Here are some curious facts. One: more white-tailed deer live in the United States today than at any other time in history. Two: fewer hunters are going after them than did even 20 years ago. And yet, three: deer hunting now rivals military combat in its technological sophistication. Outfitters’ shelves are crammed with advanced electronics, weaponry, chemicals, and camouflage, all designed to eliminate every last shred of chance from the pursuit. The average American hunter now spends nearly $2,500 a year on the sport, despite the fact that finding a deer to kill has literally never been easier.
Killing a deer 100 years ago would have been quite difficult. Across much of the whitetail’s natural range—more or less everything east of the Rockies—intensive small-scale farming had eliminated huge swaths of habitat. Deer were so scarce that some communities imported them to keep hunting a viable pursuit. But as America industrialized, millions of farms disappeared and were replaced by a patchwork of leafy suburbs and secondary-growth forests.
This new landscape was ideal whitetail habitat. Deer rebounded and, as anyone living in a leafy neighborhood knows, are now an epidemic. Fairfax County, Virginia, reports a population density of up to 100 deer per square mile. As many as 30 million of them roam the country at large. Across their range, deer trample gardens, host disease-carrying ticks, and further damage the already stressed ecosystems in which they swarm. Stripping forest understory of nearly everything green, whitetail herds destroy habitat vital to songbirds and other creatures. Earlier this year, The New York Times ran an op-ed titled “Why Bambi Must Go.” Hordes of deer, the author explained, are endangering warblers.