Deer hunting is America’s pastime. Deer are among the most widespread wildlife species, and they are the most sought-after game animal. Nearly eight of every 10 hunters identifies as a deer hunter, as 79% of American hunters pursue deer. There are an estimated 11 million deer hunters in the United States compared to 3.1 million turkey hunters, 1.4 million waterfowl hunters, and less than 1 million elk hunters. I enjoy chasing elk, ducks and turkeys, but the above numbers show deer drive the hunting industry, as deer hunters spend more than $23 billion annually with a total multiplier effect of more than $50 billion.
Now that we realize the value of deer, it is important to recognize the regional differences in how we manage and hunt them. All of the following numbers came from state wildlife agencies as part of an annual national survey we conduct and can be found in our 2021 Deer Report. To separate east from west, I will use the Rocky Mountains as the dividing line, which gives us 11 states in the “West” and 37 states in the “East.”
All 11 western states have huntable mule or black-tailed deer populations while only six eastern states do. Conversely, all 37 eastern states have huntable whitetail or Coues deer populations while only eight western states do, as seen in the maps below. Lucky hunters in eight western and six eastern states have the opportunity to hunt both species.
Six western states – Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming – spend more time and money managing muleys than whitetails, while three eastern states – Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas – spend more time and money managing whitetails. The remaining states that have both deer spend a similar amount on each.
For states with mule deer, eight reported stable populations, four have increasing herds and only two have declining herds.
About half of the states with whitetails estimate their population numbers, and 11 reported increasing herds with eight experiencing population declines. Notably, five of the eight experiencing declines were neighboring Southeastern states. We should note that a deer population decline is not necessarily a bad thing. Some areas and states have too many deer for the available habitat.
Eastern hunters averaged 134 days of total deer hunting opportunity including archery, muzzleloader and firearms seasons. This ranged from 76 days in Vermont to 277 days in New Jersey. Western hunters only averaged 59 days, and it ranged from 30 days in Nevada to 90 days in Idaho. Eastern hunters also had much more liberal bag limits with an average of 2.3 bucks allowed per year. This ranged from numerous states allowing one buck to Connecticut hunters being allowed to shoot seven or more. All western states that responded to our survey reported a bag limit of one buck per year.
Eastern hunters harvested an average of 1.6 bucks per square mile (PSM) during the 2019-2020 deer season. This ranged from 0.3 bucks PSM in North and South Dakota to 3.7 bucks PSM in Michigan! This was eight times above the West average of 0.2 bucks PSM.
In the East, firearms hunters are responsible for 64% of the total deer harvest. In the West, firearms reign supreme and take a whopping 83% of the total deer harvest.
The gap was even wider for antlerless deer. The East ranged from 0.2 in Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota to 6.2 in Delaware, and averaged 1.6 antlerless deer PSM, while the West averaged less than 0.1 antlerless PSM because many states do not allow antlerless harvest. In total, East hunters averaged 3.2 deer PSM, more than 10 times greater than the West average of less than 0.3 deer PSM.
Even though harvest PSM was drastically different between the regions, hunter success rates were identical at 41%. They ranged from 15% in New Hampshire to 68% in South Carolina in the East, and 27% in Washington to 67% in Wyoming in the West. How could this be? It is due to big differences in hunter densities. The West only averages one hunter PSM, while the East averages six to 11 times more camo and orange clad figures.
Harvest by weapon type varies as well. In the East, firearms hunters are responsible for 64% of the total deer harvest, while archers get 25% and muzzleloader hunters take 10%. In the West, firearms reign supreme and take a whopping 83% of the total deer harvest, leaving only 12% for archers and 5% for muzzleloaders. In the West, archers and muzzleloaders account for only half the percentage of their companions in the East.
Price to Play
A final comparison involves license fees. Resident hunters in the East pay an average of $39.42 to hunt deer, and this varies from $10.50 in Arkansas to $136 in Connecticut. Nonresidents average $217.08 and range from $55 in Arkansas to $644 in Iowa. Chasing giant whitetails can be expensive, and it is interesting that Arkansas has the least expensive resident and nonresident licenses. Licenses are about double the price west of the Rockies. Western residents average $62.39 with a range of $34 in Montana to $105 in Nevada. Nonresidents pay through the teeth with an average of $437.73 that ranges from $179 in Utah to $637 in Montana. Unlike Arkansas, Montana has the cheapest resident but most expensive nonresident prices in the West.
Let’s summarize. Relative to the West, the East has:
- More hunters PSM
- More deer PSM
- More days of hunting opportunity
- Higher bag limits
- Cheaper licenses
- Archery hunting is more popular
On the flip side, the West has:
- Far more mule deer
- More mule deer hunting opportunity
- Less hunter crowding
- Equal hunter success rates to East
- Firearms hunting is more popular
I hope you found these comparisons interesting and helpful if you are considering hunting in a different state or region this fall. For additional state-by-state data be sure to see our complete lineup of Deer Reports.