Research Report #55 — White-tailed Deer

White-tailed Deer at Brook Farm © David Johnson

For many years scientists and naturalists have been studying and observing the flora and fauna of the Shawangunk Ridge. Foremost among them was Daniel Smiley, for whom Mohonk Preserve’s Daniel Smiley Research Center is named. Dan wrote numerous reports summarizing his observations on various topics. This regularly occurring series will feature some of these reports; some hold tremendous scientific value today and just await an interested researcher to follow up, others showcase a quirky sense of humor or highlight an oddity of nature.

Read the Report: White-tailed Deer. September 1977. Daniel Smiley.

A Note from Paul C. Huth, Director of Research Emeritus: It is not often in one’s lifetime that a person has the opportunity to witness major historic changes in land use and in several related prominent wildlife populations. Daniel Smiley at Mohonk (1907–1989), was well-positioned to observe and document land use and species changes, some starting in the late 19th century, with many peaking during his lifetime, and some that are still ongoing today.

Land-use changes in Dan’s time included the transition away from heavy ridge-wide wood product harvest, like that from once widespread forest cutting for charcoal production, extensive hoop pole harvest and manufacture, and from intensive and dominant agricultural land use to its major decline, starting in earnest “in the 1920’s and 1930’s,” followed by a steady return to wildness that had not been seen in over 300 years. A new national conservation “land ethic,” as defined by Aldo Leopold in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac, which Dan highlighted in the margin of his personal copy, linked two important principles for Dan-respect and responsibility for the land. As Dan later recounted, the generational Mohonk land ethic and “sense of responsibility” was carried forward with the organization of The Mohonk Trust in 1963-“The founders pledged to ‘reemphasize the humanitarian concern for life and to promote the integration of spiritual values with physical needs and mental activities both in man’s relationship to his physical environment and the interrelationship of humans’.”

At the same time, there was a tremendous rise nationally in land use for recreational activities. Locally, outdoor recreation was complemented by the availability of miles of carriage roads and paths, most built by the Smiley Family in the 19th and early 20th centuries, connected with the well known Mohonk and Minnewaska Mountain Houses. Rock climbing on the spectacular Shawangunk cliffs, started by Fritz Wiessner in the mid-1930’s, increased dramatically over the decades. Outdoor education and physical exercise in nature became the new land use, bringing increasing numbers of people out on the land. When established on 26 February 1963, The Mohonk Trust became the vehicle to secure and steward Mohonk lands for future generations and to provide for public access to the land for recreational, educational, and scientific opportunities.

During the 20th-century, major species changes were observed and documented by Dan. These were dominated by species like the White-tailed Deer, that increased from near zero to the highest population ever living on the ridge, the rapid decline and extirpation of the Peregrine Falcon which had nested annually on Shawangunk cliffs and it’s modern conservation success story and extraordinary return, the near-total loss of the once-dominant American Chestnut from Shawangunk forests, and the extirpation of the once common cliff and talus-dwelling Allegheny Woodrat.

As agricultural use declined in the 20th century, hundreds of acres of farm fields formerly cultivated for crops and used for hay harvest and pasture were let go back to nature. Tree seedlings grew quickly and thickly. In addition, the thousands of acres of forested land that had been cut over repeatedly was finally allowed to grow back to new forest from a soil seed bank and stump sprouts. Dan and I always liked to say on public field trips that we led, “as the dominant vegetation changes, so does the distribution and population of all species.” This is especially true with habitat dependent species like mammals, birds, and most insects.

Illustration of White-tailed Deer from “Zoology of New York, or the New-York Fauna” © James E. De Kay, 1842.

In his 1977 Research Report, “White-tailed Deer,” Dan notes that “Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) have had a long and complicated involvement with mankind. As both organisms have increased in numbers...they have put added stress on their environments, and the interactions between them have become more complicated.” Dan’s “Chronology of Population Trends,” began in the colonial era, where he found a 1649 account from the area of New York City describing there was then “a great number of deer.” But as C. W. Severinghaus and C. P. Brown noted in their 1956 paper-“History of the White-tailed Deer in New York,” “This apparently was true in local situations where the deer found suitable environment.” But since most of New York State was “rather completely covered with mature forests,” it is likely they were only found in “comparatively small areas of suitable habitat in the vast expanses of virgin timber.” From archaeological studies of prehistoric sites occupied by Native Americans before the colonial era, “white-tailed deer bones have been by far the most common organic refuse found in hearths and middens” (Tom Lake, Hudson River Almanac). By 1842, James E. De Kay, in Zoology of New York-or the New York Fauna, noted that Deer were “still found in almost every part of the State, where there is sufficient forest to afford them food and cover,” relating to the fact that agriculture was becoming the dominant applicable land use. De Kay goes on to say that “the city market is supplied [with deer] in great abundance during the winter,” this “From the mountainous regions of Orange, Rockland and Delaware (counties).” State harvest laws, enacted in the 18th century allowed for Deer to be taken from August to January, but “farmers were permitted to shoot Deer in their cornfields.”

