4 Ways Deer Carry Wildlife Conservation on Their Backs

May 7, 2024 By: Ben Westfall

Deer are a keystone species, meaning they help shape their entire ecosystem. Without them, the landscapes they inhabit would be drastically different. As hunters, we know the importance of deer to conservation, but few people are aware of the tremendous benefits that deer management offers a wide variety of other animals, especially those that are not hunted – like the eastern phoebe hitching a ride in the photo above. Defining those benefits is part of an education and outreach project NDA supports through the Southeast Deer Partnership. Check out these four unique ways that prove just how valuable deer are to other wildlife species.

Hunter Dollars Fund Non-Hunting Wildlife Research

Hunters make up an incredibly important part of state wildlife agency funding. In fact, hunters are responsible for more than 80% of the operating budgets for most state wildlife agencies through license sales and Pittman-Robertson (PR) dollars. In turn, those agencies are the primary players in habitat and wildlife management throughout the country. In 2021 alone, deer hunters contributed $294 million to state agencies through PR funding, opening the door for more than just deer specific projects. 

Cerulean warblers are among the species that benefit from early successional plant communities – the type of habitat deer also prefer.

For example, Virginia deer hunters fund roughly 25% of the entire agency and nearly a third of the wildlife and fisheries management section of the agency specifically. Virginia’s non-game program benefits a suite of other wildlife species including cerulean, prairie, and golden-wing warblers by thinning and creating early successional plant communities, and better understanding the movement and flight patterns of eagles through cellular transmitters.

Public Land Acquisition and Enhancement 

Through various initiatives, projects and partnerships, state agencies actively conserve over 464 million acres in the United States. That’s a lot of land, and it’s not just deer and other game species utilizing this habitat. A myriad of non-hunted and even at-risk wildlife directly benefit from the work conducted by state agencies, much of which is funded by deer hunters. 

For example, the state of Alabama has utilized PR dollars to complete a variety of wildlife restoration projects within the state including the release of 91 bald eagles to restore a nesting population and the reintroduction of the threatened Eastern indigo snake into the southern part of the state. 

NDA’s Lindsay Thomas Jr. holds an eastern indigo snake, a threatened species that benefits from timber management and prescribed fire intended to enhance deer habitat.

More recently, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has partnered with multiple government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on the Gopher Tortoise Project with aims to restore and manage – primarily through prescribed fire – suitable longleaf pine ecosystems that not only benefit the threatened excavators, but the over 360 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates that utilize their impressive and extensive burrows.

Deer Hunters Enhance Private Lands

It’s no surprise that deer hunters conserve and extensively manage deer habitat on their own lands, and often that management comes in cooperation with state agencies through cost-share initiatives, Deer Management Assistance Programs, and other agreements. According to an extensive study conducted by Responsive Management on the economic, social, and conservation benefits of deer hunting in the southern United States, private landowners and agencies have improved habitat on nearly 57 million acres of private land. Landowners who have taken matters into their own hands conserve at least another 3.5 million. 

drip torch
NDA’s Kip Adams conducts prescribed fire on his family’s Pennsylvania land. Habitat management like this that is intended primarily for deer ends up benefiting a wide range of non-game species.

Many landowners and hunters have also formed wildlife cooperatives with their neighbors as a way to work together to achieve common deer management goals on a larger collective acreage. Members of these cooperatives are extremely dedicated and produce much higher quality wildlife habitat compared to adjacent landscapes. These cooperative landowners often report healthier turkey broods, thriving flocks of songbirds, more rabbits, and an array of native wildflowers as a result of their management. 

Conservation Groups Work for Deer (And Other Wildlife)

NGOs such as the National Deer Association conduct important, on-the-ground conservation work to conserve vast acreages across the United States. Through our Public Lands Initiative, NDA along with the U.S. Forest Service has improved over 740,000 acres of wildlife habitat since 2021 by addressing forest health issues. 

Even more, the Deer Steward program is the industry standard when it comes to learning land management practices that benefit deer and other wildlife such as prescribed fire, forest stand improvement, stimulating early successional vegetation, food plots and more. Over 4,600 graduates have directly impacted over 17 million acres by implementing land management practices learned at our courses.

The NDA maintains our reputation for reliable, science-based information and we greatly value the importance of teaching the non-hunting public about the keystone position of deer in the success of all wildlife conservation. These things all benefit conservation as a whole and as North America’s favorite game animal, deer are a critical component of wildlife management.

Get Involved! 

You can make a huge impact on conservation by joining and supporting organizations like the NDA to help us carry out our mission of ensuring the future of wild deer, wildlife habitat and hunting. The majority of NDA members manage and improve land for deer, and if you’ve read this far, you’ll know why that’s important. 

Your support helps us reach more deer hunters, land managers and even non-hunters with our educational resources, including website articles, podcast episodes, and videos. If you want to really get your hands dirty, the Working for Wildlife Tour is a great way for you to get directly involved and improve habitat for deer and other wildlife on public land by helping us plant trees, rehabilitate wildlife openings, remove invasive plant species and much more! 

Hunters are the original conservationists and were crucial in initiating the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which is widely regarded as the premier wildlife management construct in the world. Funding from license sales and hunting equipment is reapportioned directly back to the institutions that actively manage habitats and populations, providing nearly $1.2 billion in funding for conservation programs, practices, and initiatives nationwide in 2023 alone. Remember, deer help define their entire ecosystem, so what’s good for them is good for many.

About Ben Westfall:

Ben Westfall is NDA's Conservation Coordinator. Ben received both his bachelor of science and master of science degrees from Southeast Missouri State University with an emphasis on wildlife conservation.