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Conservation

Quality Deer Management Misunderstood

by Bob Humphrey   |  August 31st, 2012 7

QDM_001The last afternoon of my Illinois hunt was unseasonably warm, which didn’t do much for my confidence. Things changed very quickly however, when I spied a nice buck ambling down the ridge in my direction.

The buck soon disappeared into a tangle of vines, allowing me an opportunity to stand and prepare for the shot. Several anxious moments followed before he reappeared, still heading my way. The buck paused to paw a scrape and then, much to my chagrin, he made a tight circle and bedded down 70 yards away, facing my direction.

I knew it could be a long wait, but lowering my bow and sitting back down would be no easy feat with the buck so close at hand. But before I could assume a more comfortable repose, there was a loud snort directly behind me.

My intense focus on the buck prevented me from noticing the doe that had slipped in behind me. I cursed my bad luck. When she blew again, ran a few yards, and locked up on point, I was certain it was over.

Rather than bolting, the buck rose from his bed with a loud grunt, charged the doe, and then stopped broadside at 30 yards. My shot was true, and I watched the buck pile up at the bottom of the ridge.

It was a storybook ending to a great hunt, but no sooner had the elation passed when a wave of trepidation struck me. The outfitter had imposed a minimum of 140 inches, or 4½ years old or older. The buck I’d just shot was a fine specimen — one that most any bowhunter would be proud of — but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t make either minimum. What should have been a proud moment was tainted with anxiety over the consequences of not meeting someone else’s subjective definition of a trophy buck.

I understood the logic behind the minimums. Preventing hunters from killing younger bucks meant more bucks would grow into older age classes, with greater potential to reach trophy status. But I’ve reached the point in my hunting career where the trophy status of an animal is defined more by the circumstances that went into harvesting it than the inches of antler on its head. Unless you voluntarily agree to accept someone else’s restrictions as a condition of access — which was the case on my Illinois hunt — what constitutes a “shooter” buck should be a personal judgment.

I’d venture to guess I’m not alone in that sentiment. Management programs, like mandatory antler restrictions (MARs), have not been universally embraced, and many opponents automatically associate them with quality deer management (QDM). Their logic may be sound, but their understanding of QDM is faulty.

QDM Explained
Bigger, better bucks are certainly a component of QDM, but they are a result more than the overriding goal. QDM, as defined by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), “…is a management philosophy/practice that unites landowners, hunters, and managers in a common goal of producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social, and legal constraints.” Accomplishing this typically involves protecting young bucks (yearlings and some 2½-year-olds), along with harvesting an adequate number of does to maintain a healthy population that is in balance with existing habitat conditions and landowner desires. According to the QDMA, “This level of deer management involves the production of quality deer (bucks, does, and fawns), quality habitat, quality hunting experiences and, most importantly, quality hunters.”

It’s important to understand that QDM guidelines are formulated according to objectives, goals and limitations developed by a landowner, and specific to their property. More importantly, it is an option for those wishing to enjoy both the tangible and intangible benefits of interacting with a well-managed deer herd that is in balance with its habitat. For them, pleasure is derived from stewardship of the land and the hunting experience, whether or not a shot is fired.

QDM_002

The first step in forming a QDM cooperative is introducing yourself and your ideas to a neighbor.

Misunderstanding QDM
The relatively recent rise in MARs provides a prime example of how QDM principles can be misunderstood. Prior to antler restrictions, yearlings made up roughly 85 percent of Pennsylvania’s annual buck kill, and many hunters had never harvested a branch-antlered buck. In 2002, Pennsylvania implemented antler-point restrictions. The move was quite controversial at the time, and still sticks in the craw of many Pennsylvania hunters who long for the good old days of seeing a dozen or more deer in a day’s hunt. They blame antler restrictions and, by association, QDM for their dissatisfaction.

“The real issue,” according to former Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) Deer Program Coordinator Gary Alt, “was balancing the herd with the habitat. We were trying to sustain more deer than the land could support, and it had become an ecosystem crisis.” Not only were the deer suffering, but other animals that require a dense understory were also vanishing, and many native plants were largely absent. Even groups like The Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society were imploring the PGC to reduce the deer herd.

The primary objective of the 2002 management program was to reduce overall deer numbers and achieve a more balanced sex ratio. In doing so, the PGC saw an opportunity to also better balance the age ratio of bucks. They were trying to get Pennsylvania’s estimated one million hunters to go along with the idea of reducing the deer herd. “We had to give them something in return,” said Alt, “and that something was nicer bucks.”

In essence, MARs were a minor part of the overall plan; a bonus offered to hunters to ameliorate the reduction in deer numbers. For hunters who prefer quality over quantity, the experiment has been a resounding success. To those who prefer quantity, it has been a dismal failure.

Not all such efforts have fared so well, or so badly, depending on your perspective. Mississippi’s initial attempts at MARs — a statewide minimum of four points — showed positive results, with an increasing number of older bucks in the harvest. Researchers soon discovered however, that average antler scores from older bucks were declining. They had “high-graded” the herd by removing bucks with the greatest genetic potential for big antlers at a younger age, leaving only bucks with poorer quality antlers to mature into older age classes. They subsequently changed to a system more suited to their specific circumstances.

This explains another part of the QDM philosophy. It’s not antler restrictions in general. It’s antler restrictions customized to a very specific set of circumstances. And it’s not necessarily mandatory either.

