The Decline of Deer Populations
The total U.S.deer population in 2017 was about 33.5 million, up from a recent low of about 32.2 million in 2014, down from the recent peak in 2000 of about 38.1 million deer.  The whitetail population fell from about 33.5 million in 2000 to 28.6 million in 2014, recovering to about 29.5 million in 2017.  The mule, blacktail, and other deer populations fell from about 4.6 million in 2000 to about 3.6 million in 2014, recovering to about 4 million in 2017.  Less than 4 million in 2020.  The recent peak for mule and blacktails was around 1960, illustrated in the graph below for the estimated U.S. deer population from 1450 to 2017.

Deer were nearly hunted to extinction by the early 1900s and were extirpated in many regions.  In 1890 the U.S. BIological Survey estimated the whitetail population at 300,000.  Conservation and restocking allowed whitetail populations to recover to about pre-colonization levels while blacktails and mule deer are below historic levels.  Wall Street Journal article reports that “The U.S. now has 30 million deer, a hundred times more than a century ago" failing to point out that deer faced a near extinction event 100 years ago and that the white-tail population has approximately returned to its historic population size.  [This and other examples in news and research].  The modern decline of mule and blacktail populations has been a major concern of wildlife agencies for decades.

The population estimate [methodology] is based on information from state agencies and other groups collected on this website, discussed on each state page that can be accessed by clicking on the drop down menus above.  The estimate also relies on harvest data for each state, available using the links at the top of the column at right.  A few numbers are unavailable and estimated.   Population estimates can have a wide range of reliability.

As illustrated in the figure above, the U.S. deer harvest fell by 14.7 percent from 2000 to 2017, from about 7.5 million to 6.4 million.  Mild winters in the north and recovery from the Texas drought account for much of the uptick since 2014. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies estimates the total U.S. mule and blacktail deer population at 4 million in 2015 and 4.2 million for 2016 - 2018.  Some numbers are goals, so population estimates from these states have been adjusted based on harvest data.  Detail.

Data for the trend in the whitetail deer population from 2000 and earlier is based on Kert VerCauteren in The Deer Boom, the Wildlife Management Institute's 1984 book "Whitetail Deer: Ecology and Management" and others, updated using current harvest data and state population estimates.  Recent University of Wyoming research puts the white-tailed deer population prior to European settlement at 30 to 40 million, so the historic estimate above may be low.  A summary of historic mule and blacktail population estimates.  Research published in 2014 and 2016 [PDF] using data from this site identified the recent change in the total population trend, turning down around the year 2000.
Causes for the Decline of the Deer Population
Habitat loss, change, and fragmentation are known to play a role in the decline.  Many fear that chronic wasting disease will drive the deer population to low levels over the coming decades.  Searching the internet, this site has tracked many of the proposed causes for the declining deer population reported in the column at right and in more detail on for each state on their page, including: 
-  California:  Increased forest density, drought, predation.
-  Maine and New England:   Changes that have occurred on commercially managed forest lands – based on a new Forest Study
-  Connecticut:  First decline since early 1900’s, increased predation  (Bobcat, Coywolf)
-  Western North Carolina:  Mature Forests, Cherokee Indians are restocking deer herds
-  West Virginia:  Aging forests in high mountains
-  Georgia:  Coyotes
-  Minnesota:  Severe Winters
-  Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota:  Overharvest, drought, EHD
-  Colorado:  Food supply, predation, energy development
-  North Dakota:  Drought, EHD (severe decline), habitat loss
-  Montana:  Loss of habitat, severe winter, predation
-  Oregon:  Reduction in logging related to timber sales

When Europeans first came to settle America, it was estimated that as many as 10 million elk roamed the land. The current population is around one million.  An estimated 1 million moose in North America in 2018.  The last U.S. caribou was moved to Canada in an effort to save the local herd in 2019.

Mule Deer and Blacktail Deer Populations Have
 Been in Decline for Many Years

The graph below shows the estimated 1911 to 2016 California deer population, made up of blacktails and mule deer, falling by about 75 percent from 1960. See the California page for an analysis of what appears to be the largest modern decline in the deer population. 