By the 1870’s, regarding the Deer population, everything had changed. Earlier, in many areas of the State, with no harvest limitations, Deer were heavily hunted and even noted as pursued by dogs in drives and killed in large numbers. In the 1887, “Second Annual Report of the New York Forest Commission,” there is a stark report regarding the Catskill regional Deer population — “The last of the deer were killed off some twelve years ago (1875) when there was a great body of snow fell, on which a crust formed of sufficient strength to bear the weight of a man. Pot hunters came to this region...and killed large numbers of deer, from which the hides were taken and the carcasses left to rot in the woods...It is fair to suppose that there are not a dozen deer in this whole Catskill region….” It is estimated that by 1880, the most land ever tallied in the State, some 75%, was utilized for agriculture!

At the Mohonk Mountain House, possibly as early as the 1880s, imported Deer were stocked in a fenced paddock close enough to be available for guests to access. On July 31, 1896, a New Paltz Independent article reported “seven deer and two fawns were taken to Lake Mohonk….the fence around the grounds in which they will be confined is of gas pipe and 11 feet high. The fence is not quite completed.” “In 1904 a sixteen-acre paddock,” along Copes Lookout Road, “was stocked with deer (believed to be) from Virginia….” As Dan noted, “natural browse must have soon been exhausted in the paddock….and for the next forty years feeding was required.” The remaining Deer were eventually released to join the wild herd.

Deer herd at Brook Farm © David Johnson

In response to the great population decline, in 1886, the State shortened the Deer hunting season to two and a half months, from August 15th to November 1st, and placed a harvest “limit of three deer.” That was further reduced to two deer in 1892. In 1897, “Hounding, hunting from boats and using jack-lights were outlawed,” and in 1912, under a new “buck law,” deer harvested had to have antlers three or more inches long. The state also placed “restrictions in the areas of the state open to deer hunting.” By 1919, the annual harvest was “further reduced to one buck.” With these limitations, remaining local “residual” Deer, those propagated and ultimately released from nearby State-sponsored game “parks,” and the movement of individuals from nearby counties and from “the Green Mountains, the Berkshires, (and) the Poconos…,” were the basis for the species recovery in the county and the Shawangunks. This population was nutritionally supported by the “greatly increasing….amount of shrub browse available,” from abandoned overgrowing farm fields and regrowing forest land. But it was clearly noted later by Wildlife Biologist C. W. Severinghaus, that “It was the amount of available natural food on the winter range that would determine the ultimate size of the deer population in any and all areas.”

Doe Eating © David Johnson

On 22 February 1929, at Rhododendron Swamp, with 15 inches of snow on the ground, Dan and brother Keith, “saw 8 (Deer), apparently 2 fawns and one buck from size (no antlers). Went toward Trapps. Tracks in swamp. Had been lieing (sic) down. Signs of eating buds, and possibly yew.” On 2 March 1931, Dan reported, “As I came down from Oakwood (Drive) to the Duck Pond I scared out a flock of 19 deer without seeing them. Dater saw them from the pond and called me up on the hill back of the cabin to watch them. They were feeding on the field toward Glory Hills...It was a pretty sight.” Of note, on the 24th of November 1934, Keith Smiley reported to Dan “trails and droppings seen near Mud Pond (now part of the Minnewaska State Park Preserve)….Apparently entered pond for water lilies.” In January 1935, Dan “estimated there were 30 deer in the Mohonk Mountain House game refuge of 2,500 acres surrounding Mohonk Lake,” the refuge established in 1920, in an effort to eliminate poaching and shift to controlled hunting by Mohonk Mountain House permit. In the fall of 1936, 12 deer were noted to have been taken “on Mohonk land during the hunting season.” In 1939, Mohonk Mountain House issued 200 hunting “permits”, and “12 deer (were) reported killed.”

Deer in winter © Elizabeth Tully

By the decade of the 1940’s, Dan clearly noted in his report the increasing population of Deer on the mountain, the growing stress placed on the environment, and the more complicated and difficult relationship emerging with humans. On 15 January 1941, “In the Pine Grove at Home Farm on knoll a number had bedded down in the snow. Some close together. We estimated 15 or 20 had been there all together.” In April 1943-“19 seen above Kleinekill (Farm)”, and on 17 February 1945, “72 counted going over fence on Jim Pine place...”! There was heavy snow on the ground during that winter season. Observations the next year revealed that the population had likely been somewhat reduced by the adverse winter weather conditions. In February 1948, Dan and Alton Quick, Mohonk Park Superintendent, made a detailed “area-by-area estimate” that there were 300 to 340 Deer on Mohonk lands, but as Dan carefully noted, “The natural range of deer, of course, is not confined to the mountain or by human property lines.”

