By Paul Hicks
Deer were numerous in our area as early as 1780.
We might reasonably assume that large numbers of deer roamed the vast tracts of virgin forests in the Northeast when the early colonists arrived. However, deer prefer the borders of clearings, lakes, and streams where food is abundant and cover or “edge” habitat is accessible.
A 1956 New York State study, published in the New York Fish and Game Journal, noted that the advance of settlers into the wilderness was accompanied by changes which profoundly affected the wildlife. Trees were felled for the construction of homes, and more were cut and burned in order to clear land for crops and pasturage.
The opening of the forest canopy resulted in excellent conditions for game. Encouraged by the sunlight, berry bushes, shrubs, and trees, reproduction flourished. As deer became plentiful, colonial laws were enacted to regulate deer hunting. Growth in the deer population was also due to the gradual extermination of wolves and other predators by the settlers. In 1690, the Town of Bedford voted for a bounty on the killing of wolves.
In his history of Rye (published in 1871) Charles W. Baird described the attire of early Rye settlers: “Leather garments were much worn at this period. Deer-skin and buck-skin, raccoon and fox-skins, wolf and bearskins were used for this purpose.” Among the place names mentioned by Baird are Wolf-pit Ridge, which he says “was the name of the highlands on the way to Port Chester,” as well as Beaver Swamp and Otter Creek.
Another nineteenth-century historian wrote that, “Deer were numerous here as recently as 1780, and some were shot during the early part of the present century.”
According to the 1956 New York deer study, the decrease in the number of deer became evident around 1850, followed by a marked decline through most of the nineteenth century to a low between 1880 and 1890. Amazingly, a New York Times article in 1988 reported that the deer population of New York State had risen to a record 800,000 from an estimated 450,000 only ten years earlier, despite an increasing number of New Yorkers with big game hunting licenses.
One major reason for the state-wide growth is the clearing of land for development, permitting young trees to grow with twigs and leaves for deer to feed on. In many areas, though, there is not enough food for the growing population. As a result, hungry deer are losing their fear of people and are flourishing in the suburbs.
Wildlife experts say that the key to managing the deer population is the number of does that are killed. At the peak of the breeding season, which coincides with the beginning of the hunting season, there are two does for every buck, and most of them are bred. Two hundred days later, and for every 100 does there are 130 fawns, because of multiple births.
In response to the recommendations of a task force, Westchester County is allowing bow hunting in six of its parks in northern Westchester: Yorktown’s Hilltop Hanover Farm; Somers’ Lasdon Park, Arboretum & Veterans Memorial; Somers’ Muscoot Farm; Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, which straddles Pound Ridge and Lewisboro; North Salem’s Mountain Lakes Park; and John E. Hand Park in Yorktown. Bow hunting was chosen as the most effective method in reducing the deer herd and for the safety of the public. The annual bow hunting season for deer will continue through December 31.
One of the panelists at a recent SUNY New Paltz conference reviewed a number of deer management options and concluded that hunting remains the most effective and efficient method for controlling deer populations. He stated that contraception or sterilization of wild deer is far too costly and argued that areas with significant human populations could not support the reintroduction of large native predators such as wolves.
Deer hunting has been changing in New York, with more hunters opting to voluntarily pass up shots at young, small-antlered bucks in favor of letting them grow to be older, larger bucks. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is encouraging hunters to make a difference for the future of the deer herd and increase their likelihood of seeing older, larger bucks by choosing to “Let Young Bucks Go and Watch Them Grow.”
The merits of that program were underscored recently when we saw a magnificent stag wading and drinking in the Pocantico River at Rockefeller State Park. It brought back memories of the great 1942 Disney film, “Bambi,” which continues to raise concerns for the man-made plight of the deer.