White-tailed deer live throughout Great Smoky Mountains; however, most are found in the Cades Cove area. When the Smokies first became a Park, rangers noted very low numbers in Cades Cove, perhaps due to over-hunting. However, the deer population there spiked in 1970s and 80s, then gradually declined during the 1990s and 2000s, mostly likely due to an increase in predators such as bears and coyotes. The population is now at a stable and healthy level. Visitors can spot deer all over the Park, but are almost sure to see their ears pricked above the tall grasses of Cades Cove or in the open areas of Cataloochee, Oconaluftee and Sugarlands. Wildlife managers monitor the population and health of the deer herd in Cades Cove. Maintenance employees, vegetation managers, and fire managers also coordinate their activities carefully with wildlife managers to ensure a safe habitat for deer.
One of the biggest threats to deer in the Park comes from visitors feeding them. Deer, like bears, become food conditioned (trained) and seek out humans to beg for treats. Not only does this make them more likely to stand in roads and risk being hit, the food itself is very unhealthy for deer. In fact, one food conditioned deer that wildlife managers collected as part of a herd health check had an extremely high parasite count in its abomasum (the deer’s fourth stomach compartment).
Another threat to deer comes during their fawning season—late May through mid-July—when young animals are immobile. While native predators such as bear and coyote search the grasslands and do eat some fawns, wildlife managers are most concerned about threats from people. Within the Park, managers work with maintenance staff and vegetation managers to restrict mowing, tractor use, and other disturbances in the tall grasses. But they can’t stop many visitors from rescuing “abandoned” fawns. When a female deer feeds, she often leaves her fawn alone in a grass bed to nap in the warm sun. Some visitors find a fawn alone and, without observing it very long, assume that this deer is an orphan, pick it up, and bring it to rangers. Rangers do not always know where the fawn came from in the wide expanse of grass, so they don’t know where to put it so its mother will find it again. Moving fawns—even ones that seem abandoned—can be fatal to the fawn, and disturbing wildlife is illegal.
What should you do instead of moving a fawn? If the fawn is simply alone, leave it alone. It’s very likely that the fawn’s mother is nearby, probably watching and waiting for you to go. If the fawn appears sick or injured, either remember the location or leave a member of your party at a good distance from the site, and contact a ranger. They have the equipment and veterinary support to help sick or injured animals.
Return to Meet the Managers: Wildlife.