Evidence suggests the whitetail boom has reached its peak.
By Bob Humphrey
One of the positive aspects of growing old is gaining a more informed perspective on current events. Modern musicians are turning out some good stuff, but it doesn’t hold a candle to singers and songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s in terms of originality and social import. Conversely, my generation, and a few before, suffered through the lean years of whitetail hunting, when bragging rights at camp went to anyone who saw a deer. In those days, drawing an antlerless tag was a rare and special treat.Over the last 20 years, biologists went from conservatively rationing out doe tags to telling hunters they can’t shoot enough does. Hunters, meanwhile, morphed from an “if it’s brown, it’s down” mentality to a “let them go so they can grow” philosophy. And record book entries went through the roof.
Younger hunters might not fully appreciate how good we’ve had it — not yet, anyway. Like Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” And some recent trends suggest we might already be experiencing the beginning of the end of the whitetail boom.
Before you go running off for the bomb shelter, let me assure you the sky is not falling on the future of whitetail hunting.
Overall, population numbers, harvest rates, buck quality and age and sex ratios are in pretty good shape. But there is a law of diminishing returns. You can only support so many deer on the landscape for so long before something’s gotta give. According to the Quality Deer Management Association’s 2012 Whitetail Report, antlerless deer harvests declined in all but two (Indiana and Iowa) of the 13 Midwestern states from 2009 to 2010. And six states saw double-digit declines.
Meanwhile, predator populations are on the rise.
Human population growth and dispersal are having several negative impacts on wildlife populations. So are diseases and natural disasters. As Bob Dylan sang, “For the times, they are a changin’.”
Ecologically, a certain amount of predation can be a positive influence on deer populations. Predators cull out the sick and weak, constantly testing prey species to ensure only the fittest survive to pass along superior genetic information. They also keep prey populations in check.
In 1995, Maine deer biologist Gerry Lavigne reported that coyote predation accounted for nearly 30 percent of annual deer mortality, or more than 20,000 animals — as many deer as hunters were killing. Since then, coyote numbers have increased and deer numbers have declined, significantly in some parts of the state.
A recent U.S. Forest Service study in South Carolina found coyote predation accounted for between 46 and 84 percent of all deer mortality. Somewhere between 47 and 62 percent of all fawns succumbed to coyote predation. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s statewide deer population has declined by an estimated 30 percent. Studies in Georgia and Alabama have generated similar results.
Statistics from Pennsylvania and elsewhere have shown black bear predation could be having a far greater effect on deer, particularly fawns. And deer herds declined, in some cases significantly, after wolf reintroduction in areas of the upper Midwest. Add bobcats and mountain lions, and it becomes a sobering scenario.
The issue has become so pervasive that the Southeast Deer Study Group made predation the theme of their 2012 annual meeting. While nobody stood up and boldly proclaimed it, most of the presenters reluctantly conceded that coyotes are here to stay. They also recognized that the most viable solution is to cut back on antlerless deer harvests.
Predators are not the only cause of declines in deer numbers. The industrial revolution saw a dramatic human population shift to urban centers. The past few decades have seen the opposite trend, as human development sprawls across the landscape.
Whitetails are extremely adaptable and can learn to live among humans to an extent, but human tolerance of deer goes only so far.
Once whitetails reach what some consider nuisance levels, controlled hunts or eradication programs are implemented to reduce deer numbers or remove them altogether.
While the latter is undesirable to hunters and wildlife managers, the former sometimes creates opportunities. In many areas, bowhunters have organized to act as agents of the state in controlling suburban deer populations.
American chestnuts were once among the most common hardwood trees in eastern North America, making up an estimated 25 percent of the hardwood forest. They were one of the most important sources of hard mast for deer and a host of other wildlife species. In 1904, a blight spread from Maine to Georgia, decimating an estimated 30 million acres of trees. By the Great Depression, American chestnuts had been all but wiped out.
That niche was filled very nicely by oaks, which are now among the whitetail’s most preferred natural foods. According to several researchers, however, a perfect storm of circumstances has placed oak forests throughout the east in peril. Existing oaks have been in decline for some time, while the rate of regeneration continues to falter. And oaks are being replaced by non-mast-producing hardwoods.
Meanwhile, fragmentation and parcelization have reduced the size of forest patches and our ability to properly manage them. Forests able to outlast native pathogens are ill-equipped against the more recent prevalence of foreign insects and diseases. Fire suppression and preferred forest management practices inhibit oak regeneration. So do deer.
In some areas, we might have let deer populations grow too large, to the point where they are literally eating themselves out of house and home.
At the same time, the nation’s hardwood forests are maturing. In other areas, more land, especially in the South, is being put into softwood production. Both result in less food and cover for deer.
We might be limited as to what we can do on public or industrial timber land, but hunters are taking the initiative to improve habitat where they can. Food plots are increasingly popular, and more folks are planting mast orchards of apples, persimmons, oaks and even hybrid chestnuts to provide more food for deer. They’re even working with foresters on public and private lands to improve hardwood stands.
Food isn’t much of a problem in agricultural areas, but crops like soybeans and corn aren’t planted for deer. They’re planted for a human appetite that has grown insatiable.
