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Vantage Point: Who Says the Deer Population is Too Big?

by Curt Wells   |  April 2nd, 2012 28

Is your deer population where you want it or has your state been putting too much pressure on antlerless deer?

Over the past several years, as I’ve traveled to hunt deer across the heart of whitetail country, I’ve noticed two trends. One, hunters are complaining about too few deer in their state. And two, it seems some states have been intoxicated by the sale of antlerless tags.

In my opinion, the latter is the primary reason for the former. Yes, there were other factors like some winterkill in the Northern Plains and outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), but the primary reason for reduced deer numbers is the widespread issuance of too many antlerless tags for too many years.

In my home state of North Dakota, deer hunter success rates (for rifle hunters) have plummeted from the customary 70 to 80 percent to around 50 percent. Less than a decade ago, when deer numbers were high, the Game and Fish Department started handing out doe tags like they were giving candy to kids during a parade. And they kept doing it. Finding a deer in my area is now a major challenge and winterkill had little to do with it.

North Dakota wasn’t alone. Not long ago, Minnesota deer hunters could shoot up to five does apiece. Now deer numbers are so low that parties of gun hunters that typically fill out are going two-for-ten. I bowhunt in Minnesota and never saw anything that would even remotely justify five doe tags per hunter.

During a hunt in Missouri several years ago discovered I could buy unlimited doe tags for $7 each! I thought, Great, there must be so many deer I’ll get trampled! I hunted the entire week and never had a shot opportunity at a doe. Maybe I’m a poor hunter but I certainly saw no evidence of an overpopulation of deer. Not even close.

When the biology warrants, every hunter needs to do their part in managing deer herds by taking a doe. But have we gone too far for too long?

In recent years, Iowa has forced nonresidents to purchase a doe tag along with their license. Hunters with no intention of taking a doe were forced to spend money (oops, there’s that word) on an antlerless tag. Must be too many deer, right? Not really. Now Iowa hunters are complaining there aren’t enough deer. You can hear similar stories in Kansas, Illinois, Nebraska and even Indiana where hunters can take up to 8 does in some counties!

In defense of state wildlife agencies, they have a difficult job. Deer population surveys are educated estimates and trends can be slow to present themselves. Wildlife managers also have to consider the carrying capacity of the land, the tolerance level of landowners, and other interests such as insurance companies concerned about deer/vehicle collisions, and even timber companies worried about too many deer damaging young trees.

Some say it’s all about the revenue generated by the sale of antlerless licenses. I suppose that could be true in some states. But where I have a problem is in the setting of population goals. Who says we have too many deer? Do insurance companies really have the influence that some allege? If they do, no one will admit it. Should they have influence? No.

State wildlife agencies need to remember where their wages come from. Without hunters and anglers there are no game and fish departments. No stakeholders. If deer numbers crash, deer hunter numbers will follow. Once a hunter quits, he’s likely gone forever.

Obviously, every region is different. Are there really too many deer in your area or has the doe population been over-hunted in recent years? What’s happening with the deer herd in your neck of the woods?

  • Grant Richardson

    In Ontario…they were issuing lots of tags and we found lots of does..on adjacent properties shot and left to lie….it happened alot… less tag options equals more scrutiny when shooting….it certainly looked like the more tags the more deer shot…im not convinced it helped the popualtion at all..the worst part was the tail end of the xtra tag years we had 2 severe deep snow winters…that combined with the xtra tags hurt the population.

  • John Tuchscherer

    Great article. I agree with your comments. Please write more about this important subject!

  • Michael Shepard

    I have 5 wolves within 3/4 mile of where I live…to say they eat is an understatement…even attacked a friend's lab 20 feet off the back porch…that plus several crappy winters, that Al Gore sez does not happen anymore….and bingo..I wish I had a too many does problem…however..wolf hunting is good here in NW Montana

  • Kevin Brehm

    I couldn't have put my thoughts into words as well as the author has but I couldn't agree more. I live and hunt in Northern Illinois, and we are experiencing the same problems. I think other hunters are beginning to recognize that we have a problem that will only worsen if something isn't done by the DNR.

