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...

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...

The End of Caribou in the U.S.

The Quiet Extinction February 19, 2020 Montana, Montana Kaimin
... Caribou herds once abundantly thrived from the western coast of Alaska to the eastern fronts of Canada, but that is no longer the case... Caribou migrate longer distances than any other mammal on Earth ... The final herd of the Lower 48, the South Selkirk herd, officially became extinct ... [at the end of 2019] ...

Deer Population Change by State

The map below illustrates the 2013 harvest as a percent of peak harvest. The deepest declines, in red, appear in western states where the mule and blacktail deer reside.  State agencies routinely use deer harvest to estimate deer population trends.
Articles about the Decline of Deer Populations

The California Deer Decline and Possibilities for Restoration Cal-Nevada Wildlife Transactions, 1976 

Discover the Mule Deer, Issues Contributing to the Decline of Population, Wyoming



North American Mule Deer Conservation Plan - MULE DEER ... From Alaska, down the Pacific Coast of California to southern Baja Mexico and from the extreme ..... decline of mule deer populations over large portions ..

Estimated whitetail populations.  Published by Deer and Deer Hunting in the 1998 Almanac:  Texas 3,748,000, Michigan 1,900,000, Mississippi 1,750,000, Wisconsin 1,600,000, Alabama 1,500,000

Statistical Abstract, 1957:  454,000 deer killed by hunters in the United States

An estimated 1 million moose in North America in 2018.

When Europeans first came to settle America, it was estimated that as many as 10 million elk roamed the land [Kathy Funk, the Virginia volunteer state chair for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation]  ... 

White-tailed deer were predominant in pre-Columbian Panama feasts August 2019, DiCYT
...  In pre-Columbian times, the white-tailed deer was among the most abundant and frequently consumed mammals in Panama. It was also an icon, represented on thousands of clay vessels... Spanish conquistadors left some clues. They noted the abundance of deer in indigenous communities along the Pacific coast near Sitio Sierra ...

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Use tabs above to go to each state page for current news and a population analysis. Links below to deer data and an archive of deer information. Shop at Amazon to support deer research.


Reports of Deer Populations in Decline

... 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, KELOLAND.com
... 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.

... Beavers are so abundant in Voyageurs National Park that they may be helping moose populations by becoming food for wolves... a small and isolated moose population is surviving, even as others in Minnesota have been cut in half or wiped out...

Elk numbers decline on Zumwalt Prairie July 20, 2020 Oregon, East Oregonian
...  the 2020 population estimate for elk in the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Chesnimnus unit, which includes the prairie, is 3,500 elk... as recently as 2015, the number of elk on the unit approached 4,500 ... timber removal ... helped increase elk habitat in the unit...

... Roughly 100 mule deer are wearing tracking collars as part of the Southern Interior Mule Deer Project, an ongoing study to understand the drastic decline in mule deer populations ... 

Proposed changes to Oregon Deer Hunting Following Over 50 Percent Decline in Mule Deer - June 26, 2020 ODFW


Project gains new insights into mule deer declines June 14, 2020 Wyoming, Planet Jackson Hole
... to determine why mule deer populations have declined by 40% even in relatively pristine habitats. Researchers have honed in on key contributing factors—including drought, predation, and food competition ...

State Bridge Mule Deer Herd Management Plan June, 2020 Colorado, Colorado Parks and Wildlife
... D-8 is one of the larger deer herds in the state, but as with many herds in western Colorado, the cumulative impacts of decades of human population growth and the direct and indirect impacts of human activities have continued to diminish both the quality and quantity of habitat and its carrying capacity for deer. Land development, fragmentation by roads and trails, increased human activity on public lands, and suppression of large-scale wildfires have long-term and perhaps even irreversible
effects on the landscape..,

How Does Energy Development Affect Wildlife Migration Patterns? June 8, 2020 Wyoming, The Pew Charitable Trusts 
... in Wyoming, where mule deer populations have been in decline since the 1990s despite significant interventions to stabilize their numbers... Our study showed that migratory use by deer steeply declined when surface disturbance from energy development, such as access roads and well pads, exceeded 3% of the migration route...

How to preserve Russia's endangered species of northern deer May 12, 2020 TASS
... a few subspecies of northern deer - the European, Siberian and Okhotsk subspecies... "Over ten years, the population [of northern deer] declined by a half. The reasons are: first of all, the poaching hunting, and secondly, shrinking habitat - cut woods, active tourism - animals get disturbed in spring," [Russian Arctic National Park’s Deputy Director Ivan Mizin] ...

