People passionate about nature

When did White-tailed Deer Arrive in Manitoba?

by Robert E. Wrigley

A friend recently asked me the question, “When did White-tailed Deer arrive in Manitoba? To ensure I provided my friend with the best answer available, I pulled out an old copy of Manitoba Nature Magazine, Volume 20(1): 3-17, for an article I had prepared in 1979 entitled: “History of the Mammal Fauna of Southern Manitoba.”

It was illustrated with wonderful drawings by the late Manitoba wildlife artist James A. Carson. Below is the section on the White-tailed Deer, which I researched by examining a number of old manuscripts.

Above: White-tailed Deer fawn photo which appeared on the cover of The Canadian Field-Naturalist, Vol. 88(1), 1974. The accompanying article was entitled; "Mammals of the Sandhills of Southwestern Manitoba" by Robert Wrigley. My Manitoba Museum colleagues and I were driving along the beach-ridge road at Delta when we spotted this beautiful fawn standing in the ditch. It cooperated by remaining motionless while I just rolled down the window and snapped this photo.

In pre- and early historic times, our province was host to four members of the deer family – Mule Deer, American Elk, Moose and Caribou.

Though the White-tailed Deer is presently common in southern Manitoba, reaching almost as far north as Flin Flon and Thompson, there is no record of it occurring here until the late 1800s.

Ernest Thompson Seton wrote in 1909:

“The earliest accounts are for 1881 about which time, according to many Manitobans, the ‘Down East Deer’ first made its appear on the Red River. Up to 1884 it was still unknown at Carberry, though common at Pembina [North Dakota].”

Stuart Criddle of Aweme discovered their presence  in the Carberry area in 1907.

In the 1909 annual report of the Manitoba Game Department, Chief Game Guardian Charles Barber stated:

“I have been informed by some of my assistants, who have been in conversation with some of the sportsmen of the Province, that they have seen this year quite a number of what is commonly known as the Ontario red deer in Manitoba, near the eastern boundary of the province.”

In the 1910 report, he continues:

“The virginia or Ontario red deer are reported to be becoming more plentiful annually in the eastern portion of the Province, also an occasional band of caribou is to be seen in the same district.”

The species spread rapidly northward, reaching The Pas by 1914. Ideal habitat and weather conditions of the 1940s permitted an explosion of the white-tailed deer population which in the early 1950s reached an estimated one-quarter million animals.

Clearing of forests, severe winter weather, and heavy hunting pressure appear to have caused a general decline in numbers (as low as 50,000 in 1973-74) since then, and it is unlikely that such a population peak will ever occur again. However, this species is still far more abundant that the mule deer ever was, and occupies an enormous area of the boreal forest where the latter was never or seldom found.

Above: White-tailed Deer are a common sight in Manitoba (photo by Katherine French)

The intriguing question remains, “Where did the Manitoba white-tails come from?” Again Alexander Henry supplies a clue. On October 25, 1800, while canoeing on Red Lake River east of East Grand Forks, Minnesota, he mentions:

“We now had an ugly country to pass, overgrown with small poplars, willows and long grass. Red deer [elk] were very numerous, and for the first time we saw numerous tracks and roads of the fallow deer or chevreuil (cariacus virginianus) [white-tailed deer], which we soon perceived jumping in every direction.”

Then, on March 31, 1806, he recorded three fallow deer at Pembina River Post (now Pembina, North Dakota), only thee miles south of the Manitoba border – “...the first of the kind ever seen in this quarter.”

In his 1806-07 fur returns from the lower Red River, he lists 32 fallow deer skins from Sandy Hill River and Pembina Posts.

In 1887 Vernon Bailey conducted a biological survey of North Dakota and reported the species in the Pembina Hills and Turtle Mountains (both of which extend into Manitoba), though no trace of them was found in the heavily settled Red River Valley at that time.

Above: Drawing of a male White-tailed Deer by James A. Carson (from Manitoba Nature Magazine, 1979)