  • John ODonnell

    I hunt in four states every year and each is different. In my home state of NY you see deer all through bow season but very few during the gun hunt. In Vermont deer thrive in the areas with agriculture but winter kill and preditors make life tough on mountain deer. Central Illinois has deer, good deer and the antlerless tags are available over the counter as many as you want. Wisconsin again has good deer and EAB (just discontinued) forced you to kill a doe in order to hunt a buck. Deer density is a local issue and should be managed that way. NY a large state has varied terrain and climate and the deer density should be dealt with as each local requires…Southern NY has a deer density problem with the destruction of the under story a more critical long term threat than doe hunting..Coyotes and the rising black bear population also account for the loss of many fawns in the spring. Cudos to you guys hunting the wolves. There is talk of introducing them to the Northern Adirondacks. NYC liberals of course.

  • 060460

    I live in the great state of NJ. We have unlimited doe hunting and the seasons run from September to February, most of our deer herd now lives in parks and housing developments.

  • chris moser

    I hunt in NJ where there are areas with alot of deer and areas with hardly any. I can honestly say that the several areas I hunt have drastically declined over the last couple years. No wonder with kill as many as you want limits. Even the bucks and the quality is terrible. No wonder because you can kill at least 5 bucks in 1 season so they are almost all 2-6pts. Honestly I am on the verge of giving it up. Its just no fun when all you see are 3 & 4 pts.

    • jhdz

      I live in Texas and hunting has turned into a major business here. Most of the hunting land is privately owned. You gotta have money to hunt a good buck in Texas. There are still quite a few places that are open to the public but don't have trophy bucks. Anyway, I think the deer population varies depending on which part of the state you are hunting on. Hunting off a deer feeder is legal in private ranches but public land is usually fair chase. I think if the state did not allow deer feeders for hunting the deer population would be out of control. Where I live you say "Watch out for deer on the highway", instead of being wary of drunk drivers. There is a neighborhood where the residents hand feed them believe it or not and they will not let you hunt them in those neighborhoods. Granted the deer down here are not as big as the ones up north but there is plenty of hunting to go around, public or private land.

    • 060460

      But the state is happy with all the permits that you have to buy.

    • Karl

      If you are hunting private land then the management should be taken care of by yourself. If your land is small and is adjacent to many other properties then you need to meet your neighbors and talk about the issue. If you are hunting purely for trophies then you shouldn't be hunting at all. Hunting is about enjoying the outdoors and the comraderie between friends. I walk out of the woods happy every time whether I see anything or not. If you hunt public land, take a signed petition of the hunters in your area to your game commissioner. Lobby with your representative if you have to. Be passionate about the outdoors and enjoy your time in the woods. Get away from the tv trophy mindset. The health benefits alone of eating deer over beef should persuade you to continue hunting. I still hunt in nc in a predominantly deer dog area. It's public land and tough hunting. Pressured and over hunted mature deer take to the thickets. All of the nice bucks that I've killed in "poor hunting locations" have been in areas where people didn't like to hunt because their visibility was limited. 50yds or less during gun season has worked for me over the years. Good luck and I hope you stick with it.

    • Antonio

      I'm also from Jersey, and the overwhelming number of permits sold versus the number of deer (and other game) harvested equals… cha-ching! Big bucks (no pun intended).

  • Budster

    You just summarized everything that's wrong with deer management in Central Pennsylvania. Overbrowsing is a myth. The understory of our forest is rich with browse and the factor that really prevents regeneration is highly acidic soil caused by too much acid rain. Our greedy game commission loves the income from additional doe tags but you might as well be hunting for unicorns on public land in Pa. This hot air about an unhealthy forest is Bullshit. When I think of a healthy forest I think of one with deer in it!

  • jhdz

    I agree that the country side up north is very much different than down here in Texas. Most counties here in Texas only allow 3 antlerless and 2 antler deer. There are some counties that allow less. I agree with your comment about a healthy forest is one with deer in it. I enjoy watching deer as much as I enjoy hunting them. Its not about the kill it is about the experience of being out there with nature.

  • pissed_off_in_pa

    all this talk about over browse in pennsylvania is crap. i grew up in a very small town with deer running between the houses. my brothers, neighbors and i all played in the woods all year round and the only place you would find a dead deer was someplace where it got hit by a car a staggered off and died. now, the game commision is saying that a natural heathy population should have 1 mature buck for every antlerless deer? its natural biology for herd animals to have more female offspring than male because it only takes 1 male to pass on genetics to the next generation to restart the population. but now the popul;ation has crashed from over issuing tags and yet they still keep coming up with was to kill more doe. its my belief that they want the population so low that they can a lottery for tags like they do for elk here. and the elk they are so proud of, don"t belong here, they aren't the same kind of elk that where hunted to extinction, they are 2-3 times bigger than the eastern elk that used to roam here. i live in the area with the elk now, and you can easily see 50-60 elk a day in the woods, while only seeing 2-3 deer a week.

