An historical perspective on Florida's deer restocking program
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An historical perspective on Florida's deer restocking programe

FROM Ian Nance,
April 1, 2022

The belief that bucks in some Florida regions grew bigger than elsewhere due to restocking with deer from Wisconsin and Texas leans towards fantasy.

Chuck was the cowboy on the Manatee County property I hunted in the late-1990s and early-2000s, and he bagged big bucks from season to season. Spending the time he did onsite, Chuck developed the institutional knowledge required to consistently harvest these deer and drew the awe and curiosity from a young fella eager himself for trophy antlers.

Chuck believed that the bucks in that region of Florida grew bigger than elsewhere due to restocking programs with deer from Wisconsin and Texas a generation prior. And if you’ve hunted deer in this state for long enough, it’s likely you’ve heard similar tales. The restocking aspect of this belief is true; how much those efforts resulted in larger deer leans more towards the fantasy realm.

Let me explain.

As with whitetail populations across the United States, Florida’s deer numbers were cratering in the early 1900s. Railways and roads opened up the countryside to unregulated hunting for commercial purposes and subsistence for large work crews. Game laws and responsible wildlife husbandry were still in the larval stages. Habitat loss and competition with domestic animals further suppressed their numbers. And, state ranchers, eager to prevent the tick-borne Texas Cattle Fever from spreading, destroyed thousands of deer who were thought to host the arachnids.

According to FWC, the tide shifted in 1941 when the Florida legislature voted to participate in the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) Act of 1937. This monumental legislation procured federal funding for state wildlife management. With this new revenue stream, one of Florida’s first projects was to restock its ravaged whitetail population with animals from elsewhere in the nation.

Curious about these claims of enhanced deer genetics through imported animals and where they actually came from, I asked Lindsay Thomas Jr., the Chief Communications Officer for the National Deer Association, for input. He responded with pages from a book, now out of publication, titled, “A History of White-Tailed Deer Restocking in the United States: 1878 to 2004” authored by J. Scott McDonald and Karl V. Miller.

According to this book, over the course of nearly four decades 1,513 deer were imported into the state while 1,409 were moved from one part of Florida to another. As for the non-resident transplants, in 1941 the first deer from Bull’s Island, South Carolina, were turned loose to fend for themselves in the Florida wilds; from 1949 through 1950, Wisconsin deer were introduced; Texas provided to the cause from 1949 through 1969; and in the 1960s, Louisiana deer were released. Contributions were also made periodically from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and North Carolina.

Going back to my old friend Chuck, between 1949 and 1950, 313 bucks and 398 does from Texas and Wisconsin were released in 28 counties, including Manatee and nearby Polk, Hardee, and Sarasota counties, according to the book. Yes, there were indeed Badger State and Lone Star State whitetails roaming the Sunshine State scrubs and swamps once upon a time.

But, did this simple fact alone contribute to bigger bucks today?

Well, not really. Neither the math nor the genetics really works out, but that’s a complicated topic that we’ll save until next week. However, while it’s improbable that these restocking efforts contributed to larger antlers for our deer, it’s quite possible it had an effect on another critical aspect of Florida’s deer hunting that continues to astound and bewilder hunters and game managers alike: the timing of the rut. 

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