Rockingham - Harrisonburg Chapter
The Izaak Walton League of America

Deer Management in Virginia

W Matt Knox and Nelson Lafon - Deer Project Coordinators

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) garner more interest than any other wildlife species in Virginia. Many Virginians relish the chance to hunt, watch, or photograph this graceful mammal. Deer hunting is a deeply-rooted social tradition in Virginia. The economic impact of deer hunting in Virginia is over $250 million annually. However, as the largest wild herbivore (plant-eater) in the Commonwealth, deer have a profound impact on forest ecosystems. Deer also inflict millions of dollars in damage to crops, trees, and gardens and are a safety risk on our highways.

White-tailed deer in Virginia have a remarkable and interesting history. Historical changes in deer distribution patterns, population trends, and management practices in Virginia are representative of those in many southeastern states. Deer herds at the time of European settlement around 1600 were plentiful and widespread. Over-exploitation during the next 300 years resulted in near extirpation of deer by 1900. When the first European settlers arrived in North America in 1607 at Jamestown Island, Virginia, they described an animal found in abundance, which would become commonly known as the Virginia white-tailed deer. The exact number of deer that inhabited the Commonwealth of Virginia at the time of European settlement is unknown.

Following colonization, Virginia's deer population began to decline. Factors cited as reasonable causes for this decline are habitat loss due to deforestation and agriculture, over-harvest, and lack of effective law enforcement. Extensive over-harvest may have been the most damaging factor.

To rectify the decline in deer numbers, Virginia was one of the first colonies to establish in 1699 a closed season on hunting deer (from February 1 through July 31). By 1738, separate seasons had been established for bucks and for does and fawns.

The over-harvest of Virginia's deer resource was characterized by several distinct stages. During early European settlement, venison and deer hides were essential staples of everyday colonial life. Despite the potential harm likely to be inflicted on deer populations, nearly every law that was enacted by colonists to protect deer in Virginia exempted settlers living on the contemporary western frontier. As further evidence of the pioneers' dependence on deer as a source of food and clothing, it was not until 1849 that the deer season was closed completely in counties west of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Commercial trade in deer hides, which peaked around 1700, added to subsistence hunting. Between 1698 and 1715, approximately 14,000 hides were exported from Virginia to Europe annually. The boom in market hunting followed the rise and fall of commercial trade in deer hides. One market hunter in northwestern Virginia was reported to have killed over 2,700 deer prior to 1860 at an average price of 10 cents per pound. Market hunting effectively ceased with the passage of the federal Lacey Act in 1900, which outlawed the buying and selling of wildlife taken illegally and enhanced federal government control over the interstate transport of wildlife.

Like most southeastern states, Virginia's deer herd reached its lowest point during the early 1900s. By 1900, the deer herd in nearly all of Virginia's Mountain and Piedmont regions had been extirpated. In an article that appeared in the Game and Fish Conservationist, the precursor to today’s Virginia Wildlife, the 1931 statewide deer population was estimated to be approximately 25,000 animals.

After its formation in 1916, the Virginia Game Commission devoted considerable time and effort to deer management. Initial efforts to protect remaining deer herds included establishing shorter hunting seasons and imposing a season bag limit. Annual deer harvests during the 1920s averaged about 620 deer for all 33 counties that had open deer seasons. In 1924, the General Assembly restricted hunting to a 45-day buck-only deer season between November 15th and December 31st with a 1-deer per day, 2-deer per season bag limit. In 1926, the Game Commission initiated a deer restoration program. In its early stages (1926-1950), 1,305 deer from out-of-state sources were imported to and released in Virginia. Historical records indicate that Virginia received deer from more states (11) than any other state in the Southeast. The last deer imported to and released in Virginia was in 1950. Following a slow start, the number of deer released per year peaked at 375 deer in 1940. Most restocking in Virginia occurred west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In all, more than 4,200 deer were released.

In 1952, the Virginia Game Commission initiated a statewide program to collect data on deer populations to help set appropriate seasons and bag limits. In 1953, the first full-time deer biologist was employed to direct this program.

Since the 1940’s, Virginia’s deer herd has demonstrated exponential growth as a result of protective laws, deer restoration efforts, and habitat changes. From a low of 25,000 during the Depression, by the early 1950s, Virginia's statewide deer population was estimated to have expanded to 150,000 animals. By 1970, Virginia's statewide deer population was estimated to be approximately 215,000 animals. The 1980 statewide deer population was estimated at 422,000 animals. The 1987 statewide deer population was estimated to be approximately 575,000 animals. Current population reconstruction computer models estimate a population of approximately 900,000 deer in Virginia.

At the state level, deer harvest regulations are evaluated and amended every other year. Depending on management goals and the current status of the deer herd, regulation amendments may involve adjustments to season lengths, bag limits, and/or the number of general firearms season either-sex deer hunting days on a county basis. The process to change regulations typically stretches over one year and represents a major investment of VDGIF staff time and effort. The process to review and amend hunting, fishing, wildlife diversity, and boating regulations occurs biennially. Public and staff begin submitting issues during one year, and the Board of VDGIF holds a series of public meetings the following year. The public has an extended period to review and comment on regulations recommended by staff before the Board acts to propose and finalize amendments. New regulations typically will become effective on July 1 of the year following adoption.

