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The conservation of the whitetail deer

Joe List, a southern Ohio blacksmith was 72. So says his 1931 hunter's license. Its tattered edges mark time; the fold shows where he wore it on the back of his hunting coat so game wardens could check it easily.

The game proclamation Mr. List carried in his hunting coat is telling. Its soiled pages show he thumbed it a time or two, but a few lines of text speak volumes — Deer: Protected; Ruffed grouse: Protected. Wild turkey don't even appear in the proclamation. Seventy-two years later whitetail deer harvests are huge, the numbers Mr. List probably couldn't imagine.

By the time Joe List was born in 1859, whitetail deer numbers had already been in decline across most of its range. Deer were an item of trade for food and clothing between Indians and European settlers and over-harvest had an effect by the early 1800's.

A few years after List's birth, an event unfolded that affected deer hunting he would never experience. The Civil War had a profound impact on the woods of the North. Ohio, by example, was naturally about 95 percent wooded; those woods came down for farming and settlements, and to smelt pig iron for the war effort. By 1900, less than 16 percent of the woods remained. The whitetail deer were gone.

During List's next hunting season, 1932, the whitetail's conservation status took a turn for the better when the Ohio Division of Wildlife stocked 400 animals. By 1940, the herd numbered a paltry 4,000 animals. In 1943, List, may have had the first deer hunting opportunity of his life. Of 8,000 hunters, 168 killed deer that year.

To say that things have changed since List's time in an understatement. Today, millions of hunters harvest hundreds of thousands of deer each fall. Whitetail deer management across its range is a tremendous success story — a tribute to science and passionate conservationist-hunters.

But whitetail deer themselves can be partly credited for their comeback. Whitetails are resilient to an altered environment — to a point. Whitetail deer numbers started the upswing toward the numbers we enjoy today during the Great Depression. The economic shock hurt rural Americans; they abandoned their farmsteads in the South and Midwest and East, and moved to the cities.

While people went bust, that rural exodus proved a boon to whitetail deer. Formerly farmed land went fallow. Pioneering vegetation returned, cover increased, while subsistence hunting decreased. Natural reserves in remote marshes and forests provided seed stock for state wildlife agencies to reintroduce whitetails. And, from those natural reserves, the deer started the rebound by their own fecundity.

Whitetail deer have the ability to produce a lot of young, even at a young age. A healthy adult doe living in quality habitat may give birth to three, five-pound fawns in the spring of the year, usually May or June. By autumn, mere months later, those fawns are fertile and will give birth the following spring to usually just one fawn.

Scientific studies in Nebraska have shown that about 60 percent of fawns reproduce. That is quite high compared to mule deer, where only seven percent of fawns are fertile.

Whitetail deer fawns usually only bear one fawn; in subsequent years, that number climbs to three under good habitat conditions. And healthy habitats translate into healthy, mature does that may bear fawns until nine years old when fertility starts to decline; although does can remain fertile throughout life. The gestation period is 200 days; does labor for a few minutes to over an hour and their young come into this world front-feet first.

Fawns, though tiny and feeble, can walk in a matter of minutes. On wobbly legs they follow their mother away from the birthing site, the smell of which could attract predators.

The doe leads them to a hiding place where they remain a distance apart from their mother for a few days to avoid bringing attention to the young ones. The mother visits her young about eight times a day to nurse. Their mother's milk is rich and nutritious and allows for rapid growth necessary in animals that escape predators by flight. The spotted camouflage coat helps, too.

Fawns supplement their mother's milk with vegetation at a very early age. Deer of all ages browse on vegetation, quickly trimming buds and twigs and mast without much chewing. They retire to a safer place to chew their food. Deer are more vulnerable to predators when they feed, having to pay more attention to food than animals and hunters that would like to make them their food.

The deer's food goes into the first chamber of their stomach, and is later regurgitated in a ball — a cud about the size of an orange and properly chewed so it can be digested.

Renowned deer researcher, Robert Downing, a former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist once wrote,"Whitetails could find something nutritious to eat anywhere except a parking lot."

They do have a wide preference range for vegetation, eating crab apples, corn, soybeans, acorns, honeysuckle, sumac, and dogwood. Oddly, some scientists have found evidence of fish and snails in the whitetail's diet. Healthy whitetail deer eat about seven pounds of food each day. But most of what whitetail deer eat is not in the "forest primeval" where Bambi resided. That cartoon forest would not have much to offer a deer.

Whitetail deer live on the edge — the edges of forests, brushy areas where most of their favored fare can be found. Some of the best whitetail habitat is a mosaic of forests and small clearings. Forest fires and clear cuts may scar the land, but in time, those scars heal with pioneering scrub that whitetails prefer. The same effect occurred when rural Americans left the farm in the 1930s.

I didn't know Joe List, or how long he lived, but when I look up from my desk at his aged license and proclamation, I get a strong sense he would be pleased with the lot of America's number one game animal.