22 March 2007

White-tailed Deer in southwest Montana

I read an article in the Montana Standard newspaper last week. While interesting, Nick Gevock’s article about white-tailed deer “taking over” contains serious historical inaccuracies and omissions. [See http://www.mtstandard.com/articles/2007/03/22/outdoors_top/20070322_outdoors_top.txt]
White-tailed deer are not “recent migrants” to southwest and western Montana. Think of Deer Lodge, Montana, a town along the Clark Fork River just downstream of Butte. Deer Lodge got its name from, and was historically referred to by Native Americans as, “the lodge of the white-tailed deer.”

When Lewis and Clark led their infamous expedition through what is now southwest Montana, they saw many, many white-tailed deer—and relatively few mule deer. For example, consider Meriwether Lewis’ journal entry from 14 August 1805, made at the Three Forks of the Missouri River: “We have killed no mule deer since we lay here, they are all of the longtailed red deer [i.e. white-tailed deer] which appear quite as large as those of the United States.” The preponderance of white-tailed deer over mule deer continued as the expedition made its way up the Beaverhead River and over the Continental Divide to the Salmon River valley.

We must keep in mind that Lewis and Clark traveled primarily along rivers, and that white-tailed deer favor riparian habitat.

So why do old-timers tell us that white-tailed deer were scarce in southwest Montana until recently? It is because white-tailed deer were exterminated on the Montana frontier of the late nineteenth century. Ranchers’ cattle overgrazed the river bottoms, while miners and homesteaders shot everything in sight for food. For example, by 1871 Granville Stuart (located at what is now the Grant-Kohrs historic ranch near Deer Lodge) was outraged by the widespread slaughter of white-tailed deer and other native species, and he introduced legislation aimed at conserving wildlife. Despite Stuart’s efforts, the slaughter continued. By the 1890s, sportsmen’s groups petitioned the legislature to set hunting seasons and halt the sale of wild game. By 1900, there were virtually no deer or other game left in southwest Montana.

By the late1930s, thanks to the activism of groups such as the Montana Wildlife Federation and professional Fish & Game biologists, white-tailed deer and other game began to recover. Today, the alfalfa, wheat, and grass hay fields of our river bottoms provide abundant forage for white-tailed deer. Combined with the dearth of predators and the reluctance of some landowners to allow public hunting, this assures that the overpopulation of white-tails will continue—at least until something like Chronic Wasting Disease finds its way from game farms into our wild herds.

The article is an example of our tendency to see the world at the moment as if that is the way it has always been--irrespective of the huge changes that we have wrought even over very short time periods of a few human generations.

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