Read a peer reviewed research article demonstrating how public management decisions in California may have contributed to the long term decline of the deer population.

What Are We Conserving with Conservation?

... Our hunter-gatherer ancestors caused the widespread demise of the large herbivores around leading to a “downgrading” of ecosystems. As the grazers were no longer around to keep woody vegetation in check, trees got the upper hand over grasses and forests became the dominant vegetation ... Today, the realization that biodiversity policy has been protecting the ecological impacts of historic extinctions ...

Are Deer a Threat to Forests?

... Despite deer pressure, a major transition in eastern forests has resulted in increased tree densities. Methods To reconcile conflicting trends, we applied generalized linear mixed models to compare deer densities during 1982 and then 1996 to tree stocking after about 30 years and 15 years of potential reductions of small trees by deer, for the entire eastern US and 11 ecological provinces... Deer densities and tree stocking were not related significantly for the entire eastern US...  Furthermore, major tree species trends did not match tree browse preferences. Conclusions Rather than too few trees, too many trees is an ecological problem where historical open oak and pine forests had herbaceous understories, and currently, trees have captured growing space. We attribute other drivers than deer to explain this transition...

Regaining the History of Deer Populations and Densities in the Southeastern United States  BB Hanberry, P Hanberry - Wildlife Society Bulletin, 2020
... Deer population sizes declined to a minimum of <215,000 during the early 1900s. Population sizes and mean deer densities were 304,000 and 0.22 deer/km2 by 1940, 476,000 and 0.35 deer/km2 by 1950, 2.9 million to 4.1 million and 2.2 to 3.1 deer/km2 by approximately 1970, 6.2 million and 4.6 deer/km2 by 1982, and 10.8 million to 12 million and 8 to 9 deer/km2 by about 2003... the current population may be within the bounds of mid to high historical deer densities ... deer may be considered a natural disturbance helpful in controlling increased tree densities during the past century ...

Maybe deer aren't the forest-killers we thought they were October 6, 2020 Concord Monitor
... A report from the U.S. Forest Service (read it here) says: ... using current tree surveys and historical records they examined trends in tree species preferred by deer. Researchers found white-tail deer have not reduced tree densities at landscape scales across the Eastern U.S. In fact, they propose other management influences and fire exclusion have had bigger impacts...

Are Forests a Threat to Deer?

"Factors Related to Larger but Fewer Wildfires and Fewer Deer in California: A Google Sites Knowledge Base," [PDF] (2019) Issues in Information Systems. 20(1), pp. 22-31.
... Large wildfires have been a recent focus of public concern in California and other western states...  Data from 1987 show that total acres burned increased and were correlated to increased maximum temperature, and that that wildfires have become larger but less frequent. A decline in logging activity was strongly correlated to increased fire size and reduced deer populations. [Forest density in California has increased as a result of forest management practices and reduced logging, reducing deer habitat and dramatically reducing the deer population]. Drought was also correlated to increased fire size and fewer deer. ...

... Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) observed declines in black-tailed deer populations since the late 1980’s and attributes these declines to reduction in quality and availability of habitat, following the decline of timber harvest on federal lands... my results support the hypothesis that food and cover are more readily available and used by female black-tailed deer on industrial forestlands than federal forestlands in western Oregon...

... The Indigenous Peoples Burn Network focused on a single goal: setting forests on fire.... [ancestors] burned young trees and brush to create and maintain meadows that would attract deer and elk... As these flames ceased, a new kind of forest emerged: a nearly fire-free ecosystem that was unlike anything that had existed since the end of the Ice Age...

Chronic Wasting Disease is Expected to Dramatically Reduce Future Deer Populations

... As the environmental reservoir of toxic prions continues to grow, deer can be infected irrespective of whether there are many or few deer in the immediate area. That is why culling works only in the very early stages of a CWD outbreak ... Deer with Gene A live for two years after infection; Gene B two to three years: Gene C up to four years...

Widely used neonic insecticides may be a threat to mammals, too February 5, 2021 Food & Environment Reporting Network
... Chemically related to nicotine, neonics, as they’re known, were developed in the 1990s as a safer alternative to more toxic, longer-lasting farm chemicals... data suggesting that a significant number of wild deer in the upper Midwest have neonics in their spleens... “Neonics could have a catastrophic effect on white-tailed deer populations,” ...

