The white-tailed deer is New York’s most important big game animal.
It has been since long before Europeans arrived. Thousands of years before.
Deer were of basic importance to Native Americans from the earliest times as a major source of food, shelter, and clothing. They remained so for the early settlers, and continue to be so for modern hunters.
Everything else aside, no other animal — not in the state, and not in most of the nation — has the kind of pull on hunters that white-tailed deer do, both in terms of food value and hunting challenge and mystique.
Which is one reason why C.W. (Bill) Severinghaus and C.P. Brown, game research investigators and wildlife biologists for the then New York State Conservation Department, published their "History of the White-Tailed Deer in New York" in 1956.
The information contained was based on more than 25 years of research. Severinghaus is the name most often associated with the report, and with deer biology in general. He is regarded as the father of deer research in the United States. He also was a controversial figure, since some hunters disagreed with his conclusions and some of the policies he advocated and instituted.
In any case, Severinghaus learned a heck of a lot about deer and he and Brown shared that knowledge liberally through their writings and presentations. I read through their report every now and then, and always find it fascinating.
White-tails and their relatives — elk, moose, caribou — are believed to have migrated from Asia at least a million years ago and probably much earlier. Indians were using deer for food and other purposes thousands of years ago, and remains have been found at numerous sites, including a village in Schuyler County that dates to 3000 B.C.
The overall numbers of deer in pre-colonial times is difficult to determine, but Severinghaus and Brown thought they were not great. Most of New York was virgin forest, and deer don’t do well in those conditions, preferring the edges of woods and fields where their favorite foods grow. There were open areas, however, in the Finger Lakes and along the Erie and Ontario plains, and the Indians used them as hunting grounds. They also cleared other areas by burning to create deer-friendly habitat. They used a variety of methods of killing deer, including massive drives, with the animals sometimes being pushed ahead into lakes and rivers, where they were dispatched.
It is believed that the coming of settlers helped increase the white-tail population as forests were cleared, promoting the growth of berry bushes, shrubs and other foods that deer feasted on. The animals also benefited from the corn and other crops farmers planted. The elimination of predators — wolves, panthers, bears—– also helped build the numbers. However, it is likely the deer population fluctuated widely in colonial times, probably in response to winter weather. There were obviously times of plenty, judging by the records of old-time hunters. Elisha Risdon of St. Lawrence County, kept a diary of his hunts from 1804 to 1833, and totaled 579 deer killed during that period. Many others reported similar numbers. This was not for the most part sport hunting, however, and animals were taken year-round — even though a 1788 state law prohibited the taking of deer from January through July — and probably many animals were taken from winter yards.
Deer numbers began to drop dramatically in the middle of the 19th century as the great bulk of the land was cleared for farming and as a result of massive unregulated subsistence hunting. By 1890, white-tailed deer were considered rare to non-existent outside of the central Adirondacks.
The population in the mountains began to rebuild as the 20th century began in response to shortened seasons and reduced bag limits, but increases were often followed by tremendous winterkills due to over-browsing and deep snows. Populations in other parts of the state began to recover, thanks to gradual migration from bordering states and natural reproduction and expansion.
It seems odd to think of it now, since deer hunting is so entrenched in the region, but, except for 1928, deer hunting was not allowed in the most of the Southern Tier between 1907 and 1938, when Broome, Cortland, Livingston, Steuben and Wyoming counties were opened. Some counties outside that area didn’t have seasons until even later. Niagara County did not have an open season until 1946. Oneida County was opened to hunting in 1927, but no more than 200 deer were taken in any year until 1947. Last season, 4,116 were killed in the county.
Today, there are about 1 million whitetail deer roaming the state and there are about 500,000 deer hunters — an estimated 203,427 were taken last year — and you sometimes can find nice bucks eating the flowers in your front yard or clipping the pepper plants in your garden even in the villages and cities.
Which, as we all know, doesn’t make them any easier to hunt when the season starts.
Write to John Pitarresi at 60 Pearl Street, New Hartford, N.Y. 13413 or firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 315-724-5266.