By Russell Thornberry
This big Key deer buck is right at home in the Florida Keys. Photo by USFWS, National Key Deer Refuge
Whitetail deer are the most versatile big game animals on the North American continent.
They thrive in diverse climates and habitats that range from the harsh, desolate Mexican deserts to timberlines of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and every imaginable type of habitat in between.
The diminutive Key deer, no larger than a German shepherd, resides in the Florida Keys, and is right at home alongside the alligators in the Everglades. Another of the smaller subspecies, the Coues (pronounced cows) deer lives in the harsh, arid mountains of Arizona, New Mexico and Old Mexico.
The Coues live where water is extremely scarce, while their cousins in the Florida Keys spend most of their lives wading and swimming in it. It's not that they choose whether they will live in swamps or deserts, it's just that they are so adaptable that they survive in almost any climate and habitat.
Also in Old Mexico and South Texas, larger whitetails thrive in another hostile environment where summer temperatures often hover at 100 or more degrees and every plant that grows is covered with stickers and thorns. This Brush Country is the land of the large western diamondback rattlesnake and North America's only native swine, the collared peccary, or javelina as it is otherwise known. Water is scarce and many of the whitetail inhabitants find their only source of water in the plants they eat.
Across the Southeastern U.S., from east Texas to northern Florida, whitetails inhabit pine forests, hardwood forests, cypress swamps, cotton, soybean, and com fields. Some of the Southeastern whitetails may spend a portion of their lives in all these habitats. It's not uncommon for Southeastern hunters to wade into swamps in waist deep water to find whitetails. Or they may choose to hunt hardwood ridges when the acorns are falling and the whitetails are feeding heavily in the oaks.
This Key deer doe is not much larger than a German Shepherd. Photo by USFWS, National Key Deer Refuge
In the Midwest, whitetail hunters find deer living in cornfields before the com is harvested. In the standing com the deer find refuge, food and water, so they have no reason to leave. Soybean fields are another favored haunt for Midwest whitetails, and the nutritious soybean diet produces huge-bodied bucks which can reach 300 pounds and more.
Little timbered strips, ditches, creek bottoms, wood lots and hardwood ridges adjacent to agriculture contain some monster bucks. Perhaps nowhere in North America do whitetails capitalize more on man's farming practices for sources of food than these Midwest deer.
In the western states and in western Canada, whitetails have adjusted well to both the vast prairies and the rugged mountains. Whitetails can be seen on the open prairies where the buffalo once roamed-the land that is home to the pronghorn antelope. For those who are used to seeing whitetails in timberlands and agricultural fields, they look very out of place in the bald open prairie where there are no trees at all. But nonetheless, prairie whitetails thrive in this environment.
Today elk and bighorn sheep hunters report seeing whitetails at timberline, 6,000 feet or higher in the Canadian Rockies. Nothing forced these deer into high mountain elevations; they simply went there of their own accord, and obviously liked it well enough to stay. In this extreme wilderness environment where temperatures may reach 50 below zero and snowfalls can be measured in feet, rather than inches, whitetails survive.
In the unbroken wilderness forests of Canada, home to bears, timber wolves, moose and caribou, there are now whitetails, also. They have been seen as far north as the Liard River in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Whitetails now inhabit the Columbia River basin all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Washington, Idaho and Oregon, once thought of as mule deer and blacktail deer only states, now have whitetails, too.
Whitetails span a continent from Washington to Maine, from British Columbia to New Brunswick, and from Panama to the Northwest Territories.
Whitetails also have been planted in the Southern Hemisphere, too, on the south Island of New Zealand where they inhabit a hostile, cold and windy island environment, as well as the alpine reaches of the southern New Zealand Alps. No other big game species is so versatile and adaptive as the whitetail deer. No wonder whitetails are called every man's big game animal!