The End of Caribou in the U.S.

The Quiet Extinction February 19, 2020 Montana, Montana Kaimin
... Caribou herds once abundantly thrived from 

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Reports of Deer Populations in Decline

Nevada’s disappearing deer  September 17, 2021 Elko Daily Free Press
... In Nevada, deer populations reached their peak around 1988, when there may have been more than 250,000 statewide. Now the statewide deer population may be around 90,000... mule deer populations ... throughout the state, as well as much of the West, have been declining,” Tom Donham, eastern region game division supervisor ..,

BLM bringing back deferred parcels for new lease sale September 7, 2021 Sublette Examiner, Wyoming
... Wyoming Game and Fish reported that all but one High Desert District herd unit have fallen below population objectives, with the Sublette mule deer herd negatively affected by harsh winters of 2016-2017 and 2010-2011.  The population goal is 32,000 for the Sublette herd, estimated in 2019 at 20,846 deer.. 

Declining Deer Population Likely Due to Natural Regulation 2021 Japan, Global S&T Development Trend Analysis Platform of Resources and Environment
...  the yakushika has not been hunted in the past 50 years; however, since 2014, their population has been decreasing. This phenomenon is especially curious, as Japanese researchers believed that sika deer populations in Japan would not decrease without human intervention...

... The current deer population in Utah is roughly 320,000 deer, which is the lowest total number of deer in the state in several years (although not as low as 2010 or the early 2000s)... Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has decreased the total hunting permit numbers for the last several years ... "Deer numbers have decreased roughly 60,000 from about four years ago due to climatic effects and drought," ..,

Zone A deer season opens Saturday August 10, 2021 California, Lake County Record-Bee
...  the county’s deer herd continues to slowly decline. The reason for this decline is a continuing loss of habitat and predation by coyotes and mountain lions ... The deer herd population reached its maximum number in the late 1950s when deer kills in the county often exceeded 2,000 bucks. Compare that to last year when fewer than 300 bucks were taken...

...From 1985 to 1991, a mule deer herd in California’s Sierra Nevada range plummeted from almost 6,000 animals to fewer than 1,000. Fawns died...The cause? Drought...  states across the Southwest in 2020 were either the driest (Utah and Nevada) or second driest they’ve been since records began in 1895,..

Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) avoid wellsite activity during winter, Alberta, Global Ecology and Conservation, 2021
... Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus) are threatened in Alberta in part due to the development of oil and gas resources... Caribou may benefit from management practices that include i) seasonal timing restrictions on drilling, ii) reductions of human activity at wellsites, whether in duration or intensity, iii) land-use planning to coordinate the placement of wellsites to minimize impacts to caribou and their habitat, and iv) prompt and effective restoration of wellsites to match original habitat conditions once production has stopped...

The Western Megadrought Is Killing Mule Deer August 5, 2021 Colorado, Outdoor Life... For many years, Colorado has housed about 600,000 mule deer. Those numbers have dropped by a third to around 400,000 and have now stabilized for the last 11 years around 420,000 ...

...  spruce budworm outbreaks happen every 30 years and have similar effects on disruptions such as logging and forest fires.  The results of the moths killing forests leads to a “flush of vegetation of benefit to moose.” McLoughlin says more moose means more wolves which in turn, will threaten caribou...

Whitetail Fawn Recruitment Is Declining at an Alarming Rate, and No One's Quite Sure Why July 21, 2021 Outdoor Life Magazine
... According to the National Deer Association’s 2021 Deer Report, Kentucky is the only state with a fawn recruitment over 1.0. (The fawn recruitment rate is the number of fawns per adult doe, so 1.0 translates to an average of 1 fawn recruited per doe.) ... Almost every reporting state in the Southeast and Northeast has seen a major decline since 2000....

Mule deer study raises red flags July 1, 2021 Wyoming News
...   Statewide, mule deer populations have been on the decline ... the Upper Powder River mule deer herd is in decline ... Overall poor body condition... primary causes of deaths including chronic wasting disease and mountain lion mortality ...