Deer management in Virginia is characterized by two distinct zones of tradition and regulation, east of the Blue Ridge Mountains and west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Deer hunting east of the Blue Ridge Mountains is rooted strongly in a private land hunting club tradition, where use of hounds and a 7-week general firearms season prevails. Conversely, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, hunting deer with dogs is prohibited by state law, hunt clubs are less common, nearly 2 million acres of public lands are available for hunting, and the general firearms season is 12 days long in most counties. Prior to 1964, the western firearms season was six days long. Eight southwestern Piedmont counties (or portions thereof) east of the Blue Ridge Mountains have been incorporated over time into the "western" framework since the late 1950s and early 1960s. Historically, bag limits and either-sex deer hunting opportunities west of the Blue Ridge Mountains have been more conservative than those in eastern Virginia. In the extreme southeastern corner of the state, three cities (Chesapeake, Suffolk [east of the Dismal Swamp line], Virginia Beach) have an October 1 through November 30 firearms deer season.

The density and health of Virginia's deer herd has been managed by controlling the number of antlerless (i.e., either-sex) deer hunting days. Virginia was one of the first southeastern states to recognize the need to harvest antlerless deer. The first either-sex deer days were held east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in all of Caroline and King and Queen Counties, and sections of Southampton and Sussex Counties, during the 1946-1947 season. West of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the first either-sex deer season was held in Augusta County in 1951. From 1951 to 1967, many different combinations of either-sex deer season approaches were tried. Heavy harvests of antlerless deer in some counties were followed by a marked reduction in the number of antlered deer harvested, suggesting that the level of antlerless deer harvest could control deer populations. Although the VDGIF Game Division adopted a sustained yield management strategy in 1967, management objectives were, and still are, accomplished by increasing or decreasing the number of either-sex deer hunting days.

Currently, deer management objectives aim to limit or stabilize populations over much of Virginia. This represents a change in direction regarding deer management, from an initial effort to establish and expand the deer herd to one of controlling population growth. Deer population management is based on the concept of cultural carrying capacity – the number of deer that can coexist compatibly with humans. Liberalized hunting regulations enacted over the past decade appear to have stabilized herd growth in most areas.

Although frequently described as overpopulated, most of Virginia's deer herds are managed through regulated hunting at moderate to low population densities, in fair to good physical condition, and below the biological carrying capacity of the habitat. However, deer herds are above cultural carrying capacity in a number of areas of the state.

The change in direction for deer management in Virginia from one of establishing and expanding the deer herd to one that seeks to manage population growth has been driven primarily by cultural carrying capacity (CCC). CCC is defined as the number of deer in a defined area that can coexist compatibly with humans. CCC therefore is a function of humans’ tolerance of deer and their effects. CCC can vary widely between and within communities. Deer management objectives developed under a CCC model tend to be somewhat subjective and will be influenced by the attitudes and values maintained by residents of each area on specific social, economic, political, and biological issues. The CCC for deer typically will fall well below the biological carrying capacity (BCC) - the maximum number of deer that a habitat can sustain. Under optimum conditions, deer populations can double in size annually. Lacking an externally imposed regulating factor (e.g., predators, hunting), deer populations can expand to a point where they will surpass the ability of the habitat to provide sufficient food resources. Thus, in unmanaged populations, a deteriorating food supply eventually will begin to limit deer numbers. This is a central premise of the concept of BCC. Thus, BCC clearly is a function of both the quality and quantity of that original habitat. The BCC is not a fixed number, and it will change both seasonally and annually. In Virginia, limits imposed by food shortages and the harsher climate during winter typically define what the base BCC limit will be. Deer herds below BCC are frequently, but inaccurately, called overpopulated.

Virginia currently does not have many widespread "overpopulated" deer herds. Although Virginia's deer herds are often portrayed as being overpopulated, most can best be characterized as being at low to moderate population densities, below the BCC, with animals in good physical condition. The harvest of antlerless deer by recreational sport hunters currently is the most effective and cost-efficient method to manage deer populations. Active deer management is necessary to maintain deer populations at optimum levels to meet the needs of citizens of the Commonwealth. An optimum deer population balances positive demands (e.g., hunting, viewing) with negative demands (e.g., agricultural damage, vehicle collisions, ecosystem impacts).

Hunter cooperation in deer population management is critical. Regulations are developed to achieve population objectives, but hunters’ choices ultimately determine the success or failure of regulatory strategies. In the future, additional opportunities or incentives may be necessary for hunters to harvest an adequate number of deer to meet population objectives in some areas. Currently, the existence of the Hunters for the Hungry Program encourages hunters to harvest deer they may not otherwise take and donate excess deer to food banks.

The cornerstone of the Virginia’s deer management program is the big game checking system that allows the Department to monitor the annual reported deer kill. The mandatory checking system for big game was established in 1947 and continues today with some 1,000 volunteer check stations. In fall 2004, a telephone deer reporting system was added, and in fall 2007 an Internet deer reporting system was added.

It is truer of deer than any other wildlife species that all Virginians have a stake in deer management. To meet diverse citizen demands, VDGIF offers a wide range of deer management programs, including the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), the Damage Control Assistance Program (DCAP), out of season deer damage kill permits, and the Deer Population Reduction Program (DPOP).

Virginia's deer management program has been noted for both its success and its simplicity. The overall mission of the deer program is to manage the deer resource in the best long-term interests of the citizens of the Commonwealth. Today, with the exception of several counties in far southwestern Virginia and on selected National Forest lands in western Virginia, the emphasis on deer management in Virginia has changed from establishing and expanding deer herds to controlling deer herd growth. This change in management direction has resulted in liberal deer hunting regulations and high antlerless deer kill levels.

For more information on the Department’s deer management programs, please visit www.dgif.virginia.gov.

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