Estimates for Historic U.S. Deer Populations: Whitetail, Blacktail and Mule Deer - Population

(Some links may no longer be active but the phrase can be typed into a search engine to locate the source)

In his book, Lives of Game Animals, 1953, Ernest Thomas Seton estimated the pre-European whitetail deer populations at 40 million. He estimated the blacktail population at 3 million and the mule deer population at 10 million. A review of his estimates in the 1978 book, The Deer of North American, by Leonard Lee Rue III, page 4, agrees that his estimates have been generally accepted, but the reviewer suggests that his estimates for whitetails may have been high, under estimating the range of the white tail but over estimating the average population density at 20 deer per square mile. He agrees with the consensus that the blacktail and mule deer populations estimates are reasonable. The book provides a total deer population estimate for around 1978 of about 19.5 million, with a bit over five million mule deer and a little less than 1.5 million blacktail.

Deer Can Be Too Many, Too Few, or Just Enough for Healthy Forests. Research Review. Spring, 2012, No. 16. US Forest Service Northern Research Station

... "Deer populations at the time of European settlement in areas of “prime habitat” (3 million square miles) ranged from 8 to 20 per square mile" ... [at the average of 14 per square mile and 3 million square miles of habitat: 14 X 3,00,000 = 42,00,000 or 42 million deer]

Whitetail Deer

In the 1984 book, White-Tailed Deer: Ecology and Management, McCabe and McCabe (p 60) give a widely cited estimate of the total whitetail population in 1500 at 24 to 34 million for North America. Their estimate is based on analysis of hunting by native Indian populations. Deer hunting is still commonly used as a basis for modern population estimates. They also write that Trefethen (1970) and Seton (1909) "estimate the whitetail count for all of North America at the turn of the century [1900] was about 500,000, which Trefethen thought to be the maximum estimate, suggesting the number may have been as low as 350,000." They give a 1980 estimate of 14 million deer.

McCabe, R. B., and T.R. McCabe, T.R. (1984) Of slings and arrows: an historical retrospection, pp 19 – 72. In Halls, L.K., (ed.), White-tailed deer: ecology and management. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA. Source of Figure.

In the figure, as summarized in the book, the whitetail deer population is divided into four periods: (A) represents the period when Indians were the principle of whitetails. (B) is an interim period following significant influence of Indians and before intense European contact. (C) is the "era of exploitation" (D) is the modern period of recovery (up to 1980).

In a follow-up 1997 book chapter, McCabe and McCabe write [referring to the 1984 estimate] "we ultimately were most confident in the 24 to 33 million range ... We had the fortune to have Gary C. White (Colorado State University) to verify our computations ... " (p. 15). "... we still seriously doubt that current whitetail population exceeds, equals, or approaches that of Columbus' time... by making such public statements without benefit of scientific evidence, a false and misleading message is perpetuated." (p. 18).

T.R. McCabe and R.E. McCabe (1997). The Science of Overabundance: Deer Ecology and Population Management. Edited by William J. McShea, H. Brian Underwood, and John H. Rappole.

McCabe and McCabe's 1984 estimate, graph above, is the most commonly cited estimate for historic deer populations.

The McCabe and McCabe analysis has been generally accepted as the consensus view: UF Research: Total Historic Deer Population November 28, 2000 Science Daily

... experts believe the population of [white-tail] deer in the United States is about equal to what it was before Europeans arrived, with somewhere between 24 million and 34 million nationwide. That's up from just 350,000 in 1900, when the population crashed largely because of unregulated hunting...

U.S. Deer Herds in Trouble September 17, 2014 Illinois, Mother Earth News

... Historians believe that nearly 30 million whitetails existed across about 80% of the U.S. before its discovery by European. The mule deer range was about half that size, and their numbers were estimated about one-third that of whitetails... the U.S. deer herd dwindled to 1/60th of its 15th-century population ... Unfortunately, individual state deer management, once based in science, has now grown to be political...

VerCauteren, Kurt C., "The Deer Boom: Discussions on Population Growth and Range Expansion of -Tailed Deer" (2003). USDA National Wildlife Research Center - Staff Publications. 281. Page 16.

VerCauteren notes that "since the inception of modern wildlife management and modern bowhunting, about 1930 to present, whitetails do appear to have expanded their range." p. 15 and "In the lifetime of the last two or three generations of hunters, whitetails have expanded their range and increased in density across the western United States and the prairie of southern Canada, in most cases moving up vegetated river drainages that provided them cover." p. 17

VerCauteren's 2003 estimate (graph above) follows the McCabe and McCabe (1984) model, smoothing out the uptick in the mid-1800s, and adding estimated population into the year 2000, showing the pre-European settlement deer numbers are about the same as in the year 2000.