Study Urges Feds to Prioritize NV Wildlife Migration Corridors June 10, 2021 Nevada, Public News Service
... The mule deer population in Nevada has dropped 15% over the last decade - and now a new study is urging the feds to better protect migration corridors. Researchers from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership say new Global Positioning System technology has led to detailed migration maps..,

... Extensive research presented to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission said the state’s deer and turkey populations are in danger in some areas of the state.  It means fewer hunters ..,

Deer yards: landmark legislation May 18, 2021 Maine,
... deer biologist Gerry Lavigne, told the legislators recently that lack of deer wintering areas are the main cause in the decline of whitetail deer, particularly in Western, Eastern and Northern Maine. Predation on deer by coyotes and bears is the number two cause of dwindling deer numbers...

Senate Joint Resolution 3 (SJR3): Postscript and Sayonara May 17, 2021 Nevada, The Sierra Nevada Ally
... Mule deer numbers are well below historic high levels in Nevada (and around the West) due to habitat and climate conditions. No one is postulating that wild horses and burros are the cause. Mule deer are browsers (bitterbrush being a favorite shrub); wild horses and burros are grazers, consuming grasses, and other vegetation not used by deer...

Coalition calls on BC to invest in wildlife stewardship May 14, 2021 British Columbia, Wildsight
... We now have several red-listed species, record low salmon and moose populations, and declining mountain sheep and mule deer populations in parts of the province...

Migration maps help protect the corridors herds need May 12, 2021 Oregon, Futurity: Research News
...Ungulates are running into barriers from a variety of sources along their migration routes, almost all linked by a common thread: how humans are changing the natural landscape. Some of the hurdles include oil and gas leasing, highways, housing developments, and the impacts of climate change...

... A report published earlier this week said the province's approach of preserving caribou habitat has been failing and the caribou population will become extinct if changes aren't made soon...

... Game and Fish in recent years has been moving toward a goal of 75,000 annual deer licenses -- half the number issued in the heyday of deer populations in the mid-2000s... we are trying to manage for more deer on the landscape ...

... Overhunting and other factors wiped the herd out of existence in New Brunswick in the early part of the 20th century.  And, if things don't change soon, scientist Martin-Hugues St-Laurent believes the last herd will be gone before the middle of this century...

... Mule deer populations have been declining across the western United States for decades, with the decline being even more pronounced on the Navajo Nation, Manninen said. Scientists lay the blame on several factors, including habitat loss, overgrazing by livestock, disease and predation...

... mule deer population near Metolius decreased close to 40% and the population near Paulina dropped nearly 30% during the most recent three-year testing period... the region's continued growth in human population is a prime reason why...

Declining caribou population victim of ecological chain reaction March 18, 2021 British Columbia, Science Daily
... . "Caribou are declining across Canada and have been recently lost in the Lower 48 States," ... "We found that increased deciduous vegetation on the landscape, which moose like to eat, increased moose populations, which increased wolves, and in turn, means declining caribou," ...

... A second mule deer has died and at least three more were injured after being struck with blow gun darts within the Burns city limits over the last four months. ... “It is no secret that mule deer populations continue to be on a decline in Oregon,” ...

Deer survey planned amid declining populations February 17, 2021 East Oregonian
... “We’re kind of guessing we’ll see more decline from the previous years when we did our statistical sampling,” Platt said. “Deer in general throughout Oregon and throughout the West face many factors, such as habitat loss and degradation, predators and diseases.” ...

... wildlife officials have been feeding these animals with specific food including fresh vegetables, salt, and dry leaves of willows which they are keeping at different places of oak patches of Dachigam Park. Hangul is the only surviving breed of red deer and these were once present in thousands across the mountainous range of Kashmir...

... The research began because the area has experienced “poor fawn production and overall depressed deer numbers.”... Eight mortalities of collared deer have occurred with causes identified as predation, vehicle collisions and several unknown ...

