Natural Highlights: White-tailed Deer

In case you missed Dr. Allan Houston's presentation on White-tailed Deer last week, a recorded video can be viewed on our media pages at this link.  Because of a technical problem, Dr. Houston was unable to respond to questions at the end, but he kindly provided his responses below.  Read on to learn more!

1. Why is the habitat in West Tennessee so good for White-tailed Deer?

       Productivity.  And, this begins with the soil.  A good portion of West Tennessee is located in the Mississippi Alluvial Coastal Plain and soil types are often influenced with silt depositions, creating very rich loams.  West Tennessee also has several major river systems as tributaries to the Mississippi. This creates a situation of patchwork farming, woodlots, and also eroded marginal lands, essentially a “deer factory.”  Even on poor ground, the vegetation deer eat contains essential nutrients; however, on rich lands there is much more of it, a greater biomass available.  And, farmlands serve as a huge system of “food plots” with soybeans and corn contributing to the smorgasbord.  West Tennessee has the essentials for deer nutrition.  Deer herds are “locally adapted” in terms of “genetic expression.”  The deer herd here has an assemblage of genes triggered into the “on position” to take advantage of the prime circumstances.  A good study was recently accomplished that illustrated deer taken from regions with poor ground and its associated nutritional limitations, and exposed to the better conditions that would be found on good ground, did not respond to the increased advantages for 2 or 3 generations.  So, the genetic codes for expression were always there, but the herd had adapted to where they lived.  The genetic switches took a generation or two to flip, likely as a guard against making big swings where an unusually good year or two, maybe above average rainfall, would trick the herd into adjusting only to crash when things turned to normal.  For example, having a big rack is a survival disadvantage where the pickings are poor.  A buck is in a form of osteoporosis as calcium if pulled out of his frame to build the rack.  If you live in the sandy, piney woods you best hope your genetic codes express for a smaller rack because they have already expressed for a smaller frame.

       So, West Tennessee has the food resources and habitat diversity to support a robust herd.   

2. What would happen to the deer population without hunting?  What do you predict will happen if hunting continues to decline?

        Typically, prior to CWD, it was projected that ,without hunting, farming would be virtually impossible within 3 years. Deer are prolific and the population would quickly expand to fill, then overwhelm, available resources. In fact, even with as much pressure as hunting exerts on the population, it is often not enough   control to allow profitable farming.  That is why so many depredation permits are needed, where additional deer removal can be zeroed in on certain farms during the offseason.  For example, it is difficult for a farmer to watch a 100-acre field planted to soybeans, sprout  … and, with the seed heads barely out of the ground, a nocturnal field-full of deer decimate it in a single string of nights.  Of course, this requires replanting and with a late start a lowered crop expectancy.

If a population grows to exceed carrying capacity, some kind of natural calamity always follows.  It can range from simple malnutrition to disease.  Always.

       Even with CWD in their midst, the deer herd will remain prolific.  Many individuals, i.e., those that contract the disease, will not live as long; but the initial recruitment will remain similar: there will be does, breeding and fawns. CWD has a “density dependent” element to its epidemiology.  Spread is tied most closely to animal-to-animal contact.  Any method of population control is a good thing and hunting serves that purpose; or more to the core, it can help to make transmission less efficient.

       Beyond the herd effects, if hunting continues to decline, I predict a widening disconnect between people and the natural realm.  Richard Louv’s bestselling book, “Last Child in the Woods,”  explored the idea of “nature deprivation,” a condition where entire generations have been removed from much of an out-of-doors experience.  For a youngster with an interest in hunting, there is nothing more basic in terms of being outdoors than learning about your game … tracks, sign, habitat, habits, wariness, likelihoods, the kill, the table fare … and the unique language tied to those elements … and also, the stern-faced and absolute adamant for safety and respect for the firearm.  If done correctly, if a youngster is brought into hunting and all the while learning the skills and appreciations that date into antiquity, they are about as tied to the land as they can be without making their living right out of the soil.   Also, other than fishing, hunting is one of the few experiences where a wide range of age groups … grand-pa, dad and child … can be on the field at the same time, play under the same rules and expect similar results.  There is something very rich that comes out of and follows a young person all their life when fine values are subliminal but obvious in that environment.  I can trace some of the more formative places in my life back to the “woods,” raised in an Appalachian experience where hunting was not something we did, but something that was done.           

3. Do you have any thoughts on deer within Shelby County and the Memphis metro area?  Anything people should know about them?

       Deer are deer and do deer things.  They adapt to local conditions and a city deer may be more adept at both avoiding and living beside humans.  Even with CWD in the population there will not be much noticed except for the occasional very gaunt, very unaware, perhaps drooling deer that catches attention and gets the neighborhood talking. As CWD progresses and before it is clinically evident, it is my belief they begin to make poorer decisions. For example, a western study found that road-killed deer were anywhere from 2-to-15 times more likely to have CWD than their peers.  Without hunting and without any interference with population linkages, CWD may be more likely to build in the metro deer herd.

       Regardless, it is my philosophical belief there is a basic urban responsibility to understand that a lack of management is a decision not to manage.  

4. What is the normal lifespan of a deer in the absence of hunting?

       It can vary a ton because deer are victims of all sorts of vagaries, ranging from accident to disease.  Penned deer can live to 12 and more; but in the wild a 9-to-10-year-old deer is beginning to push the outer bounds of the actuarial tables.  

5. What is the diet of White-talied Deer?

        Deer are browsers and eat forbs (weeds) and the more succulent tips of other, harder plants, such as green briar and trees.  It is amazing how much they consume in the course of a single day.  A garbage bag, loosely filled, is a nice visual.  Of course they eat kernel-corn laying on the ground, either in fields or around feeders; but that is also plant material.

6. What should people do if they find an “abandoned” fawn?

       This is a tricky question because fawns that look abandoned almost always are not.  Mom leaves the fawn while she goes off to forage.  Man finds fawn and goes “eeewww.”   Fawns can move once mom puts them somewhere, perhaps scared by a predator, irritated by bugs or just doing the kinds of stuff I did when I was a kid and stuff that got my tail popped.  Mom will find the fawn.  So, what we might see, and understand with our very limited ability to observe, smell, interpret and actually perceive, as an “abandoned fawn,” might simply be a fawn not exactly where it is supposed to be.  In most cases, taking a fawn from where you found it is an “Adam Alert” in the deer world, meaning a fawn that would otherwise be just fine, might actually be abandoned as a result of human interference.

       For a genuine “abandoned fawn” TWRA has specific rules for handling that circumstance and they must be contacted. 


Posted by Cathy Justis at 1:21 PM