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The white-tailed deer is the deer of West Virginia. It is primarily a browsing animal, usually feeding on trees and shrubs, but often seen grazing in fields during winter and spring. Although deer see only in black and white, they have good eyesight. They have an acute sense of smell and excellent hearing.

The white-tailed deer possesses four sets of external glands. Those located in the face are used for rubbing scent on trees and shrubs. The glands on the legs and between the toes secrete a strong, penetrating odor used to communicate between individuals and groups of deer, thus allowing deer to identify and follow one another by the scent left on the ground. Urination on the glands inside the hind legs increases the penetrating odors, especially during the breeding season.

In males new antler growth begins in April and continues until September. Once the antlers become fully grown in September the blood vessels feeding them recede and the antlers harden. The velvet covering is then rubbed off and the antlers are polished on trees. The number of branches or ‘‘points’’ on the antlers is greatly affected by nutrition, and there is usually an increasing number with age.

Fall marks the whitetail breeding or rutting season, triggered by shorter days and a peak in hormone levels. The rutting season begins in October and extends into January with the peak of breeding occurring during the latter part of November. The gestation period averages 201 days. Between May and July does give birth usually to two spotted fawns, occasionally triplets. Newborns weigh between four and eight pounds. Within a few hours after birth, fawns are able to walk or run with surprising agility. Although young deer eat grasses and other plants by the time they are a month old, they rely on their mother’s milk for about four months. Fawns grow rapidly and by the end of September are able to survive by themselves if necessary.

During the big timber cutting years in West Virginia, from 1880 to 1910, deer became scarce. This was also the period of the professional hunter, who (with no restrictions on the use of dogs, bag limits, or seasons) killed deer for market. By 1910, the whitetail in West Virginia had reached its lowest level, with an estimated population of only 1,000 animals. The recovery from this slaughter was slow. In 1910, the first hunting season was established, and only bucks were legal. Since that time, restocking, hunting restrictions, law enforcement, and careful management have enabled whitetails to spread into all counties of the state.

Deer population in the southern counties remains low in many areas, but in many other parts of the state deer are so numerous as to be of concern. Farm crop damages continued to increase in the 1990s, and hunting regulations were adjusted to reduce deer populations in many of the counties where damage was prevalent. The various deer hunting seasons are adjusted each year based on previous harvests.

Written by Thomas J. Allen