Whitetail deer are severely overpopulated in the United States, having increased from 300,000 deer in 1930 to 30 million deer today. This is bad news: deer overpopulation harms humans by contributing to auto accidents, harms forests by causing local ecosystem collapse, harms livestock when deer spread diseases that can wipe out an entire herd, and harms the deer themselves when these problems lead to starvation and epidemics. We simply can’t sustain the number of deer that currently exist in the United States. It isn’t healthy, and it isn’t natural.
Before humans extirpated apex predators from most parts of the continental U.S., they naturally kept the populations of game animals in check. It was a healthy part of the natural balance of our ecosystem. But today, apex predators like wolves have only been restored to a small fraction of their suitable native range. One major objection conservationists face comes from trophy hunters, who say they should have a right to kill wolves for sport, and will often justify this with feigned concern for the well-being of game animals.
Hunters can’t have it both ways. It’s impossible to justify mass-exterminating predators to protect deer, while also acknowledging the fact that whitetail deer are unnaturally overpopulated.
Hunters do sometimes play an important role in conservation. Hunting can sometimes be a more ethical source of meat than mainstream farming techniques, and in areas where deer are overpopulated, hunters can help prevent the problems they cause. But more hunters need to recognize that predators are an important part of appropriate wildlife management. If a hunter cares about addressing deer overpopulation, he or she should also care about protecting wolves.