Are they good or bad for the sport of hunting?
Hunter numbers were falling, deer complaints were rising and the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries was looking for a potential solution to both problems. So, in 2005, the Department legalized crossbows for all hunters during the state’s early archery season. Four years later, Matt Knox, Virginia’s deer project leader, says the introduction of crossbows has been nothing but good for the state’s deer hunters.
“We didn’t expect crossbows to be the ultimate solution to solving our deer problems in urban areas, but we certainly hoped they would help keep hunters in the woods and possibly help them take a few more deer in those urban areas,” Knox said.
Although he can’t say if the addition of crossbows has helped increase the deer kill in Virginia’s crowded suburbs, Knox is certain of one thing: They have attracted new hunters to the archery season and kept existing hunters in the woods.
Virginia is one of the states where crossbows are legal during regular archery seasons, and virtually every state east of the Rocky Mountains is at least looking at them as a tool for both recruitment and management. Despite their growing popularity, not everyone is happy with the trend. Everywhere crossbows have come up for discussion, opposition, mostly from traditional archery groups, has been swift, organized and loud.
A talking points memo circulated by the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania, which is opposed to crossbows during the regular archery season, suggested the addition of crossbows could double the number of hunters in the woods, putting additional pressure on already crowded public hunting areas. But as state wildlife agencies struggle to cope with lagging license sales, they are looking for new ways to bring hunters back to the woods and keep them there.
“We like putting more people in the woods,” Knox said. “That’s part of what our agencies are supposed to do. Hunters are the best tool for managing deer, and we need all the help we can get.”
From that perspective, the addition of crossbows seems to be working. So far, an additional 10,000 hunters are in the woods each archery season in Virginia, an increase of about 15 percent. Georgia hunters who used crossbows in 2002 (the first year they were legal during the general archery season) accounted for just 1 percent of the state’s total harvest and only 12 percent of the archery harvest. Crossbow hunters made up about 18 percent of the state’s bowhunters. As expected, all of those numbers went up in the following years, according to Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources chief deer biologist Charlie Killmaster.
As of 2006, crossbows accounted for 2.5 percent of the state’s total deer harvest and about 20 percent of the total archery harvest. Surprisingly, however, the total number of archery hunters declined by more than 16,000 during that period while the number of crossbow hunters increased more than 4,000 to 21,454.
A similar trend is taking place in Virginia. Like just about all forms of hunting, bowhunting in Virginia was experiencing a slow but steady decline. There were about 60,000 archery hunters in the 2004 season but fewer than 50,000 in 2008. The number of crossbow hunters, however, jumped to nearly 21,400, up from 14,785 just three years earlier. The trend has been similar in Ohio, where crossbow hunters now outnumber vertical bowhunters 175,000 to 150,000 (restrictions on crossbows were lifted in that state in 1982).
Ohio aside, the fears by traditional bowhunters that hunting pressure will double has not come true in other states. Even if that happened, Knox said it would hardly have a negative effect on the deer herd. Crossbows haven’t resulted in overharvest of deer in Ohio, and hunters haven’t been affected by drastic reductions in opportunities. In fact, the opposite has happened: the deer harvest and bag limits have gone up significantly in the last decade. Biologists in other states haven’t been forced to cut seasons or bag limits since the addition of crossbows, either. Knox said individual hunters tend to kill the same amount of deer each season whether they use a rifle, bow or muzzleloader. Even if hunters did kill more deer as a result of the addition of crossbows, it won’t be significant enough to have a negative impact on deer numbers, he adds. “Most states east of the Mississippi want hunters to kill more deer,” he says.
But are they?
Not necessarily, which means crossbows might not be the answer to trimming burgeoning deer herds. Conventional bowhunters in Virginia accounted for 7 percent of the total deer kill for the 2008 season, and crossbow hunters took just 4 percent, or 9,600 deer. The harvest levels are similar in Arkansas; about 5 percent of the total deer kill is by crossbow hunters. While Virginia’s deer herd has stabilized in many parts of the state, it is still well above the cultural and biological carrying capacity in suburban areas and a few rural counties. Although Knox said he can’t determine if crossbows are playing a role in management efforts where they are needed most, he’s certain of one thing: They aren’t hurting.
“Anything we can do to keep more hunters in the woods so they can take more deer, we are all for it,” said Knox. “If we are anything like some other states where crossbows are legal, I expect they are helping get more hunters in the woods in urban areas, which is where we need more hunters in the woods.”
Data from Ohio show crossbows are having an impact on deer herds, especially in urban areas where hunting pressure and harvest is typically low. According to a report compiled by Ohio Division of Wildlife research biologist Mike Tonkovich, urban deer hunters used a crossbow to harvest 35 percent of the total urban kill. That was about 5 percent higher than the harvest by vertical bowhunters.
Tonkovich said although it’s tough to measure, he’s certain the popularity of crossbows in his state is a direct reflection on the average age (47) of Ohio’s deer hunters. As those older hunters continue to age, they choose crossbows at an increasing rate, eventually using nothing but crossbows in the upper age brackets. Killmaster says Georgia’s hunter population is also aging, and many older hunters stop bowhunting because they are no longer capable of drawing a compound bow. The addition of crossbows seems to be slowing the dropout rate in Georgia, much as it has in Ohio, where the majority of hunters under 17 and over 42 use crossbows instead of vertical bows.
“The evidence is pretty strong that hunters who can’t use a conventional bow for whatever reason are instead hunting with a crossbow,” said Tonkovich. “If crossbows were not legal in Ohio, that large segment of the population wouldn’t be in the woods.”
That might be because crossbows are easier to use or because hunters assume they are more effective than vertical bows. A study conducted by Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff of Auburn University compared success rates of crossbow hunters to vertical bowhunters at an Army facility in southeast Oklahoma. He and fellow researchers wanted to see if crossbow hunters took more deer, and if they killed bigger animals and better-quality bucks.
Ditchkoff examined five years of data and determined that crossbows accounted for a higher success rate, about 22.8 percent compared to about 18 percent for hunters who used compound bows and 11 percent for those who used recurves or longbows. Surprisingly, however, there was no difference in the age, sex ratio or size of the deer harvested. All groups killed bucks of similar age, size and antler points. The beam length and circumference were nearly identical, as well.
“We weren’t exactly sure why crossbow hunters weren’t killing bigger deer,” says Ditchkoff. “The managed hunts were two-and-a-half days long, so maybe hunters were more concerned with filling their tag than holding out for a quality buck.”
Despite the success numbers, Ditchkoff isn’t convinced crossbows are significantly more effective at killing deer than a modern compound bow. He’s used both and said he sees a fairly level playing field. However, there seems to be a slight advantage based on harvest data in some states. Virginia crossbow hunters enjoyed a 45 percent success rate, compared to a 36 percent success rate for conventional archery equipment last season. In Georgia, 44 percent of crossbow hunters killed a deer, while 24 percent of conventional archers were successful in 2006.
While they might not be the solution to booming deer populations in urban and suburban settings, crossbows are clearly good for hunting and hunter recruitment. In fact, Virginia’s Matt Knox thinks they will eventually be legalized in virtually every state, or at least those with too many deer and not enough hunters. Tonkovich agrees. “There’s absolutely no sound reason to prohibit them,” he says. “The debate has been settled. Crossbows are just one more tool for deer management, and we need all the tools we can get.” Read Recent Articles:
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This article was published in the September 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.