Though white-tailed deer are a common sight in many areas, a chance encounter can still inspire a moment of quiet reflection. They are the largest animal that even city residents can easily spot in the wild. They are also a reminder that once-rare species can recover, and that wildlife can survive within the human footprint on the landscape.
In some regions, however, the pattern of human development has caused deer to thrive at the expense of ecosystem health. Deer spend most of their time in the edges of forests, where they can reach shelter in the dark woods and emerge to browse in fields where sunlight allows more vegetation to grow. As forests have become increasingly fragmented by residential developments, community parks and farms, humans have created more forest edges while also removing threats from deer predators.
And as deer populations grow, they limit the forest’s ability to regenerate, eating young plants and trees before they mature and taking away habitat for other animals. They can also threaten the survival of young forest buffers planted to improve the health of waterways. To maintain deer populations at healthy levels, there are non-lethal options that states like Maryland may use, particularly in more urbanized areas. But many areas rely on deer harvest by hunters.
“The total number of birds has decreased where there’s too many deer, because deer will eat themselves out of house and home,” said C.J. Winand, a wildlife biologist specializing in deer with the Army Corps of Engineers in Baltimore.
Winand has been a bowhunter since the late 70s and guides several hunts each season for youth and military veterans participating in the Wounded Warriors Project. While other hunters might prize a large buck, Winand focuses on does in order to have more of an impact on the overall population.
“I just don’t shoot bucks—I leave those for the kids,” Winand said. “I’ve been there, done that.”
As an avid hunter, Winand personally donates his extra kills to friends and people who can use the meat. Similarly, the Maryland nonprofit Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry supplies food banks with many tons of venison each year.
A typical deer provides a significant amount of edible meat, “equivalent to about 200 quarter-pounders,” Winand said.
As sunset approached on the last day of January, Winand took his bow into the dark concealment of a hunting blind on the edge of a farm near his home in Baltimore County, where he had been taking females from a large herd of deer throughout the winter season. Hunting usually involves some waiting in silence, but no more than 20 minutes later, the herd appeared and Winand had his deer.
While cleaning the carcass, Winand found that the animal was very lean for the time of year, which suggested to him a lack of available food in the area. He said his unique personal effort has not made a dent in the larger problem.
“There are still more deer than the landscape can support,” Winand said.