Deer Crash

Posted on January 10, 2012

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“This magnificent creature is undoubtedly one of the most adaptive big game animals in the world. Although adapted to exploit temporally favorable vegetative patches of food and cover, the whitetail thrives in a wide range of climatic and habitat conditions, withstands great adversity and quickly adjusts to changes. Certainly, its large geographic distribution in the Americas, ranging from the southern fringe of Canada’s arctic prairie southward into the Amazon rain forests of South America, attests to the whitetail’s remarkable behavioral and genetic plasticity, and reflects its ability to cope with sharply contrasting environmental conditions.

The whitetail has not only endured modern man’s intrusion into its natural environments, the species has benefited from that encroachment. Manipulations of habitats and modern land-use practices have created diversified food and cover arrangements favoring whitetails. This in turn, compared to conditions during primeval times, has ultimately led to a sizeable increase in deer numbers and an expansion of the species’ range in North America.”                          – John Ozoga

If we are to believe a special report published earlier this year by a major sporting publication entitled, “Deer Herds In Trouble,” the economy may not be the only problem facing deer hunters across the country. In this ‘gloom and doom’ piece the author begins with the following bold prediction:

“The Deer Depression – Deer hunters have never had it so good. Multiple doe tags. Giant bucks. But a number of leading indicators suggest whitetail numbers are heading toward a game changing decline. Is it a correction? Or Is It A Crash?”

Stock markets crash. Cars, planes and trains crash.  But whitetail populations? And someone is predicting this future down turn in deer numbers? This sounds more like a segment straight from the Fox business channel where financial analysts crunch numbers, watch trends, and make forecasts based upon money markets, stocks, bonds, hedge funds, the housing market and the overall business climate. But whitetails?

 

What We Know

 

Before addressing the prophetic doomsday deer crash, let’s take a look at the deer management practices of most state game departments, who incidentally have a vested interest (their job) in ensuring their remains a viable deer population.

Whitetails are a renewable resource that can be managed for herd density objectives in one of the following four ways:

  1. Maximum biological carrying capacity – This plan allows for the most possible deer that the land can sustain, 100-deer/square mile.
  2. Maximum sustained yield – This plan produces the highest hunter yield and supports between 40-to-60 deer/square mile.
  3. Cultural carrying capacity – This plan produces population levels tolerable to those folks living within that management district with the population of 15-to-20 deer/square mile.
  4. Maximum supportable population – This plan is dependent on the amount of available deeryard space and is managed at 50% of the winter habitat’s carrying capacity.

 

 Here in Maine, our whitetails are managed using both cultural (#3) and maximum supportable (#4) plans depending on which Wildlife Management District (WMD) of the State is being addressed. Biologists have been entrusted to manage the State’s whitetail population and to ensure that it continues to be a resource for future generations. In so doing, their charge is far more than trying to keep disgruntled hunters happy (whose dollars generated from license sales keeps them employed). They have the job of monitoring the herd’s overall health and sustainability, based upon what the deer eat and where they live.  This governs how many deer should be living within each WMD. This value is different for each WMD and can change annually, even seasonally. In reality, it’s a tightrope act where on any given day someone is going to be second-guessing their decisions. It has often been said that managing whitetails is far easier than managing people.  Sadly, due primarily to back-to-back ultra-severe winters of 07-08 & 08-09 and the elimination of numerous acres of  winter habitat, the whitetail population has indeed crashed to historical lows. This phenomenon could never have been predicted; however, it certainly could have been, to some extent, prevented.

 

The Crystal Ball or The Crazy Eight Ball – You decide.

 

Making such a bold and alarming prediction regarding America’s most sought after big game species should, at its very core have substantial qualifying facts to substantiate the panic. The author leads off the piece with a quote from a biologist, Dr. Grant Woods, a man I personally know, that I quite frankly found to be out of character:

“Woods is a widely respected wildlife biologist whose land-management work takes him around the nation. And he says that any way he looks at it, from almost any region or perspective, America’s deer herd is in trouble.” Really, and the reason for this is? “I think we’re nearing a crisis,” says Woods, who isn’t given to hyperbole either by profession or personality. “The best-case scenario I see is that deer populations drop ten to twenty five percent over the next couple of years.”

