By David Hart
Antlerless harvest is the most important and most overlooked tool for managing quality deer.
There’s something about antlers we just can’t resist. Put a healthy doe and a pencil-horn spike in front of a guy with a .30-06 in his hands and the odds are he’ll center the crosshairs on the buck. Every time.
While some dedicated deer hunters have come to terms with the value and necessity of shooting does, others still can’t bear the thought of shooting something without a crown on its head. The reasons vary. Whether it’s a longstanding belief that killing a doe will lead to the demise of the local deer herd or the intrinsic value placed on bucks, antlerless harvests in many states are far below levels wildlife managers want them to be.
The results, however, are the same. States and localities are grappling with the issue of too many deer in too little space. In some areas, entire landscapes and habitats are being altered as deer devour virtually every plant that rises from the ground in the spring.
The harvest of antlerless deer is an essential wildlife management tool. Many adults still can’t bring themselves to shoot a deer without antlers, but young hunters are more than willing to do what has to be done.
Entire ecosystems are suffering long-term damage at the expense of too many deer. In Pennsylvania, where wildlife managers are wrestling with hunters over increased antlerless deer quotas, overbrowsing by whitetails has led to significant reduction of woody and herbaceous vegetation, according to numerous studies. Another study found a decline in already rare plant species such as Pennsylvania’s own native orchids.
In addition, a 1994 study by biologist David DeCalesta focused on the effects of overbrowsing by deer upon woodland songbirds. It was conducted on the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania’s Warren, Forest, Elk and McKean counties. The study focused on the abundance of each species and the variety of species of songbirds that nest on the ground at intermediate levels, and high levels in the forest canopy. While there was little or no appreciable effect on ground- and high-level nesting birds, species variety and abundance of intermediate nesting birds declined by 27 and 37 percent, respectively.
DeCalesta’s study concluded that to manage deer with regard to songbirds, the level of deer would need to be kept to 10 to 20 deer per square mile, dependent upon the level of forest management. Much of Pennsylvania’s deer herd was double that level prior to the revised antlerless regulations and quotas.
It’s not just forest diversity at stake. Damage complaints from farmers are higher than ever. Deer-vehicle collisions continue to rise, costing insurance companies an estimated $1 billion in claims annually. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were about a half-million deer/car accidents in 2003, and approximately 150 resulted in the death of a driver or passenger.
It’s tough to take a shot at a doe when a buck is beside her, but do you really need another set of antlers in your garage?
While some of the blame for the increase in deer-related incidents can be attributed to such factors as urban sprawl and the general loss of open space, much of the blame can be laid directly at the feet of deer hunters. Despite liberal antlerless bag limits by many state wildlife agencies, hunters as a group still aren’t stepping up to help manage deer herds. Virginia’s Loudoun County is a prime example. Although hunters are allowed to harvest two antlerless deer per day for the entire five-week archery season, two-week muzzleloader season and seven-week general firearms season, the number of does killed has been below 50 percent of the total harvest for as long as those liberal bag limits have been in place. In fact, the overall doe harvest has never surpassed 48 percent since antlerless deer were fair game.
If Matt Knox, deer project leader for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, gets his way, that will change. Three times during the past six years, he proposed rules that would force hunters to take a doe either first or before they shoot a second buck in counties with an overabundance of deer. Although Knox’s modified earn-a-buck program isn’t as drastic as some other states’, he says it might be necessary to curb the growing complaints and problems associated with too many deer in too little space.
The only option, he says, is to shoot more does.
“Some sort of earn-a-buck program is going to happen in Virginia and lots of other states that don’t have it now. I don’t know when. I hope sooner rather than later, but it’s the only thing we can do to reduce the deer herd. If hunters won’t change on their own, we are going to have to force them to change,” he declared.
New Jersey and Wisconsin both instituted earn-a-buck programs, which require hunters to shoot a doe before they can tag a buck, in selected areas of each state in 1996. Larry Herrighty, chief of the bureau of wildlife management for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, says the antlerless deer harvest was far below the necessary level prior to the EAB program, so something drastic had to be done.
“Since we instituted the earn-a-buck program, our deer herd has stabilized, complaints from farmers have decreased substantially and so have accidents involving deer and vehicles. We still have too many deer in some regions of the state, but overall the program has worked and will continue to work as long as hunters participate,” he says.
He admits that while the majority of New Jersey’s deer hunters have either accepted or even embraced the forced doe harvest as a management tool, others still haven’t warmed to the notion of state-mandated harvest restrictions. Neither have hunters in a large part of Wisconsin, where EAB efforts were ultimately killed by hunter dissatisfaction and political pressure.
Brad Koele, assistant deer and bear ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, says deer numbers in those areas are far above management objectives. Hunters were given an unlimited number of antlerless tags during the 1996 season, but they just weren’t using them.
