You’ve heard the argument, to be certain it’s not a great one, that hunting helps keep the whitetail deer population in check. Be this as it may, the deer population was in check long before Native Americans reached North America and long before humans evolved a brain large enough to function as an Apex predator. If hunting stopped tomorrow both natural and unnatural forces such as non-human predation, disease, and automobiles, would - on a long enough timeline - bring the whitetail population into some state of balance. There’s the rub though, and it’s a biggie. A state of balance without humans has unintended consequences due primarily to large swings in population densities.
For instance, if you triple the population of prey the predator population may double given the increase in resources. That much is true. The challenge being, unlike the Department of Natural Resources increasing or decreasing harvest quotas from year to year based on previous year’s population estimates, natural predation population increases are delayed. In other words, they don’t occur in real-time. Again, the unintended consequences are prey population explosions followed by predator population explosions, followed by disease in prey (e.g. rapid decrease in prey populations), and yet the predators are still around and in need of food. These populations are analogous to oblong planetary orbits that rarely align in synchronicity. Another example of unintended consequences of dramatic swings in deer population densities (not withstanding your flower beds and car insurance premiums :)) is rapid increases in GREENHOUSE GASES. Yes, you read that right.
Here’s the explanation
Deer (Whitetail, Elk, Moose, etc.), like cattle, are ruminants. This means, among other things, they have multiple stomachs (four actually). Unlike Humans these animals are able to extract nutrients from a wider variety of plant-based foods by way of an internal fermentation process where food is ingested, and then regurgitated. In short, they graze and swallow a bunch of food quickly and then later on as they lie down in a place they find safe to rest in, they burp the partially digested food back up and chew their cud into smaller, more fermentable bits. Here comes the crazy part. Cows burps amount to 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas (pun intended) emissions (https://timeforchange.org/are-cows-cause-of-global-warming-meat-methane-CO2). How you may wonder, is this possible. Consider the demand.
A McDonald’s patty is 1/4lb of Beef. They feed 68 million people and sell 75 hamburgers every second https://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Articles/2012/04/30/13-Disturbing-Facts-About-McDonalds. Think about that for a moment. If the average cow, ready to slaughter is 1,200lbs and the average yield from that cow is 440lbs of meat, then you’re talking they go through 1,620,000lbs of meat every 24 hours. That’s 3,681.81 cows getting ground into quarter pound, Micky D’s patties every day. The sheer scale is almost impossible to comprehend. 25,772.72 Bovine per week, 773,181.78 per month, for a grand total of 9,278,181 (4 billion lbs. of meat) cattle per year to satisfy the demands of one (1) fast food chain.
Now, McDonalds only feeds +/-1% of the world’s population which means that 9 million burping, farting, winking cows per year represents only a fraction of the overall grandiosity of the situation. There are over a billion (1,000,000,000) cows in the world at any given moment. Let’s now consider and get back to the Whitetail Deer. When we take a look at just North America reality starts to come into focus a bit better.
According to PBS, due to market hunting, a century ago there were only a million (1,000,000) whitetail deer in North American. Today there are over 30 million (30,000,000) https://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/the-private-life-of-deer-infographic-learn-about-the-whitetailed-deer/8314/. It’s estimated that deer populations are capable of doubling every two years. https://www.actionbioscience.org/biodiversity/rooney.html. These two statistics taken together indicates that even with ‘increased predation’ by non-human predators, and ‘increased disease’ the deer population in North American alone (setting aside the rest of the world) could reach 480 million by year 2027 (within 8 years’ time) and 960 million (now almost to cow population numbers) by 2029 if left unchecked within 10 years.
What does this all mean? It means that If Men, Women, and Children in just North America - who enjoy the sport of hunting - suddenly stopped acting like the natural predators we are, then it’s quite possible that within 10 years the Deer population would be near that of domesticated cattle (nearly 1 billion animals) and Deer (who’s population doubles every 2 years if left unchecked) would account for a significant percentage of the world’s CO2 emissions. Now, we can’t have that happen can we?
Into the wild and HangryOutdoors,
Article written by Mike Hiller
Our article 'Whitetail Deer: An Enduring Commodity' may also interest you.
Cover illustration courtesy of Twitter/DNealeColorado (republished for educational purposes)