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'Field Notes:' Deer In The Spotlight

White-tailed doe.
White-tailed doe.

As they grazed on the grasses in a small break in the forest, and I held my breath to keep from scaring them off, I realized the white-tailed deer's abundance didn’t take away from their significance.

I looped around the Seeley Lake trail one last time, flicking my eyes from ground to trees to sky and back. There was a chill in the air. A frigid wind dotted with flecks of snow blew hard and fast, prompting me to nestle deeper into my coat. I picked up my pace, ready to warm up in the old fire lookout I’d rented for the weekend. I was nearly there, less than a mile… Suddenly, through the wind, I heard a soft rustling up ahead. I froze, craning my neck to stare at the source nearly 100 yards away.

My walk in the woods wasn’t purely to escape. I went out in hopes of finding something magical, something I wouldn’t be able to find in my Midwest hometown. In Montana, I’ve seen prints of bears, stumbled upon lone moose and walked beneath soaring bald eagles. On this trail, I hoped to see another rare animal, or even a special plant. An impressive story I could take home. But, in the clearing, there was none other than common deer.

A herd of four beautiful, white-tailed deer, with deep chestnut coats and full, twisting antlers. Although I’ve seen the animals before, I couldn’t help but feel awed by their presence. As they grazed on the grasses in a small break in the forest, and I held my breath to keep from scaring them off, I realized their abundance didn’t take away from their significance.

Deer are special. And deer are valuable. Now, we take these animals for granted. White-tailed deer frolic in almost every part of Montana: small towns, remote wilderness and major cities. Almost 200,000 white-tailed deer roam the state. But this hasn’t always been the case. Just over 100 years ago, white-tailed deer were endangered.

Overhunting, primarily for skins, and weak regulations led to depleted numbers, at their lowest in 1890. Buckskin, it’s been said, was the denim of the 1800’s.

Through the 1930’s, spotting a white-tail was rare, but soon thereafter they started coming back, a feat attributed to a nationwide conservation effort and their adaptable nature.

Hunting laws tightened up, limiting each hunter to a certain number of deer per season, and the Montana government started to enforce game laws. Poison explosives were outlawed, as was the excessive use of hunting dogs. At the same time, forest reserves became more common and natural predators like wolves and mountain lions became increasingly rare due to human encroachment.

And, luckily for them, deer can eat almost any plant. The four chambers in deer’s stomachs enable them to consume corn, nuts, buds, twigs, grasses, and more, an adaptation that allows for high survival, and one reason they could easily rebound. And the reason I could see them on a chilly winter evening in the woods, and then again in mid-July chomping down on the grasses in my front yard.

As soon as hunting dropped, white-tailed deer were able to return in almost every habitat. And, boy, did they. Now, about 30 million deer frolic across the United States, found in every state but Alaska.

As I started to feel the winter chill deep in my bones, I must’ve made a noise. The four herbivores spooked, flicking their white tails and stopping their grazing. We stared at one another, all waiting for the other to make a move. A few seconds later, they began to run, beautifully and elegantly, though fast at the same time.

I watched the herd scamper away, leaping into the darkness, satisfied with my hunt for something special.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Fieldnotes," 10/25/15 & 10/30/15. Listen on air or online Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., and Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)

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