White-tailed deer garner more interest than any other species of wildlife in Virginia. As Virginia’s most popular game species, white-tailed deer provide welcome viewing opportunities but also generate serious damage and public safety concerns. Divergent citizen interests in deer present unique management challenges. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), under the direction of a Governor-appointed Board of Directors, is specifically charged by the General Assembly with the management of the state’s wildlife resources.
Deer herds at the time of European settlement (c. 1600) were plentiful and widespread in Virginia. Over-exploitation during the next 300 years nearly extirpated deer by 1900. Since the 1940s, Virginia’s deer herd has demonstrated exponential growth as a result of protective game laws, deer stocking, and habitat restoration. Through the 1980s, the deer management objectives were to restore and to increase populations throughout the state.
Today, deer management objectives have changed to control and stabilize populations over much of Virginia. The change in deer management direction from establishing and allowing deer herd expansion to controlling population growth has been based on cultural carrying capacity – the maximum 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. Current computer reconstruction models provide a prehunt population estimate of 850,000-1,000,000 deer in Virginia. Although frequently cited as overpopulated by the press, 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.
An optimum population of deer balances positive demands (e.g., recreational hunting and viewing) with negative demands (e.g., agricultural and ornamental plant damage, vehicle collisions, ecosystem impacts). Despite damage caused by deer, Virginia’s white-tailed deer represent a beneficial economic and social resource. In 2011, hunter expenditures in Virginia (by both resident and nonresident hunters) totaled nearly $877 million for all species. Nearly 90% of those who purchase a hunting license in Virginia hunt deer.
The first Virginia Deer Management Plan was completed in 1999 and has been revised twice, during 2005-2006 and 2014-2015. This plan describes the history of the deer management program, its current status (supply and demand), and the future direction or emphases it likely will take. The plan establishes a framework of what needs to be done, how it should be done, and when it should be done. This is a strategic plan (e.g, proposing regulated hunting as the preferred method to control deer populations) and not an operational plan (e.g., establishing specific number of antlerless days of hunting).
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 summarized below.
Virginia Deer Management Programs
- Information and education: Popular and professional publications, presentations, media contacts, telephone calls, emails, and other means of information are critical for public understanding of and coexistence with deer. Research addressing deer property damage, deer harvest models, and quality deer management have provided and will continue to provide important information to constituents and managers.
- Regulated hunting: Regulated deer hunting provides over 3.2 million hunter days of recreation in Virginia annually. Hunting is the most effective and efficient method available for managing deer populations. Hunters may take deer during urban archery, early and late archery, early and late muzzleloading, and general firearms seasons. Virginia’s total deer harvest has averaged over 230,000 in the past decade.
- Mandatory checking: The system for mandatory checking of big game, established in 1947, enables VDGIF to monitor annual deer harvests on a county basis. Each successful deer hunter is required by law to check harvested deer at a physical check station, by calling a toll free number, or online to receive an official check card or confirmation number.
- Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP): Through DMAP, biologists provide cooperating landowners with technical assistance and extra antlerless deer tags to meet their deer management objectives. Biological data collected by DMAP cooperators constitute the main source of herd condition information obtained in Virginia.
- Kill permits: As provided by Virginia State Statue §29.1-529, VDGIF Conservation Police Officers issue permits any time of year to landowners who suffer agricultural or residential property damage from deer or bears.
- Damage Control Assistance Program (DCAP): DCAP provides site-specific relief for deer damage to crops and other property. Instead of issuing kill permits, Conservation Police Officers issue extra antlerless deer permits to cooperating landowners for use during hunting seasons.
- Deer Population Reduction Program (DPOP): DPOP is a site-specific urban deer management tool that primarily allows public landowners experiencing deer damage to use recreational deer hunters to kill extra antlerless deer outside of traditional seasons.
Current and Future Deer Management Issues
- Chronic Wasting Disease
- Deer enclosures: In 2001, Virginia State Statue §29.1-525.1 halted erection of fences to confine white-tailed deer and prohibited hunting within fenced areas that impede free egress of deer. The 4 grandfathered enclosures in Virginia today were required to modify their fences. Concerns about ownership of wildlife, fair chase, disease transmission, and habitat degradation led to this moratorium.
- Supplemental feeding: Hunting over bait is illegal in Virginia, and feeding deer for any reason is illegal statewide from September 1 to the first Saturday in January (4VAC15-40-285). Further, it is illegal to feed deer year-round in Buchanan, Clarke, Dickenson, Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren, and Wise counties (including the cities and towns within) and in any city, town, or county during any deer or elk hunting season. Biologists across the United States and Canada have voiced concerns about the increased risk of disease transmission, negative health impacts, adverse behavioral changes, and habitat degradation associated with supplemental feeding of deer and other wildlife.
- Quality Deer Management (QDM): In general, VDGIF encourages management of quality deer populations though volunteer initiatives like DMAP rather than through mandatory antler restrictions. Over 85% of DMAP cooperators report that they practice QDM on their land. Several counties, several wildlife management areas, and a military installation with quota hunts have mandatory special antler restrictions to limit the harvest of bucks.
- Deer damage and population control: Deer-vehicle collisions and deer damage to agricultural and residential property continue to increase in Virginia, primarily due to burgeoning human and deer populations. These problems are most acute in urban and suburban areas where traditional hunting methods are less applicable due to safety concerns, declining hunter numbers, and limited hunter access to properties where hunting is allowed. Deer impacts to ecosystems (e.g., forest regeneration, ground-dwelling birds) are a concern in certain areas with poor habitat and high deer populations. VDGIF has implemented innovative programs such as urban archery hunting, kill permits, DCAP, and DPOP to address these problems, but the challenge can only be met with involvement of hunters, landowners, and other citizens.