Early reports from the late 1600s reveal that white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were numerous in the Florida Panhandle, however, by the mid 1700s a sizable trade in deer hides was well underway. Localized declines in deer numbers were probably evident by the early 1800s which may have prompted enactment of an 1828 territorial law prohibiting fire hunting west of the Suwannee River. The development of Florida's rail system in the late 1800s and early 1900s opened up much of Florida to commerce and settlement. Commercial and subsistence exploitation of white-tailed deer undoubtedly increased dramatically during this period.
Florida's white-tailed deer herd reached its nadir near the end of the 1930s, a fate shared by many other states. The concept of wildlife conservation was still in its infancy. Establishment of wildlife sanctuaries or refuges was a popular method of addressing the problem of rapidly vanishing wildlife. Game laws varied by county and were often difficult to enforce. In fact, enforcement of game laws outside the confines of established refuges was almost nonexistent. For example, The State Board of Conservation reported apprehending a total of five individuals in 1934 for killing a doe deer. The advent of widespread automobile use brought with it the construction of roads providing unparalleled access to wildlife habitats. Timbering also provided truck trails and fire lanes deep into the forest where subsistence hunting by logging camps was not uncommon. To make matters worse a campaign to eradicate the cattle-fever tick (Boophilus microplus) saw the destruction of at least 10,000 deer in southern Florida from 1939-1941.
The 1940s saw the beginnings of Florida's deer herd recovery. In 1941 the Florida Legislature passed the necessary assent legislation to participate in the Federal-Aid-to-Wildlife program created by the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) Act of 1937. Not only did participation in this program guarantee sizable sums of federal money each year for wildlife management, but it also ensured that hunting and fishing license fees could not be diverted from the Commission of Game and Fresh Water Fish. One of the first projects to be undertaken by the Commission with P-R funds was the restoration of white-tailed deer herds depleted by The Livestock Sanitary Board during its campaign to eradicate the cattle-fever tick. Also in 1941 the Florida Legislature proposed a constitutional amendment establishing a Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission with five members appointed to serve 5-year terms. In 1942 the amendment was voted in by a substantial margin thereby ending the proliferation of a perplexing and unenforceable array of county game laws.
The birth of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission also marked the birth of the Wildlife Management Area (WMA) System. The newly formed commission recognized immediately that wildlife populations could only be restored and maintained on wildlife habitat. In 1941 60,000 acres of land in Charlotte County were purchased for public hunting. Six years later 50,000 acres were purchased in north Palm Beach County. By the end of the 1940s the Commission's WMA system totaled just over 2.5 million acres.
By 1951 deer numbers were believed to be between 45,000 and 50,000. The screw-worm, responsible for limiting growth of deer herds in south Florida was eradicated in 1958. In 1959 the Commission's WMA system grew to encompass over 4 million acres of wildlife habitat.
During the decade of the 1960s Florida's deer herds were experiencing strong annual increases. The art and science of wildlife management was becoming more science and less art. Arrests for game violations increased 5-fold from the early 1940s. Deer numbers increased 10-fold and annual deer harvest was over 40,000 animals.
Sound wildlife and habitat management practices coupled with more effective law enforcement caused deer numbers to continue growing throughout the decades of the 1970s and '80s. The year 1985 marked the first time in Florida's recorded history that white-tailed deer harvest exceeded 100,000 animals. So successful was the return of the white-tailed deer that in many areas of the state female deer were legally harvested on an annual basis to prevent over-population and subsequent range damage. By the early 1990s requests from farmers to harvest deer depredating their crops had been steadily increasing. The primary issue in deer management was no longer simply increasing white-tailed deer numbers. The task of deer management had become multidimensional. Not only did populations need to be maintained at levels compatible with the welfare of the species and the demand for deer-related recreation, but competing land uses and ecosystem health also became considerations of equal weight.
Today, the Commission's WMA s system comprises nearly 6 million acres of wildlife habitat from the western Panhandle to the Florida Keys. This land provides habitat for deer, turkey, quail and other game species and also supports a diversity of other wildlife unparalleled in much of the rest of the North America.
The Road Ahead
White-tailed deer are recognized as an integral part of the majority of Florida's 13 diverse ecosystems. They are considered the most popular game species in Florida. Moreover, for every deer hunter there are three non-hunting users of the resource. White-tailed deer are one of a few species of wildlife whose over-abundance can seriously degrade its own habitat as well as the habitat of other wildlife species, and inflict serious damage on agricultural crops and ornamental plantings. Their over-abundance can also facilitate the outbreak of diseases and parasites that can threaten the health of both livestock and humans. Therefore, while it is recognized that white-tailed deer are but one element in the complex and diverse ecosystems they inhabit it must also be recognized that deer harvest management will likely continue to be a necessary and desirable practice. Meeting the future needs of all deer-related enthusiasts while conserving our native ecosystems is a challenge faced by all who are charged with the stewardship of our wildlife heritage.