The Michigan DNR established a policy for implementing MARs, when hunters asked for them. According to Michigan DNR big game specialist Rod Clute, “When a clear majority (66 percent) of both hunters and landowners support implementation, the proposed regulations will be submitted for approval by the Natural Resources Commission.” If approved, the proposed regulations take effect the following season, and run for a five-year period. If the majority no longer supports the restrictions after that time, they are abandoned.

Forming a Cooperative
It is possible to establish a productive management program on only a few hundred acres, but your efforts will be less effective. It can also be frustrating if your neighbors aren’t of a like mind, as they’ll be benefitting from the fruits of your labor.

Forming QDM cooperatives is a great way to increase the value of management efforts, particularly when working with smaller parcels. Both the effort and the rewards are shared, and participants soon realize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The first step in forming a co-op involves getting to know your neighbors. A good kicking-off point is to hold a meeting and invite the neighbors. This gives you a chance to introduce yourself, your ideas, and your biologist.

You and your management program will gain a lot more credibility (and effectiveness) if you somehow involve a professional wildlife biologist. Some state wildlife agencies have staff biologists available to consult on deer management programs. If yours doesn’t, you’d be well advised to hire a private consultant.

Biologists can help you and your neighbors set goals and implement steps to meet those goals, and assess whether your expectations are realistic because they’re more familiar with what the area is capable of producing given a specific management scheme. They can also act as a mediator. Neighboring landowners may have slightly different goals or expectations. If they want to cooperate, some (including you) may have to compromise for the greater good, and a biologist can provide a more objective analysis of the big picture.

Annual assessment requires co-op members to collect certain baseline information. At the very least, this means recording age, sex, and weight of harvested deer. You should also look for evidence of lactation in adult does, and measure yearling antler beam diameter. From this your biologist can generate a more accurate assessment of your deer population, and eventually tell how well your management scheme is working. That information can be enhanced with hunter observations of things like sex ratio. You can also conduct a fairly simple camera survey to get an accurate measure of age and sex ratio.

QDM_003

Quality deer management is not about imposing restrictions on hunters. It’s about giving them options; educating them on what they could do and what the likely results might be, and then letting them decide.

Because their name is often associated with MARs and other restrictions, the QDMA sometimes gets a bad rap. People fail to understand that the QDMA is simply a clearinghouse of information on deer management. Their primary goal is to promote the philosophy through education. What an individual landowner, a deer co-op, or a state wildlife agency decides to do with that information is up to them.

One of the best descriptions of QDM  comes from Dr. James Kroll, who defines a quality buck as “…one that best realizes the potential of his age class, living in a quality habitat and harvested through a quality hunting experience.” There’s no mention of antler spread, points or score. If the buck you kill is the best your land can produce for his age class, and you enjoyed the experience, then you’ve realized the benefits of QDM.

The author is a wildlife biologist and outdoor writer/photographer from Pownal, Maine.

  • Patrick

    Well said. Focus on the quality of your experience…something to look forward to, a memory to keep. Our area has genetics for about 140 point bucks (assuming they reach full maturity). Expecting to see deer consistently larger than that is a set up for failure. If you can't get excited when you see a 125 class buck, you are living some kind of charmed life. If you enjoy managing the habitat, spending time in the woods, and eventually harvesting a decent buck, you have had a quality experience.

  • Tucker

    Where I live in Alabama if we take a buck it has to have at least 3 points on either side which can be a problem when trying to eliminate cull bucks from the herd. I also don't believe that setting a mandatory age or size limit on the deer that you can take will do just as much damage as good. If a young hunter finally has a chance to take a deer but because of the law he/she cant take it, they might decide to stop hunting.

  • chris

    PGC tricked the hunters by creating a pact with PA forestry who essentilly are in the pockets of the timber companies to ll but reduce the deer herds to a small fraction of what they were therefore detroying hunting in the upper counties of PA. Not only are the amount of hunters reduced due to lack of game but it sets a trend for the future w/in our youth to no longer hunt. Zone 2G is nealy devoid of deer. They also destroy the economies of the small towns who use to thrive on the visitation of unters each season. They are now essentally ghost towns now.

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  • Hunter

    In my Apennine I think antler-point restriction is good and bad I thing first time hunters 6-12 should be able to shoot spike bucks because they don't hunt as much as us teenagers and adults but adults should stick to hunting mature bucks so the littler bucks can have a fighting chance to to grow to be a big buck and be able to breed so his ofspring can be just like him.

  • guest

    If you knew that there was a 140" minimum, then you have nothing to complain about. If you shoot the small deer, you'll never have big deer!

  • Pa Hunting Sux Now

    The Pa deer herd has been all but destroyed by Gary Alt's plan. There is way more hunters in the woods(even with the numbers of hunters falling every year) than there are deer. In my area, which is part of zone 2G, you can see 20 to 30 times the number of elk than deer. And these elk are no more than an invasive species that the Pa Game Commision brought to our state after the native elk were allowed to be hunted to extiction. They are rocky mountain elk, more than 3 times bigger than the native eastern elk were. they use these elk as a tourist attraction and money grabbing scheme(through their lottery process for the few tags offered) while the people have to deal with property damage and dodging these basically tame domestic animals that are aggressive and unafraid of people. Most of which live in residential areas, not heavily populated but still these are peoples homes and they get no say in elk/deer management even after the elk tear up their property, tourist tresspass everywhere to get better(closer) pictures or even have bull elk attack dogs and cars and even chase people out of their own yards.

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