The 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.
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.
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.
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.