies immediately. If you live in the city, participate in and promote urban bowhunting to decrease overpopulation of deer. And if you’re a country dweller, help control predators by trapping on private lands.

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