White-tailed Deer Monitoring

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Several conifer saplings spout from a moss-covered "nurse" log. NPS photo.


White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) descend from small slender mammals with four flexible toes that emerged 40-50 million years ago. The toes gradually evolved into a cloven hoof with two functional toes.

Today, ths graceful animal is the most abundant large game animal in the Northeast U.S., and has become controversial because of its expanding population. Before Europeans arrived in North America it's estimated there were as many as 40 million white-tailed deer on the continent. Four thousand years ago, deer and black bear were the most common food remains found in Native American middens. Natural predators such as timber wolves and mountain lions also helped keep the deer population in check. Both of these large carnivores were soon extirpated by early colonists thorugh a mix of habitat degredation and out-right extermination programs. Settlers also hunted deer, and much deer habitat was eliminated as forests were converted to farm land. It is estimated that by the early 1900's, there were fewer than 1000 deer in the state of Massachusetts.

In recent decades, the northeastern deer population has increased steadily. This is becuase of two primary reasons. One is that the reforested but suburbanized landscape is ideal deer habitat, providing shelter and breeding areas in fragmented woodlands that are interspersed with open areas in which deer prefer to feed. An added bonus is the tasty ornamental shrubbery thoughtfully provided by suburbanites. The second reason is that predation continues to decline with recreational hunting losing popularity in rapidly growing developed areas. As of 1999, MassWildlife estimates the deer population to be approximately 85,000 head in the state.

Importance & Issues

white tailed deer. Ed Sharron photo.White-tailed deer populations have reached historic high levels across much of the eastern US. The associated deer herbivory has ecological relevance for vegetation regeneration and substantial management significance. Many parks in the southern part of the NETN have already experienced degradation in resource condition caused by extensive deer herbivory. We will integrate measures of the ecological effects deer have on forest ecosystems into the Forest Monitoring Protocol (i.e., tree regeneration and presence of indicator species). This will allow us to provide parks with robust information regarding resource condition rather than highly variable estimates of the deer populations themselves. This vital sign is integrated into the forest vegetation vital sign and will provide the necessary information for supporting and improving related management activities.

Monitoring Objective

Tree regeneration data provides an early warning indicator of overstory composition change, and are indicative of browsing pressure.


The SOP for Regeneration quantifies live saplings, established seedlings, and shrubs by species on three 2-m radius circular microplots. Seedlings are also quantified by size class. In early-successional plots, shrub cover is estimated rather than quantified. These data yield information on advance regeneration, future cover, and the effects of deer browsing.


Deer Monitoring Protocol Status



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Associated Protocol:

Long-term Forest Monitoring

Protocol Status

The Long-term Forest Monitoring Protocol incorporates deer browse as part of the SOP for Regeneration. This protocol was implemented in 2006 and 2007 at the following parks: Acadia NP, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller NHP, Minute Man NHP, Morristown NHP, Roosevelt-Vanderbilt NHS, Saint-Gaudens NHS, Saratoga NHP, and Weir Farm NHS.

The NETN Forest Protocol is designed to monitor forest ecosystem integrity in a standardized and cost-efficient manner across NETN parks. This protocol must allow statistical inference of status and trends within and across parks with sufficient statistical power. The use of permanent plots will increase power to detect trends over time by eliminating spatial variation. The protocol will also facilitate comparison of NETN data with other NPS networks and regional data such as tha from the USFS FIA program.

Northeast Temperate Network Staff Contacts for White-tailed Deer Monitoring

Name Title/Position Phone Number Email Address
Aaron Weed Program Manager 802-457-3368
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Kate Miller Plant Ecologist 207-288-8736 kathryn_miller@nps.gov
Camilla Seirup Biological Technician /Project Leader 207-288-8738 camilla_seirup@nps.gov
Fred Dieffenbach Environmental Monitoring Coordinator - Appalachian NST 802-457-3368 ext. 236 Fred_Dieffenbach@nps.gov
Adam Kozlowski Data Manager 802-457-3368 ex 240 adam_kozlowski@nps.gov
Ed Sharron Science Communication Specialist 802-457-3368
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Last updated: February 13, 2018