  • whakm

    Here in Texas, home to the largest deer herd in the nation TPWD has done a great job of implementing some rules that were way over due ( 13" rule for one) But the number of "5 deer counties" have become too much. I understand that if you have a high fenced property that you have to more closely regulate the herd but for the most part there are too many deer being allowed to be taken.

  • Hunter in GA

    Here in Georgia we get 12 tags.. 2 bucks and 10 does. One buck can be any size but one has to have at least 4 points on one side and be an inch or longer. I've been hunting for twenty years and the deer population is not what it use to be. To many does are being killed. They are not leaving anything to have the offspring for new generations. If you don't have does what is going to keep your bucks in the area. They tend to move to where the does are and if you don't have a good doe population your not going to have good bucks either.

  • John Warder

    I've hunted deer in Indiana for about 40 years,5-10 years ago the deer population was strong and growing,then the DNR started allowing mega tags for does and the deer sightings seem to be less and less each year with the same amount of time spent in the woods! We need to make some changes and fast!

  • jacs196405

    Deer management needs to be done by hunters and not the DNR. Hunters know best on how many deer are in their woods and the also the buck to doe ratio. Unfortunately here in wisconsin if you don't own your own land you can't control what gets harvested. All land owners need to get together and come up with their own way on their own properties. Bottom line it's up to us hunters to control what gets shot!If the DNR gives out unlimited doe tags it does not mean we have to shoot them,same with multiple buck tags.

  • whakm

    I've been on plenty of leases here in Texas ( hill country, west and central Texas) and I've seen populations go down in all those areas. One of the problems is that on one piece of land you may have 1 hunter for every 500 acres and on the place right down the road they have 1 hunter for every 50 acres. In Texas most hunters have to pay to get onto someones property to be able to hunt so in order to lower the price they cram as many hunters as they can onto a piece of property causing way too many deer to be taken. I hunt on 2000 acres with 9 hunters in a "5 deer county" but none of us take more than 2-3 (and some of us have skipped taking them all together some years) because we're just not seeing the numbers. Something's got to be done.

  • oldflaboy

    I have hunted in Texas and liked what they were doing with antler restrictions in some counties. Even though Texas has a huge deer herd, it is still regulated from one to five deer per hunter dependent on county. This herd varies per geographic area as well. Now I try to hunt in NW Florida where the limit of bucks are two a day and doe season is limited to one week during gun season. We see quite a few does, on back roads, at night. I have personally racked up six in the last two seasons with my truck. Bucks are rare to see any more because of the liberal limit. I wish FWC would go to a tag and restriction system similar to Texas. All this does not include the depredation tags issued to farmers to shoot either sex and then have to leave them. No opportunity to even donate the carcass.

  • Johnny Johnson

    I am a bow and gun hunter of central NC, USA. NC overall has a healthy deer herd accross the state with the highest populations concentrated from the central Piedmont east towards the coastline. The western mountain region has fewer numbers, but all resident hunters are allowed 5 tags per season that runs from mid September to January 1st; 2 antlered, 2 antlerless, and 1 hunter's choice. On my rural 30 acres of mixed creek bottom/hardwoods/corn and soybeans…I would estimate the buck to doe ratio to be around 1:4. I usually "see-deer" most every time I hunt. Sadly…during the rut Oct-Nov, I see doe and buck road-kill everywhere from interstates to the backroads. NC has thousands of acres of public Gamelands for the folks that have no private access. NC is a great state to be an outdoorsman as we enjoy coastal, piedmont-AG and mountains within our borders. I am very happy and proud to be a 'Tar Heel'. I hope all the states having trouble get their numbers up soon. I have a dream of going to Iowa or Kansas to bag a cornbelt BRUTE with my bow someday soon. In NC we get some big ones but very few with racks like the cornbelt states can produce!

  • guest

    It seems that in Pa. the land is all managed for the forestry not for the hunters that paid for it. If you look at the Game Commission income statement (on their web page) you will see why. They now make almost as much (more at times) in logging, gas, and oil leases from the land we paid for as they do in hunting licenses. I'm glad they have the opportunities to do this, but they should be used to make MORE opportunities for the hunters not less. I remember as a kid seeing herds of 40 and 50 deer at a time. It made me into a hunter that would never miss a moment in the woods. Last year, I didn't see 10 for the whole week. I'm starting to lose my spirit and if it wasn't for the outstanding group of guys I hunt with, I'd do even less. That's what will destroy our hobby!!!