“We instituted earn-a-buck rules again in the 2004 season in 26 units, but there was a great deal of dissatisfaction and more political pressure, so we didn’t implement them in 2005,” says Koele.
In 2002, The Pennsylvania Game Commission instituted a sweeping management plan that sought to reduce overall whitetail numbers by increasing the number of antlerless permits while decreasing pressure on bucks through an antler point restriction. Despite an intense public relations campaign by game commission officials, a vocal group of Pennsylvania hunters have labeled the management plan “deer genocide” and a “doe slaughter.”
At least one group filed a lawsuit against the PGC to stop the increased allocation of antlerless deer tags and return the deer season structure to where it was prior to the changes. Some landowners are allowing hunters on their property only if they agree to not shoot antlerless deer.
Despite the uproar from some hunters, the overwhelming majority are stepping in and doing exactly what the Game Commission has asked them to do: shoot more does.
Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the PGC, says of the 879,000 antlerless deer tags made available in 2005, less than 5,000 were left unpurchased by hunters. Those leftover tags were in areas where public access is limited, so Feaser says hunters are more than willing to reduce the overall deer herd by taking more does. “If you look at harvest statistics in our major urban and suburban areas, you’ll see that hunters are more than willing to take antlerless deer. In Alleghany County, which includes Pittsburgh, hunters took 4,200 antlered deer, but they also harvested 16,000 does. In the southeastern units around Philadelphia, hunters took about 1,300 bucks and 4,200 antlerless deer,” he says.
The issue of shooting antlerless deer has spilled beyond the hunting community and into the public realm. More than ever, non-hunters are looking to state wildlife agencies for ways to reduce deer herds and the problems associated with them. While anti-hunting groups have always proposed non-lethal solutions, or even a total hands-off approach, those who view hunting neither favorably nor unfavorably - the vast majority of Americans - are beginning to realize that lethal control methods are the only viable solution.
Herrighty says New Jersey residents are more willing to accept hunting as a viable management method, and numerous townships have agreed to permit both archery and shotgun hunting on lands that were off limits in the past. There is no better time for hunters to come to the rescue. “The individual townships can set harvest restrictions, but we make recommendations based on what we know hunters will accept. If they try to restrict hunters to antlerless deer only or if they try to make them shoot, say, two does before they can take a buck, then they’ll end up alienating hunters and they can’t do that. Hunters are a critical part of the deer management equation,” he projects.
Bill Woytek, deer project leader for the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife, says the biggest hurdle he faces when he offers hunting as a solution to township deer problems is less a matter of safety than image.
“Non-hunters are convinced that all hunters are after antlers. Here in Massachusetts, that’s not the case at all, but it’s difficult to overcome that trophy-hunter stigma,” he says. “I am seeing a shift in favor of hunters, however, because our hunters have shown that they are willing to harvest antlerless deer. The majority of townships that approach me are willing to allow hunting as a deer management tool where they might not have in the past.”
While Massachusetts and Pennsylvania hunters are stepping up to help manage deer herds, other state wildlife departments are struggling to get their deer herds under control. Knox says hunters who continue to oppose earn-a-buck programs and other measures that force them to take more does may see another alternative: hired guns. It’s already being done in nearly a dozen localities in Virginia. One company paid a reported $90,000 to White Buffalo, Inc., a nonprofit wildlife management firm, to kill 600 deer in Princeton, N.J., in 2001.
The discharge of firearms and bows was prohibited about 30 years ago, says Herrighty, and the deer population went through the roof. Eventually, both the gun and archery ban were lifted, but not before the problems of too many deer became so overwhelming that limited hunting couldn’t turn the tide. Herrighty says there were still landowners who refused to allow hunters on their property and in many areas of the township, shotgun or even bowhunting just wasn’t feasible. But at an estimated expense of $200 to $400 per deer, hiring professional sharpshooters can be overwhelming for communities with a limited budget.
“There are several incorporated cities in Virginia that allow bowhunting within their boundaries, and we even have an extended antlerless-only archery season in those areas just for the purpose of reducing the deer herd,” adds Knox, “but participation in that special season is very low.”
Wisconsin’s Brad Koele doesn’t know what the next step will be if hunters don’t help reduce deer numbers in those areas with too many deer. Concerned, Koele states, “We may have to do something like we did in the chronic wasting disease areas where hunters just shot deer and brought the carcass to us. We don’t want to do that. We are trying to make the earn-a-buck regulations more hunter friendly, but I’m not sure if they will work.”
Herrighty says his agency has no plans to institute even more stringent antlerless harvest requirements. In fact, the doe-first regulations were lifted in one management zone three years ago to see if hunters would voluntarily manage antlerless deer. They didn’t.
-- Reprinted from the October 2006 issue of Buckmasters Magazine