DNR Reconsiders, Suggests Split of Door Deer-Management Units February 5, 2021 Wisconsin, Door County Pulse
... Wisconsin Conservation Congress Door County Chair David Tupa ... believes a rapid decline in the Northern Door deer population began with too many years of earn-a-buck hunts between 2004 and 2008 and continued after the local CDAC voted to give more free antlerless tags than anywhere else in the state ...

Wolf management badly needed in Michigan's Upper Peninsula January 15, 2021 Iron Mountain Daily News
... our 2020 deer season in the U.P. was a disaster and will probably go down as one of the worst in history. Our deer herd in the U.P. is in serious decline. Predators — wolves in particular — have decimated our deer herd...

Moose in a warming climate January 8, 2021 Idaho State Journal
... The cause of moose mortality is complex and likely due to a combination of stresses, but winter ticks are a common factor in areas with declining moose numbers...

... Across the country, moose populations have been declining since the 1990s ... performed necropsies on the animals that died and found that more than half had died of parasites or disease. The majority of those deaths were due to emaciation from winter ticks ... with warmer winters, we don't see tick die-off that we used to see ...

Elk in Tehachapi: a big cow herd at rest December 14, 2020 California, Tehachapi News
... The rarest are Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), which are native to the Tehachapi Mountains and were hunted by Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Paiute) Indian people. While they were reduced to a single pair of elk by 1875, they managed to survive and reproduce and there are now more than 4,000 Tule Elk in the state..,

... Across the western United States, many ungulate herds must migrate seasonally to access resources and avoid harsh winter conditions. Because these migration paths cover vast landscapes (in other words migration distances up to 150 miles [241 kilometers]), they are increasingly threatened by roads, fencing, subdivisions, and other development...
... This report and associated data release provide the means for the habitats required for migration to be taken into account by state and federal transportation officials, land and wildlife managers, planners, and other conservationists working to maintain big-game migration in the western states. [Download the full report at the link above]

Drivers should watch for deer on roads October 24, 2020 South Carolina, The Gazette
... South Carolina’s deer population peaked in the late 1990’s, as did the number of deer-vehicle collisions. Since the year 2000, however, the estimated statewide deer population has decreased approximately 30% with the decline believed to be a combination of changes in habitat, high antlerless deer harvests and coyote predation on deer fawns...

Lake Superior caribou may be gone from mainland October 16, 2020 Minnesota, Duluth News Tribune
... Lake Superior’s last surviving wild caribou appear to be thriving on their new island homes, free from the constant menace of wolves, for now ... Caribou were common all around Lake Superior — including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — before European settlement...

SD mule-deer numbers haven't really returned October 6, 2020 South Dakota,
... State big-game biologists are considering ways to rebuild South Dakota’s population of mule deer...The numbers began to turn about 10 years ago. Populations dropped amid four severe winters, a 2012 summer drought, increasing losses of habitat, and more predators including Black Hills mountain lions... there are about 60,000 mule deer across South Dakota right now..,

The huemul is the most endangered deer in the Americas. Its population has fallen by 99%, with roughly 1500 individuals remaining in the wild. Tompkins Conservation Chile has been working for 15 years to avoid the extinction of this iconic species in Patagonia. Today, Patagonia National Park, Chile, contains over 10% of the world´s remaining population. We are working to revert the extinction crisis. - September 16, 2020

...  This winter saw the ninth year of a diminished but fairly stable population that comes after the state's moose numbers crashed rapidly, from a modern high of 8,840 moose estimated in 2006 to just 2,700 in 2013. This year’s official estimate by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, using aerial surveys in mid-winter, was roughly 3,150 ..,

... In an effort to help relieve pressure on dwindling mule deer populations, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources plans to issue additional hunting permits for cougars throughout the state this fall... 

New Approach for Archer Deer August 20, 2020 ODFW News:
     ODFW will propose that all archery deer hunting be controlled in Eastern Oregon for 2021. This change from a statewide general season with unlimited tags to controlled hunting in Eastern Oregon with limits on tags is necessary due to continued mule deer population declines. Mule deer populations have declined by nearly 50 percent in the last 40 years and having no limits on archery harvest is no longer a responsible management approach. Archery deer hunting in Western Oregon will continue as a general season opportunity.

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