  • justin

    the deer population around where i hunt is somewhat scarce but whenever you finally do see a deer there is more than one and there is usually a very large buck within the group, but from my point of view there is not enough deer here, i am in northern missouri where deer herds exceed greatly, but i believe they are declining because of all the availible tags. in missouri you have 2 bow tags and 1 gun tag for bucks but for does…… it is unlimited. there should be atleast a 2-5 limit. but the deer herd may be because of the pandemic of blue tounge that wen through here. we found 6 dead deer on our property that were killed by it. that is a large number for as little deer that i see around here.

  • alex

    I haven't seen anyone chiming in from Md, so here it goes. I am an avid bow hunter and hunt from Sept. to Jan. 31 and only hunt in afternoons or early morninings due to work schedules, but I find thats when most of the movement is anyway. I have hunted since the 70's and back then if you saw a deer you shot it because that might have been it for the season. about ten years ago Md started recognizing the population was out of control and by that I mean heards of deer as many as 30 to 40 in a group and mostly Does. They have since allowed for more Doe to be taken in certain counties where the population is the highest concentration. I hunt Public land also and I don't see the out of balance issue as much as on the private properties I Hunt and by private I mean 3 to 10 acre homes. After a decade of this practice of taking more Does I still don't see a change in the Doe to Buck ratio, which is about 15 to 1,but the heard numbers are around 20 to 30 in a group.I do wish that more hunters in Md would get out there and hunt.

  • justin

    there are great deer in MD i would love to hunt there. it is not a big buck state like my state, missouri, but there are some absolute monsters roaming that land.

  • Shawn

    If everyone bow hunted, and feeders were illeagle, and drives were illeagle, dog or human, and trail cams were illegal, we'd have a leaner more skillful hunter population and plenty of deer.
    Dear Fat lazy rednecks, get a treadmill, If your too fat to use a climber, you shouldn't get tags. The problem with low deer numbers is not that we're given so many tags, but rather the trillion tons of corn that's spread out in front of box blinds annually, you might as well head over to the petting zoo and fill your tags there, that's not hunting, it's a disgrace.
    I live in fat boy feeder central, the fine state of NC, eastern shore, more guns than high school diplomas out here.

  • Kevin

    I retired Army in 1998 and return to Nebraska. Was able to get access to some private land and it was not whether I could harvest a deer but could choose a fat one. Since than the push for antlerless tags and the stupid neighbor. He built a rifle tower stand and has individuals lined up to shoot and I mean that literally. Now it is unsafe to even hunt the north side of the land I have access, since these idiots will shoot into the private land I hunt, just to move deer. We have caught the owner on the land multiple times, trying to push deer for his clients. Yes my rant is over. I hunt strictly with a bow, no issue with guns and shot competitively rifle and pistol matches while in the service. It is just I have children I take bow hunting, some I mentor.

    Due to the insurance companies pushing this over population issue, stupid rednecks described above profit and ruin the experience.

  • Erik

    The state where I live, (michigan) our dept of nat resources is almost entirely funded by the sale of deer licenses. In MI a deer license is also the kill tag. So basically our DNR is being supported by the sale of deer kill tags.
    The whole idea of making money from kill tags seems like a recipe for disaster if you ask me. Yet I’m willing to bet many states are doing the exact same thing as MI.

    Back a few years ago our DNR actually ran into a budget problem that caused the director at that time, Rebecca Humphreys, to release a public statement that our DNR would be shutting down operations temporarily. She stated that all state game areas, and recreation areas, would be closed to public use during the shut down. The shut down itself would have been overted because sportsmens groups banded together, and raised enough money to bail out our DNR. However in a meeting with our Governer at that time, Jennifer Granholm, the groups were told our money would not be needed because the DNR had raised enough money on its own, through a last minute surge in deer license, (kill tags) sales.

    This is factual stuff here. Not making this up.

    Today we have a new governer, as well as a new director of our DNR. However the DNR still balances their budget on the backs of deer hunting license sales.

    So what happens when we no longer have enough deer to satisfy deer hunters? What happens when deer hunting license sales drop? It has been happening already. And so far our DNRs answer to this problem has been to lower the age requirements of hunters, add extra seasons, and increase antlerless quotas.

    I see trouble on the horizon!

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