How Deer Management Has Changed in the Last 25 Years

How Deer Management Has Changed in the Last 25 Years

Last summer, I was invited to speak at the 25th Anniversary of the Quality Deer Management Association's (QDMA) National Convention in Athens, Georgia. In preparing for the talk, I reflected back to graduate school at West Virginia University. In 1988, Bowhunter Conservation Editor Dr. Dave Samuel was teaching a course in Ecology and Managing Upland Wildlife.

He asked the class, "What is the biggest threat to deer management in America?" Although there wasn't one totally correct answer, my response dealt with the inability of many state wildlife departments to inform and educate the most valuable resource in wildlife management—our hunters—on the need to shoot does.

Granted, many things have changed within the last 25 years of deer management, but QDMA Founder Joe Hamilton knew something more could be done, and done better. The year was 1988, and Hamilton realized that there was more to quality deer management (QDM) than just not shooting yearling bucks.

Hamilton was introduced to the principles of QDM in the classic 1975 book entitled, Producing Quality Whitetails, by Texas biologists Al Brothers and Murphy E. Ray, Jr.

Working with hunters in South Carolina, Hamilton and other state biologists responded to the requests from numerous hunt clubs for assistance in changing traditional deer management to QDM. This marked the beginning of QDM in coastal South Carolina, and the birth of the QDMA in 1988. Nowadays the QDMA has nearly 50,000 members, with tens of millions of acres under QDM guidelines across North America.

As QDMA Chief Executive Officer Brian Murphy said during the convention, "Hunters are now more knowledgeable about deer hunting/management and QDM. More hunters are engaged in land management, wildlife conservation, and are more concerned about the future than previous generations."

Is Murphy correct in his assertions? A 2013 Bass Pro Shop customer survey showed 76 percent agree to strongly agree with the QDMA philosophy and practices.

Murphy showed nationwide data on the decline of yearling bucks in the deer harvest for the past 20 years. From 1989 to 2009, a total of 735,000 fewer yearling bucks have been harvested. This figure equates to a 20-percent reduction. Is the QDMA making an impact on a nationwide basis? You bet! Today, 22 states have some sort of antler restrictions, while it's mandatory statewide in eight states.

Compared to 1988, when about 10 percent of Americans hunted, today only about 4.9 percent of all Americans hunt. Yet, the latest nationwide poll indicates 79 percent of Americans support hunting. Is our message finally getting out? I sure hope so!

When you consider the antihunter challenges, predators, diseases, privatization of deer, public access, decreasing state wildlife budgets, and declining nature-based recreation among today's youth, it's a wonder we are doing so well. One thing is for sure: The QDMA has led the way on filling a niche many states have ignored when it comes to information and education.

Although I'll definitely wave the QDMA flag, state-imposed QDM regulations may not be needed everywhere. Iowa is a classic example. Iowa's Deer Project biologist Tom Litchfield says, "The percentage of antlerless deer in Iowa's harvest has been among the highest in the nation for the last couple of years."

From 2005 to 2011, antlerless deer made up 61 to 64 percent of the annual Iowa harvest. And even without any antler-point restrictions, Iowans have been great in responding to the Wildlife Department's desire to harvest more antlerless animals. You can see that even when Iowa greatly increased its antlerless tags in 2003, it wasn't until 2005 that the doe harvest actually began to exceed the buck harvest.

Obviously, shooting more does has not reduced the number of antlered bucks harvested. And since Iowa still produces some of the largest bucks in the country, quality sure doesn't seem to be diminishing. As of the 2013-2014 hunting season, many of the high antlerless harvest areas in Iowa are now reaching herd objectives, and harvest will need to be adjusted in order to stabilize populations.

With Iowa as an example, no one can argue that biologists have not done a great job of re-establishing our deer herds, or what we call the reconstruction era of deer management. Many believe we were almost victims of our own success, because today we face burgeoning deer populations in areas that were once completely depleted of deer.

It wasn't long ago when I remember routinely saying, "Once you think you've shot enough does to scare yourself to death, shoot some more." At the time, this was sound advice for many deer herds. But with the emergence of coyotes in the East within the last four decades, this may no longer apply to many deer herds.

What concerns biologists the most about coyotes are what we call recruitment rates, or the number of deer that survive to six months of age. We all know an average doe will drop two fawns. But, on average, did you know that only one of these fawns will make it to six months of age? Years ago, this 1.0 fawn figure was basically static.

Today we have states, specifically in the Southeast, that have recruitment rates of 0.5 or lower. It sure doesn't take a wildlife biologist to realize this new coyote predation is something every state will have to take into account when it comes to population dynamics. Most likely, this will be done in two ways — either reducing the number of antlerless tags, or reducing the number of hunting days.

I often hear hunters complain about the limited areas of land to hunt. Although there's no data to support this, I'd suggest something radical: Just ask everyone permission to hunt! I regularly take my daughter with me when asking permission to access properties. Many times, bringing a youngster along breaks the ice and opens up many properties that would have remained closed to hunting.

Last year, QDMA's Director of Education and Outreach Kip Adams put together an interesting graph on the number of hunters per square mile, per state. The top five states with the highest hunter density were Pennsylvania with 20.3 hunters per square mile (HPSM), Rhode Island (16.5 HPSM), New York (15.1 HPSM), Wisconsin (13.7 HPSM), and Ohio (12.3 HPSM).

Using data from Bowhunter's "2013 Deer Forecast," I determined the top five states with the highest bowhunter density were Pennsylvania with 6.92 bowhunters per square mile (BHPSM), Maryland (6.33 BHPSM), Ohio (6.11 BHPSM), Michigan (5.78 BHPSM), and New York (5.54 BHPSM).

Nine times out of 10, it's not what you know, but who you know that determines your access to private property. If more people hunt, chances are they know more people who are willing to open up their properties to hunting. This, of course, depends on your asking them for permission to hunt. For this reason alone, joining a state bowhunting organization or QDMA chapter is worth its weight in gold. I hate to think of all the lost opportunities and big bucks I would have never tipped over if I hadn't joined!

C.J.'s Summary:

I'd argue that the birth of the QDMA is one of the most significant milestones in the history of deer management in North America. If there is one organization every deer hunter should join, it's the QDMA (1-800-209-DEER).

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