History of Deer in our Forests
The Early Days
Prior to European settlement, deer provided a staple for Native Americans who inhabited present-day Pennsylvania. Hunting by native peoples and predation by large carnivores kept deer populations in balance with what the habitat could support.
European settlement brought removal of large carnivores, land clearing for agriculture, and market and subsistence hunting that nearly extirpated deer from the state. The conservation efforts of the early 1900s following the complete removal of our forests gave birth to the acquisition of the state forest system. With minimal deer browsing pressure, the land regenerated vigorously, turning into rapidly growing trees and shrubs. At the same time, deer were being reintroduced across the state amid this sea of highly nutritious forage, and their populations expanded exponentially.
An Expanding Population
Early in the 20th century deer management was designed to protect does (female deer) and maximize population growth. By the 1930s, the deer herd had grown to the point of causing severe habitat damage across large portions of the northern range in Pennsylvania. Deer populations in many of these forests peaked in the 1970s and remained out of balance with forest habitat conditions for many years after.
Impacts of Too Many Deer
By the end of the 1900s and the early 2000s, as a result of over-abundant deer populations, the forest understory across vast areas of the state had been reduced to a diminished group of species not preferred by deer, such as beech, striped maple, hay-scented fern, mountain laurel, and huckleberry. Fewer deer are able to survive in this denuded habitat condition.
Tree species are also limited by deer. Recent federal data shows that only about a half of forest plots studied in northern Pennsylvania have enough new growth to replace the existing forest. Studies also show that overabundant deer populations reduce the populations of other wildlife species – both game and non-game—by limiting or eliminating their desired habitat.
Starting in 1998, the Pennsylvania Game Commission developed a new deer management plan and began outreach efforts to educate the public on the need to revise deer seasons and bag limits to restore a balance between deer and its habitat, and to restore age classes among deer (especially older bucks).
Another positive step was the creation of the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) in 2003 to give landowners a tool to better manage deer on their lands through site-specific antlerless deer permits. The program, run by the Game Commission, allows landowners to apply for additional antlerless deer hunting tags to help manage deer numbers on their property. As the largest public lands manager in the state, DCNR has worked closely with the Game Commission to tailor DMAP to the state forest and park systems.
Finding the Right Balance: Where We are Today
Recent efforts to balance deer populations have helped improve forest habitat conditions in many areas of Pennsylvania. DCNR foresters are seeing more robust regeneration and the emergence of many wildflowers and shrubs previously absent in the forest understory. While there have been positive signs of forest recovery, many areas still suffer from decades of deer impacts. These poor habitat conditions continue to threaten the forest ecosystem and the sustainability of the forest.
To ensure a productive, healthy forest for today and into the future, deer populations must be maintained in balance with habitat conditions. To learn more, visit our Forest Habitat Conditions page or download the brochure, “Healthy Forests-Healthy Deer: Finding the Right Balance.”