Draft Cripple Creek Deer Management Plan May, 2020 Colorado, CPW Report
..Like much of Colorado, the Cripple Creek (D-16) deer herd reached peak population levels in the 1960s and 1970s before declining through the 1980s and 1990s. It is estimated this population peaked in the 1960s at approximately 27,000; however, that estimate included GMUs 59 and 591, which are no longer considered part of this population. In the decades since, the population and associated harvest have declined by approximately 50%...

... Pronghorn and mule deer populations have been trending in the wrong direction, plummeting by as much as 40% in certain herds because of habitat loss and fragmentation ... two identified migration corridors—for the Sublette pronghorn and Wyoming Range mule deer herds—are up for potential designation by the state...

... The study is designed to identify mule deer movements in the northern Bighorns, evaluate seasonal range and habitat use and document fawn production and three-to-six month fawn survival rates.  Mule deer populations in much of Wyoming and the West have been declining for decades...

Last Lake Superior caribou surviving on their new island homes April 5, 2020 Minnesota, Duluth News Tribune
...  once numbered in the thousands across a wide swath of three states and Ontario, are surviving on just two islands ... After a dramatic airlift operation in 2018, an estimated 23 caribou seem to be doing well on Ontario’s Slate Islands ...

... Mule deer have seen a decline in total numbers throughout the West ... A majority of the funding will be used to support habitat improvement efforts around the state, like fighting cheatgrass spread to support native plant productivity and reducing the encroachment of conifers into aspen stands, which provide coverage and forage for mule deer...

An open letter to blacktail deer hunters March 1, 2020 Oregon, The Bulletin
... we are seeing a not-unexpected decline in deer numbers. Where we lose habitat to development, where predator numbers have exploded, where timber stands mature and choke out the shrubs that deer depend on, there will be fewer deer... Blacktail deer can thrive in places where the older trees are removed and the sunlight can penetrate to the forest floor. When politics disrupt logging practices, deer are the losers...

CPW looks for ways to help declining elk population February 21, 2020 Colorado, KUSA
... elk herds in southwest Colorado ... The number of elk in that area dropped from 19,500 in 2015 to 16,889 in 2019, according to CPW...  a troubling decline in calves surviving to maturity ...

... Despite the effort, Southwest Colorado’s elk and deer herds struggle. But Holst said it’s not fair to blame oil and gas development.  Habitat loss from residential and commercial development, recreation such as hiking and hunting, as well as drought all play a role in big game’s decline...

The Quiet Extinction February 19, 2020 Montana, Montana Kaimin
... Caribou herds once abundantly thrived from the western coast of Alaska to the eastern fronts of Canada, but that is no longer the case... Caribou migrate longer distances than any other mammal on Earth ... The final herd of the Lower 48, the South Selkirk herd, officially became extinct ... [at the end of 2019] ...

Upper Powder River Mule Deer study January 26, 2020 Wyoming, Casper-Riverton KCWY-DT
 ... In the first year of the study, 18 deer died; causes range from Chronic Wasting Disease, pneumonia, predation, one even falling from a cliff. Researchers also learned a few deer migrated over 30 miles. Nutritional condition of the deer has been less than expected, despite precipitation being above average over the last two years...

The fight for Minnesota's Moose January 23, 2020, UMN News
... its population in Minnesota has declined by more than 50 percent since 2006 ... collaborating... to ... decipher whether a parasite called brainworm is the number one threat to Minnesota’s largest wild animal...

California “Deer Factory” on the decline January 15, 2020 The Willits News
... the term “Deer Factory” is a by-gone term for the northern remote mountains of California, called the B-Zones. Fifty years ago it was normal on a walk through the woods to see 40-50 deer in a day ... Today, few bucks are seen and the greater numbers of deer we once saw regularly, have vanished largely in northwestern California...

Local group starts wildlife survey, concerned about predators January 14, 2020 Washington, Eastern Washington Statesmen Examiner
... ungulate herds appear to be declining at a rate that should be making state officials nervous. Instead, he claims that biologists with Fish and Wildlife seem to be underreporting the number of predators and over-reporting deer, elk and moose populations to make the situation look better than it is... The Northeast Washington Wildlife Group is asking local residents and hunters to fill out a survey ...

North Fork deer herds are threatened January 15, 2020 Wyoming, Cody Enterprise
... decline of the mule deer and white-tailed deer herds on the North Fork of the Shoshone River... attributed to, the harsh winters of 2016-17, and very healthy wolf, grizzly bear and mountain lion populations... The wolves more than any other predator follow the deer to the Central Plateau ...

... Scientists have come to consider these ancient routes as critical habitat warranting state protection. With mule deer population numbers hovering near historic lows, the state has been debating how to avoid losing this animal ... Wyoming is home to roughly 400,000 mule deer and about half the world’s pronghorn population...



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