Some recent estimates are higher: Recent University of Wyoming research puts the white-tailed deer population for North America prior to European settlement at 30 to 40 million in Kauffman, M.J., J.E. Meacham, H. Sawyer, A.Y. Steingisser, W.J. Rudd, and E. Ostlind, editors. 2018. Wild Migrations: Atlas of Woming's Ungulutes. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon. p. 28.

Regaining the History of Deer Populations and Densities in the Southeastern United States. (2020). Brice B.Hanberrry and Phillip M. Hanaberry. Wildlife Society Bulletin 44(3):512–518; 2020; DOI: 10.1002/wsb.1118

...The presettlement population size of white‐tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in North America may have ranged anywhere from 24 million to 62 million, or even greater, based on potentially conservative deer density values of 3 to 8 deer per km2 and a historical distribution of about 7.8 million km2, of which 5.2 million km2 was the range east of the Mississippi River (McCabe and McCabe 1984, Hanberry and Hanberry 2020). [White-tailed] 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...

Graph above from Kip P. Adams and R. Joseph Hamilton. (2011). Management History. In Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer (p. 355). CRC Press.

Adams and Hamilton (2011) add some speculation on the pre-1500s population of the McCabe and McCabe model, explaining: "“McCabe and McCabe’s (1984) estimate suggests deer populations during this phase were substantial. If we assume an extremely aggressive removal rate of 50% of the standing population, McCabe and McCabe’s estimated harvest suggests a minimum standing population of 9–13 million whitetails. However, removing a third of the herd is a more realistic sustainable harvest rate, and suggests a deer population of 9–19 million deer. [p. 356]” Note that the lower bound, 9 million, should change as the removal rate changes - not in their analysis

In the current U.S. environment with many fewer large predators but more vehicles, hunters take about 19 percent of the population each year. In California where there is an unregulated mountain lion population, some bears, lots of coyotes, and vehicles instead of wolves, hunters take about 7 percent of the population each year. Adams and Hamilton's assumption of removing one third of the herd each year would leave few deer for the many mountain lions, wolves, and bears at the time. Their estimate would be much higher if modern percentages were applied.

Their explanation for the big population increase around 1500: “after Columbus as a result of disease, and estimates the human population declined by 20% from Columbus’ arrival to the mid-1600s. Some species, including whitetails, may have benefited from reduced Native American populations. Native Americans routinely relied on the whitetail resource (Halls, 1978; McCabe and McCabe, 1997, 1984; McDonald and Miller, 2004), and reduced harvest pressure could have allowed deer populations to experience an “ecological release” and increase in size. Thus, deer populations may have increased by around 1500 …” Their graph shows a doubling of the deer population over a few decades as a result of a 20% decline in the Native Amercian population - the proportions don't match in this analysis and the decline of Native Americans was over a much longer period.

The Ecology of the First Thanksgiving -November 22, 2021 Scientific America

... After millennia of ostensibly sustainable hunting by Native peoples, evidence suggests that New England’s deer population crashed within a few years of European colonization... In the mid-17th century, the colonies of southern New England began restricting deer hunting to only certain months ... the Dutch colonist Adriaen Van Der Donck was told by Native interlocutors in the New York area that “before the arrival of the Christians, many more deer were killed than there are now ..,

Some of these estimates are for North America, but the graph on the U.S. population page is for the United States with the years from 2000 forward based on information gathered for this project that is summarized on each state page. Based on this data, the U.S. whitetail population around the year 2000 is about the same or slightly higher than VerCauteren's estimate for North America. Our estimate for Canada is around two million white-tailed deer and about 100,000 for Mexico, but these are rough estimates. As discussed by VerCauteren and summarized in information below, the weather in Canada was much colder back in 1450 and white-tailed deer were only found along the most southern eastern parts of Canada -- maybe a few hundred thousand deer. As a result the 30 million number used by VerCauteren for North America was used as the pre-European population for the U.S. in the graph on the U.S. population page. It seems the difference is not significant given the range of estimates described above by McCabe and McCabe.