Large Deer herd at Brook Farm © Daniel Smiley, February 1951. Mohonk Preserve Daniel Smiley Research Center Archives.

It is hard to imagine the changes to come. On 16 February 1951, Bill Jahoda reported to Dan that he “counted over 100 (Deer) from the hill above (the) level rd. D.P. (Duck Pond) to K.K. (Kleinekill Farm) between there and Brook Farm and over 50 to north of him. Total over 150”! In April, Dan and Alton Quick repeated their Deer population survey of Mohonk lands, and “arrived at 440 to 515, a 40% increase”! In his frequent travels around on the land, Dan observed that there were apparently less Deer during 1952, and his good friend Al Roberts, Regional N.Y.S. Game Protector, “advanced the theory that the deer had moved into the valleys.” With deep late winter snow in 1958 for example, Dan observed on 13 April that there were “No recent tracks along trail thru (Rhododendron) swamp or (in the) vicinity of (the major Deer) trail (across the swamp). Snow knee deep in places.” On 5 March 1958, Keith “counted 54 in single file at Brook Farm in late afternoon,” and at the same time, Dan’s Mother Mabel Craven Smiley, estimated (an additional) 25 went in another direction.” Reports to Dan of significant damage to surrounding orchards, gardens, and farm crops “from Mohonk deer” seemed to bear out Al Roberts theory that the Deer had moved downslope. Between 1961–1965, Dan says “My notes on (the Deer) population were consistently ‘few on the mountain,’” but concentrations were observed in orchards nearby with much damage documented to low apple tree limbs with significant bud loss. Dan felt Deer were being pressured by deep winter snows on the mountain “and a growing season drought each year.”

Deer Browse © Carol Rietsma

As a result, in 1966, a creative and successful “experiment” was undertaken by a partnership of the Ulster County Farm Bureau, the NYS Conservation Department, local farmers, hunters, and property owners. It consisted of Mohonk making a fall planting of “ten acres of winter rye” near a local orchard, a December dumping of apple pomace from the farm to an area near the rye, and a February cutting of saplings in adjacent Mohonk woods to provide Deer “late winter browse.” Dan felt the effort “represented a cooperative approach to easing a problem of conflicting interests,” even if “only temporary.”

Forest Fawn © Jacob B. Reibel

From 1973 to 1977, when Dan assembled this report, he noted “The increase in deer population was rapid.” Both Dan and The Mohonk Trust staff observed some on-land results, documenting for the first time “browse lines” in the area of Home Farm and along the “Old Michigan Road” in the Trapps. At the noted winter Deer yard in Rhododendron Swamp, “heavy browsing on rhododendron” was observed in “the winters of 1975–76 and 1976–77,” and for the first time, “evidence of browsing on mountain laurel leaves.” In September 1977, a 625 square foot Deer Exclusion Plot was fenced in by The Mohonk Trust staff south of Short Woodland Drive at Mohonk where there were “signs of intensive use by deer,” to document and “demonstrate the effects of (Deer) browse.” As Mohonk Mountain House lands were sold to The Mohonk Trust and the Mohonk Preserve (starting in 1966), the former Mohonk Deer hunting permit system, with changes and restrictions, and a resulting annual Deer harvest, was continued on Preserve lands. To learn about the 2019 Mohonk Preserve Deer Management Program, visit the Mohonk Preserve Hunting Webpage.

Deer Exclusion Plot near Millbrook Mountain in the 2000s © Carol Rietsma

In a summary of his 35 years of observations of the White-tailed Deer population, Dan documented “five periods of increase and four of decline. The five increases reached peaks about 1947, 1951, 1957, 1970, and 1977.” “Four of the five population buildups….ended with late-winter snow and temperature conditions likely to cause starvation. In each case a rapid drop in numbers followed.” “It is my belief that the rate of such increases is slowed somewhat by hunting, as well as by highway and dog kills.” Dan felt the population “in the vicinity of Mohonk Lake is currently the highest it has been in my lifetime.”

Attached to his Research Report, Dan prepared a revealing chart “Deer Population and Weather in the Shawangunks” in which he presented his data from the late 1930’s to 1976, for his estimated “Deer Population at Mohonk,” with the number of “Mohonk (hunting) permits sold” and the “Tally of Mohonk kill,” with notation of “Snow: in late winter,” and a special correlation he was particularly interested in, the “Sunspot Maxima.”

Read the Report: White-tailed Deer. September 1977. Daniel Smiley.

With over 8,000 acres on the Shawangunk Ridge, Mohonk Preserve is the largest member and visitor-supported nature preserve in New York State.