So what does Mr. Woods know that the rest of the deer hunting world is apparently ignorant to? The article doesn’t stipulate. However, what it does say is, “We probably have more predators roaming America now than at any time since Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Trace. That’s a good thing, indicating that our habitat is healthy. But all those teeth can be tough on prey species like whitetails.” Yet, within the same article it is stated “how little game our forests can support.” So which is it, habitat healthy, which produces more predators or habitat not healthy? You really can’t have it both ways. Or can we?

 

Now comes the rub, no pun intended. According to QDMA biologist, Kip Adams, “the discrepancy in quality between habitats on private versus public land is widening at an alarming pace. Historically, the private and public habitat was approximately the same. But today, the average private land is far higher in quality than the adjacent public land. You have private landowners actively managing their land for wildlife. But on public land, you have a forest that hasn’t been managed. Most of our deer hunters hunt public land and they’re starting to notice that quality gap. It’s going to get even wider.”

How may I ask are they noticing the gap if they are only hunting public land? Or, could it be that these same average Joe hunters are looking at huge dead bucks coming off privately managed property and making the comparison based on what is available on public land? Hopefully by now your focus is narrowing. What do Woods and Adams do for work?  Manage land, habitat and deer… for a price. Are you following the money trail? Private land costs money to hunt. Private landowners understand fully the value of growing trophy bucks. They also understand that professional managers can help them achieve their goal…for a price.

 

On an even bolder scale of hysterical prediction, according to Woods, “we could be headed toward a crisis that has the potential to reshape the culture and economy of conservation in America. If whitetail populations are off by more than ten percent for a couple of years, then I expect up to fifty percent of our hunters will stop hunting.”  Stop the train and back it up. Are you telling us that if we can’t shoot a deer within a couple of years that over six million deer hunters will suddenly throw in the towel? That would suggest that it’s not really about the hunting experience, but all about a pile of dead deer flesh, antlers and bragging rights at hunts end. Woods goes on to say, “Sometime over the last generation, hunters became fickle. They’ll participate when opportunity is good, but give them a couple of poor years [of hunting] and they’ll stop buying licenses and gear.” Wow, that’s not saying much for the average deer hunter now is it?

 

The Real Crux of the Matter

 

Could there actually be a decline in overall deer numbers in the near future? Certainly. When you’re dealing with Nature’s Children anything is possible. We cannot predict catastrophic events, severe winters, diseases, etc., but none of these possible contributions are even broached regarding the oncoming deer depression that will apparently send millions of hard-core deer hunters scrambling out of their favored bailiwicks due to their now fickle nature. Nope, what’s actually behind this whole charade are the very same things that drove America to its knees during the Great Depression; fear, power, control and money.

 

As the article closes the author reveals what may well be the real crux of the matter when he writes, “Distilled to its essence, what Woods, Adams and other biologists (conveniently, no others mentioned) are really seeking is more active deer management. Aggressive predator control. Better disease monitoring. More focused habitat conservation and more proactive population assessment.”

 

Conclusion

 

In an ideal world everything would be equally proportioned. Unfortunately, we reside in an imperfect environment, for now, where there is and will be fluctuations. Historically we have seen peaks and valleys in whitetail populations due to external influences and I see no reason why that will not continue for as long as whitetails inhabit this land. Hopefully, we’ve learned a thing or two about how to prevent both over-population as well as diminishing deer herd levels. That’s why we have trained biologists on each state’s payroll, men and women who have been entrusted to properly manage the deer herd.

As the article concludes the author writes, “…most dire forecasters worry that hunters won’t be sufficiently patient to suffer through a steep decline in whitetail abundance.” You have seriously misjudged the spirit of the deer hunter in your assertions, at least the deer hunters that I know, of which there are legions. These are men and women of resolve, tenacity and are conservation minded. They are not whimsical in their approach to the sport, nor do they expect any kind of guarantee; after all, its not a deer-shoot, it’s a hunt, and the very reason why they are called ‘deer hunters.’

 

Although this kind of journalism makes for sensational reading and probably sells copies, excuse me if I refrain from running out of the proverbial whitetail woods in panic mode, selling my favorite deer rifle, and chasing some other game animal.  Not on one man’s prediction anyway.

All images on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

    © 2011 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

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