Death in the Whitetail Woods: What Really Kills Deer?

deerdeathAs a tough winter begrudgingly gives way to spring, the subject of whitetail mortality is on the minds of many hunters. Here’s what whitetail behavior expert Charles J. Alsheimer said about that subject a while ago in Deer & Deer Hunting.

Whitetails face many potentially fatal hazards. Here are a few.

Hunting: Though most states use estimated calculations to arrive at their harvest figures, the number of white-tailed deer killed by hunters each year is roughly 4 million to 6 million.

Automobiles: No one knows for sure how many whitetails are killed on America’s highways each year. In New York, it’s estimated that more than 40,000 deer are killed each year by autos. According to State Farm Insurance, there are about 1.1 million deer/car collisions in America each year. It’s safe to say the number of whitetails killed by autos is close to 1 million per year.

Predators: The number of whitetails killed by predators each year in America is anyone’s guess, but it’s significant. Coyote, wolf, bear and bobcat populations have increased in many areas. All of them prey on whitetails.

Nationally, fawn predation can vary a great deal, especially in drought years when ground vegetation isn’t available to protect fawns. Texas research has shown that in drought years, more than 60 percent of the fawn crop is killed by coyotes. Even in the North, studies have shown that more than 40 percent of fawn deaths during their first month of life can be attributed to coyotes, bears and bobcats.

Injuries: Injuries take a heavy toll on deer. Antler tines and tree branches can poke out eyes. Branches and sharp objects commonly damage antlers when they are in the velvet/growth stage. When a buck breaks or severs an antler beam or tine while in velvet, he can bleed to death. If he doesn’t bleed to death, he can die from maggot infestation.

Of all the injuries a whitetail can incur, a hoof or lower leg injury is one of the toughest to overcome, especially if the fur just above the hoof is lacerated. In farm country, where cattle and sheep fences are abundant, lacerated ankles and broken hooves can be common. When such a cut or a broken hoof occurs, it is tough for a deer to fight off infection, as the wound continually comes in contact with bacteria in soil and water.

In many cases, after infection sets in, the deer can die within a month of a blood infection. When deer attempt to jump a cattle or sheep fence, terrible things are possible. I’ve witnessed deer catch their legs in the wire strands and hang till they die. Sometimes, they break their backs when they fall after jumping a fence.

Injuries incurred during fights can be significant. Antler tines are the equivalent of ice picks. When dirty antler tines penetrate skin, they can drag hair and bacteria into a wound. When this happens, gangrene or other infection can occur. The result is a slow death. As with antlers, arrow and bullet wounds also cause infection and gangrene.

Insects: Few things in the whitetail’s world are as stressful as summer’s insect invasion. Deer cannot escape the swarms of tiny flies, mosquitoes, horse flies, bees, ticks and other critters that torment them.

Horsefly and bee stings can easily become infected, causing severe swelling, followed by the pus sac bursting.  When this happens, the infected site becomes an attractive site for flies to lay their eggs. If a deer cannot reach the wound to clean it with its tongue, the infection can become full-blown, even causing death.

As stressful as flies, mosquitoes and ticks can be for whitetails, their biggest insect threat is the hematophagous female biting midge (gnat). A bite from this midge is responsible for the virus that causes epizootic hemorrhagic disease, commonly known as EHD. EHD can occur in locations that experience hot, dry conditions during August and September. Mortality rates will vary from 30 to 50 percent where EHD has previously occurred to nearly 100 percent where EHD has never been reported.

Live the deer hunting lifestyle year-round!