National Park Service

Northeast Temperate Network (NETN)

atmospheric deposition and stress

Life History

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) belongs to an order of ungulate (hoofed) mammals called the Artiodactyla (even-toed), which also includes the pigs, cows, antelopes, sheep, goats, camels and hippos. They are members of the family Cervidae, which also contains the moose and caribou. All are descended 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. The white-tail and its western congener, the mule deer, are restricted to the New World. The former ranges from Canada to northern South America.

Today, ths graceful animal isthe 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 the 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 largely for two reasons: (1) 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. (2) Predation continues to decline with recreational hunting losing popularity in rapidly growing developed areas. As of 1999, MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife) estimates the deer population to be approximately 85,000 head.

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.


Last Updated: December 30, 2016 Contact Webmaster