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.
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?