Some take the great numbers of whitetail deer available for hunting for granted. Not so long ago the entire whitetail population was at risk.
By the time the sun is high enough to illuminate the patch of oak trees on the hill, a herd of whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) will have been feeding in the shadows for quite some time. A group of mature does, fawns and a few bucks browsing on the acorns strewn across the ground stop feeding only long enough to glance in the direction of the faintest noise or to engage in social activities. Once the air is warmed with the sun’s light, the group will disappear at its leisure into the cover of the grassy creek bottoms nearby.
But they will be back – maybe in the evening’s fading light, if not sooner. Today, this sight occurs every morning in thousands of places across the country. One hundred years ago, however, the return of the whitetail deer was far from certain.
By far the most popular big-game animal in North America, pursued by more sportsmen and women than any other in this country, the whitetail deer is endowed with many physical adaptations, which make it a challenging quarry. Whether valued by hunters for its table fare or for the beautiful antlers that adorn the heads of mature bucks, the deer survives day-to-day with a wealth of keen senses that few species can rival. But no matter how keen their vision nor how powerful their hearing and senses of smell were, the whitetail deer was no match for the arrival of European settlers and the westward expansion of the United States. The whitetail was at the forefront of each of these events, with its meat and hide serving as a means of both survival and trade for a rapidly expanding population.
Though exact numbers have never been compiled, it is estimated that whitetails in North America numbered between 30 and 50 million prior to the arrival of settlers. Ranging from the deserts of Mexico to the frozen plains of many Canadian provinces, from the wooded hills of Virginia to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the whitetail inhabited all manner of ecosystems. It is its adaptability that has aided its rebound in the last century. The establishing of hunting seasons, bag limits and stocking have all increased the population to levels never before seen. The money collected from the sale of sporting goods and the efforts of sportsmen and women nationwide have resulted in the greatest conservation success story the continent has ever seen.
Today, wildlife watchers and hunters alike can find whitetail in the swamps, suburban developments, isolated farms and deserts. More than just a prime example of what careful conservation practices can do to benefit both wildlife and humans, the lure of the whitetail deer draws millions of hunters into the woods every autumn, the same hunters who spend billions of dollars on licenses and equipment and help finance the future of the same game animal that they so revere.
On the fourth Saturday of every September, millions of Americans celebrate the success of the whitetail deer and many other species as part of National Hunting and Fishing Day activities that will be going on nationwide. National Hunting and Fishing Day began after a presidential proclamation in 1972 that sets aside the fourth Saturday of each September for the event. Since then, national, regional, state and local organizations have staged thousands of open house hunting- and fishing-related events everywhere from shooting ranges to suburban frog ponds, providing millions of Americans with a chance to experience, understand and appreciate traditional outdoor sports.
The careful whitetail deer conservation efforts of the past have given millions of people the thrill of seeing a big buck chase does in an open field and to spy fawns bedded in the thickest summer grass. Conservation groups, sportsmen and women and wildlife watchers alike are all stakeholders in the future of the whitetail deer, to ensure that the future of the whitetail deer is as bright as its present.
National Hunting and Fishing Day, formalized by Congress in 1971, was created by the National Shooting Sports Foundation to celebrate the conservation successes of hunters and anglers. National Hunting and Fishing Day is observed on the fourth Saturday of every September.
We should humbly observe these days and not take our successes for granted.