Canada: The range of white-tailed deer has significantly expanded since the late 19th century. White-tailed deer are not native to Manitoba with the earliest report in 1881. Canadian Wildlife Federation: "White-tailed deer are relative newcomers to much of the range they now occupy in Canada. When Europeans first explored the northern half of the continent they found deer in only the most southerly parts of Canada and this situation had not changed much at Confederation." The modern expansion of deer into Canada is associated with the end of the Little Ice Age. Wikipedia: "The time period has been conventionally defined as extending from the 16th to the 19th centuries, but some experts prefer an alternative timespan from about 1300 to about 1850." See the Canada page for more detail. "Historically confined to the Eastern Seaboard, deer have been expanding their territory across the continent since European colonization." As this information from the state of Maine suggests, the pre-colonization number in Canada may have been very low: "… circumstantial information suggests that the state’s deer population likely did not exist in high abundance prior to the arrival of European colonists in the early 1600’s. With a combination of harsh winters, a higher predator population, and perhaps a lack of young vegetative growth for forage, white tailed deer may have been restricted to the southern coast until the European colonization… "

Mexico: The combined white-tail population of Arizona and New Mexico is about 100,000. This area is about the same as the range of the white-tailed deer in Mexico so probably a similar population.

USDA White-tailed Population Estimate 1975 to 2010

Source: Wildlife Population and Harvest Trends in the United States: A Technical Document Supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment. Curtis H. Flather, Michael S. Knowles, Martin F. Jones, and Carol Schilli

The graph below is based on a response of 29 states, but indicates a recent peak in the deer population around the year 2000, consistent with the data collected on this site although showing a more modest decline from 2000 into 2010.

In 1890, the U.S. Biological Survey estimated the population of white-tailed deer at 300,000

From The White-tailed Deer Conservation Story in Oklahoma, Youtube Video outdooroklahoma

Blacktail and Mule Deer

The pattern for the trend in the mule and blacktail deer on the Population graph estimate from about 1450 to 1850 is based on an inverse relation to the change in the human population.

Kauffman, M.J., J.E. Meacham, H. Sawyer, A.Y. Steingisser, W.J. Rudd, and E. Ostlind, editors. 2018. Wild Migrations: Atlas of Woming's Ungulutes. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon.

"An estimated 10 million mule deer occupied North America prior to European settlement. " p. 16

Historic, pre-European settlement, and present-day contribution of wild ruminants to enteric methane emissions in the United States, AN Hristov - Journal of animal science, 2012 -

Population estimate for pre-settlement mule deer, including blacktails: 13 million.

Cited this source for muledeer: Miller, K. V., L. I. Muller, and S. Demarais. 2003. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Pages 906–930 in Wild Mammals of North America. G. A. Feldhamer, B. C. Thompson, and J. A. Chapman, ed. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Mule Deer’s Plight and Peril: A True Story 2012 T. Messmer,

... Pre-settlement populations of mule deer have been estimated to exceed 10 million. Blacktails may have numbered over 3 million. Others suggest that the combined populations never exceeded 5 million…

Post-1900 Mule Deer Irruptions In The Intermountain West: Principle Cause and Influences George E. Gruell 1986 United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service

... In Utah the mule deer population was estimated to have increased from 8,500 in 1916 to a peak of 375,000 in the 1945-50 period. Idaho officials estimated that their deer population (including whitetailed deer) increased from 45,000 in 1923-24 to 315,000 in 1963 (Julander and Low 1975)...

Longhurst and others (1981) concluded that prescribed livestock grazing has more potential for improving deer habitat than any other land use practice. These researchers propose that greater efforts should be made to minimize the detrimental effects of grazing on deer habitat, and particularly to explore the possibility of using prescribed grazing to enhance forage quality ...


Kauffman, M.J., J.E. Meacham, H. Sawyer, A.Y. Steingisser, W.J. Rudd, and E. Ostlind, editors. 2018. Wild Migrations: Atlas of Woming's Ungulutes. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, Oregon. p. 44

Population Estimates: 10,000,000 elk pre-European colonization. A low population estimate of 100,000 in 1900. Current estimate of 1,000,000 (around 2018).

Historic, pre-European settlement, and present-day contribution of wild ruminants to enteric methane emissions in the United States, AN Hristov - Journal of animal science, 2012 -

Population estimate for elk: 10 million

Cited this source for mule deer: Miller, K. V., L. I. Muller, and S. Demarais. 2003. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Pages 906–930 in Wild Mammals of North America. G. A. Feldhamer, B. C. Thompson, and J. A. Chapman, ed. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.