In the 1955 deer season, now ended in some states and in progress or preparation in nearly all others, some 5 million hunters are expected to kill about a million and a half deer. If this estimate, based on figures reported last week, proves correct, there will be serious concern among game biologists—not because there have been too many kills, but because there have been too few.
The kindest and best thing that could happen to deer today, according to the biologists, is for everybody interested in their perpetuation to go out into the field and "shoot the hell out of them—bucks and does alike." The almost-certain result: healthier herds of bigger animals. In the words of E. L. Cheatum, chief of the Bureau of Game for New York State, where it is estimated that some 50,000 deer might die of starvation if this winter is abnormally severe: "Nature harvests its game if man doesn't—and in a very wasteful and cruel way." In Pennsylvania 30,000 deer were lost in the winter of 1935-36, about 10,000 annually in 1944, 1945 and 1946, and in any normal year about 3,000 to 6,000 are bound to perish. West Virginia has had a similar problem in past years, and Wisconsin reports its herds now increased to where another starvation winter is imminent if weather conditions become bad.
The main reason for overpopulation is that in many sections of the country the killing of does is either forbidden by law or by the mores of the hunting fraternity. Even in the 30 states that permit such kills, few does are shot. The feeling that a female deer is somehow not fair game for the hunter's gun and that the only true conservationist is the man who declines to shoot any deer, regardless of sex, was firmly implanted in the minds of sportsmen in particular and the public in general some 50 years ago when America's deer herds were on the verge of extinction. In their day these were useful ideas and they helped to save the remnants of the whitetail deer and set the breed on the road to recovery.
That road has now gone from recovery to glut. Range in some areas is so overbrowsed that by the end of winter only the larger deer, standing on their hind legs, can reach edible leaves, and they are soon reduced to grubbing in the ground for the roots of next year's growth. Many starve, and of the deer that do survive most do not reach their full growth. These scrawny, scraggly-antlered specimens seldom bear healthy young, and their fawns are the first to die the following winter.
While game biologists know what should be done and how they could do it—by obtaining flexible authority to set the length of seasons and drop the buck-only rule whenever overpopulation conditions warrant it—in nearly all areas their efforts are thwarted and restricted by public and legislative opposition.
Whereas sportsmen and protectionists haven't the slightest objection to anybody's slaughtering any number of female fish, ducks or rabbits, they all seem beset with guilt and apprehension when it comes to killing female deer. And it is not only the estimable and well-meaning club ladies who cry "foul play" over the matter but, paradoxically enough, a large segment of the hunters themselves and many outdoor editors.
Typical of the resistance met by game conservationists is the situation in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Conservation fought for 20 years to get approval of an either-sex season on deer and finally got it after the loss of 50,000 by starvation in the winter of 1951. Even then the special three-day season was for a three-year period only and this year, much to the disappointment of game biologists, Michigan is back to its old buck-only rule even though there weren't any deaths from starvation for the last three years.
"In 1952," claims I. H. Bartlett, chief of game management, "100,000 more deer than usual were killed without depleting the population, but criticism was just too strong. So much public opposition resulted, including a lot from individual hunters and sportsmen's clubs, that we had to have a campaign on TV and radio to offset it. We even had members of the department giving lectures, but we are back to the buck-only rule.
"We haven't yet been able to convince the majority of the people that to get better deer herds and enough food to feed them we have to kill off does as well as bucks."
One of the leading proponents of this shoot-anything theory is J. Burton Lauckhart, chief of game management for the Washington State Department of Game. His theory of unit management, along controlled open-season lines, has met with considerable success where it has been introduced and carried out. Former theories on populations assumed that they were all held in a state of delicate balance where losses just equaled reproduction, and that a little additional loss or harvest would send a species plummeting toward extinction.