Teach PA History
The Fall and Rise of the White-tailed Deer Population: Conservation Success Story?


Download and copy the combined worksheets for this lesson.

Day One

1. Read to the students the first eight paragraphs from marker Source 1: "When Deer Wear Out Their Welcome," the article by Bob Frye, but leave out the date "1931" in the first paragraph. Ask the students: Is this story from a recent newspaper? What are the clues that it was from an earlier time? (one-room schoolhouse, walked several miles to school, last grade was 8th, etc.)

2. Once the time frame is established, ask: Why are the students in this story excited? Does it surprise you that students from such a long time ago were not seeing white-tailed deer?

3. Present the quote, marker Source 2: William Penn Quotation, which describes the bountiful wildlife found in Pennsylvania when settlers first arrived. What changed between that time and the early 1900s that created a situation in which white-tailed deer were so rare?

4. To help answer the question in Step 3, present a series of photographs/illustrations showing what may have changed through history beginning with the Native American (Source 3: Native American with Deerskin Image). Native Americans used many parts of the deer and hunted the deer extensively, but there was not a shortage. In fact, Indians made sure there were plenty of deer by burning small patches of land to create a food source for the wildlife. (Source 4: Fur Trader Image) In contrast, fur traders encouraged over-hunting and would trade blankets, beads, etc., to the Native American in exchange for deerskins. (The "buckskin" became a unit of currency at one point, thus the US dollar would later be called a "buck.") But, over hunting alone could not explain the why the deer population was disappearing.

5. Introduce the word "habitat" (a place where an animal lives that provides for its basic needs of food, shelter, water, and space) Ask: What is a deer's habitat? (Forests with brushy undergrowth) How does a forest provide a deer with its four basic needs? (provides understory for food browsing, shelter in the trees, rivers, lakes and streams for water, space to wander for food and mating) When Pennsylvania was first settled, it was covered in forest. Why did the forest start to disappear? (growth of human population, clearing more land for agriculture, cutting down forest for fuel, lumber and tanning industry cutting down forests) What effect would the forest disappearing have on deer? (population decline) (Source 5: Maps Showing the Disappearance of Forests in the United States, Source 6: Marginal Farm Indicating Loss of Habitat Image)

6. But, early in the 20th century, another change took place and the white-tailed deer population began to recover. Provide students with data on deer harvests, which reflect the rebound in white-tailed deer population, and have students create a graph using data for each decade from 1920-2000. (Worksheet 1: White-tailed Deer Harvest 1920-2000 by Decade)

Day Two

1. Students should complete graphs and then discuss the dramatic increase in deer populations today. They should speculate on why this increase has occurred over the last century. How many hunters were there in 1920 compared to now? How many deer were hunters allowed to kill then and now? In 1900? (Unlimited) How much land was forested in 1920 compared to now? Why? (Forestland has increased dramatically due to changes in lumbering practices, establishing state game lands) Besides humans, what other predators does the deer have? (no natural predators, though cars kill many deer) Why? (wolves, mountain lions, and other natural predators of the deer are now extinct in Pennsylvania). Where in recent decades do the numbers take a big jump? (between the 1970s and 1980s) What might account for that big jump? (hunting laws changed to allow more than one deer per hunter)

2. At this point introduce students to the term "conservation." (Protecting and managing natural resources, including wildlife and forests.) In Pennsylvania, one way the conservation movement was promoted was through the creation of markerState Game Lands in the 1920s, purchased with hunting license fees. Ask students to predict how hunters might have reacted to the new regulations and land use policies.

3. Use the Reading the Photograph exercise (PDF) to lead students through an analysis of Source 7: Antlerless Deer Harvest 1938 Image.

By the 1930's, it had been illegal – and ultimately regarded as unsportsmanlike  – to kill antlerless deer for decades. When it came time to manage the deer population differently, many hunters initially didn’t like the idea of shooting antlerless deer. They regarded it as unmanly and uncaring. Those willing to take antlerless deer were made to feel uncomfortable from the peer pressure. But the future of deer management hinged on taking antlerless deer and  educating hunters and politicians that without this practice, the deer population would cause excessive habitat damage to their range and agricultural and residential properties, and the health of the overall herd would suffer. 

After analyzing the image, ask: What are the pros and cons of shooting antlerless deer to balance the herd with its habitat and ensure herd health and minimize habitat destruction. What might this man have said in a town meeting about the new hunting regulations and licensing? (It is our right to hunt. Deer are pests who damage crops.) What arguments might other hunters have been used in favor of the new policies? (Licensing hunters generated fees that helped buy land to increase deer habitat. Limiting the number of deer each hunter could take increased the herd, so that more hunters would be able to get at least one deer.) What arguments would hunting opponents use? (Humans have no right to kill other creatures. Nature should be allowed to balance its own wildlife populations.)

4. The 1930s was also a time of federal conservation action. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs aimed at combating the Great Depression, included several programs that Pennsylvania incorporated into its own efforts. markerThe Civilian Conservation Corps had several Pennsylvania camps where young unemployed men could work building state parks, which conserved wildlife habit while providing places where all citizens could enjoy nature year-round in ways that did not involve hunting.

5. The Works Progress Administration hired artists and writers to work in many different jobs. Some designed posters to promote conservation. (Source 9: WPA Wildlife Poster "The National Parks Preserve All Life", Source 10: WPA Wildlife Poster "Don't Kill Our Wildlife")

6. Through both federal and state efforts thousands of acres of barren land have been returned to forestland over the past 100 years. A former governor of Pennsylvania, markerGifford Pinchot, was at the forefront of this national movement. He proposed that forests should be managed, and he recognized the interconnection between forests and other resources such as water and soil. Why was this new "managed" forestland was actually more suitable as deer habitat than original old growth stands? (It provided more food and shelter for deer because there is more "understory" in forest that is constantly being thinned by selectively harvesting older trees.)

7. Have students consider: Has the Conservation movement been a success? How is success measured? If it is measured by the large number of deer, yes, but what new problems have been created? Consider the impact from the "deers'" point of view as well as from the human point of view.

8. Have students brainstorm what new problems they have heard about in regard to the deer population being too large. They should consider damage to forests, crops, landscapes, automobiles, spread of Lyme disease, etc., as well as starvation and spread of disease for the deer herd.

9. Next have students break into small groups. The task for each group is to come up with a list of at least three things that could be done to control the deer population. (Fencing, planting undesirable plants in yard, more hunting licenses, reintroduce predators, etc.) Students should also list the pros and cons of each of the ideas. (Cost, animal rights activists, waste, etc.)

10. After the groups have completed their lists, have a group representative share his/her group's ideas with others in the class and discuss which would have the best chance for success. Close the lesson by reminding students that solving one problem often leads to others. The conservation movement continues to work but will have to evolve to meet the needs of the state and nation.

Day Three (Optional)

1. Have each student choose a solution they feel has the best chance for success in controlling the white-tailed deer population. Each should then design a WPA-style poster and write a radio Public Service Announcement that describes the solution and very briefly explains why it should be supported (remind them that both posters and radio spots must get their message across quickly and that memorable messages are clever and catchy).

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