If you’ve hunted recently in states like Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Virginia and Arkansas, to name a few, you might have noticed a disturbing trend. Row-crop monocultures now stretch from fencerow to fencerow, gobbling up thousands of acres. Many of those acres formerly provided forage for deer after the harvest, and cover they need year-round.
The farmer is doing what he has to do to stay afloat. For deer, it’s like someone renovated their house and replaced all the bedrooms with one big kitchen.
The Whitetail Report summarizes how impacts vary by region. In the Midwest, which lacks cover more than food, planting increases might have had a negative impact. The opposite was true of the Northeast and Canada, where high-quality food is typically more limiting than cover. The Southeast and West were a mixed bag. Areas planted in more corn and wheat likely benefitted whitetails, while areas with increased cotton production likely were detrimental.
When chronic wasting disease (CWD) first hit the headlines, it was considered a significant threat. Even some biologists feared the sky was falling. It exacted a heavy toll, both from disease-related deer deaths and the financial cost of state agency initiatives to reduce deer populations in an effort to reduce disease transmission.
CWD has been found in more than two dozen states and several Canadian provinces, but it doesn’t appear to be the scourge once predicted. Still, most whitetail states annually collect and test tissue samples from harvested deer, which costs millions of dollars, depleting already scarce state wildlife revenues.
A potentially greater threat to whitetail populations is hemorrhagic disease (HD), which is most prevalent in the Southeast, but has been recorded in more than 30 states.
The worst outbreak in at least 50 years occurred in 2007, spanning more than 20 states from new York to Montana and across the Southeast to Texas. Just last year, Montana officials reported 90 percent or more of whitetails died along a 100-mile stretch of the Milk River. Whitetail deaths were also reported along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana, and sporadically in Wyoming, South Dakota and eastern Kansas.
HD occurs in three different forms, and while not always fatal, the effects can be devastating. Predicting when and where severe outbreaks might occur is not possible, and there are no effective tools for preventing or controlling the disease. Fortunately, deer populations usually recover, although it can take years, depending on severity.
In addition to disease, Mother Nature has thrown a few other curveballs at the nation’s whitetail population. Flooding along many areas of the Mississippi River wiped out deer and their habitat. Almost the opposite occurred in much of the Southwest with severe drought. Fortunately, such events are sporadic and somewhat localized, and something deer have survived over eons.
Access to quality hunting — or lack thereof — is cited as one of the leading causes of hunter dissatisfaction. A 2006 survey showed 80 percent of big game hunters hunted private land. But unless you own it, lease it or pay a trespass or guide fee, private land access is increasingly difficult to come by. That trend almost certainly will continue.
There’s also been an increase in high-fence hunting operations. Philosophic-ally, it’s an individual choice whether to hunt inside a fence. But it creates a negative public perception of hunting. It’s also contrary to the North American model of wildlife conservation, where wildlife is considered public property available to all citizens. And it creates difficulty for states in deciding whether such operations should be managed by wildlife agencies as game, or by agricultural agencies as livestock.
On the bright side, if you have access, you’re probably enjoying a better quality hunt, particularly if access is limited. Folks who have to pay to hunt tend to take a more responsible approach to managing the land and the wildlife on it.
Attitudes toward hunting have been changing, too. When most of the human population still lived in the country, hunting was widely accepted; it was a part of our lifestyle. When the population shifted to urban enclaves, people became less self reliant. Food came from grocery stores, and hunting was a foreign concept.
Optimistically, hunters represent less than a quarter of the entire population. Depending on which survey you read, our numbers are either stable or declining. Either way, we are a minority, and in a democracy, the majority rules.
More folks might be moving back to the land, but most grew up in cities, where they were never exposed to hunting. They need to be re-educated. That seems to be occurring.
The rabid anti-hunting sentiment once prevalent in mainstream media seems to be softening. The best example is reality television. While some view them as a blight, the recent preponderance of reality shows seems to be having a positive influence by showing real people out harvesting crabs, lobsters, swordfish and alligators.
Even the survivalist programs aren’t bashful about showing the hosts killing animals for food, and the general public is eating it up. Recent surveys suggest public opinion is swaying back in our favor.
We can all help the cause by presenting a positive image to the public.
In all, the future of whitetail hunting is not all bad, and we’re not facing Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction.”
We’ll almost certainly see deer numbers continue to decline, along with opportunities to harvest deer, particularly antlerless deer. But deer hunting will remain strong for the foreseeable future.
For those of us old enough to remember the days of less abundant deer herds, when you had to hunt harder and longer to be successful, it might be easier to take. It will be more difficult for those who came of hunting age during the whitetail boom years. In time, those hunters will gain a better perspective and a greater understanding. And they can sit back and wax on about what it was like to hunt in the good old days.
Even the dark cloud of lower deer densities has a silver lining. Less pressure on the environment means improved habitat, which translates to healthier deer. While quantity might go down, quality could improve, particularly with greater understanding and acceptance of quality management programs.
This article was published in the August 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine and won the 2013 POMA Pinnacle Award for best article in the Conservation category. Join Buckmasters today to have these quality magazines delivered to your home.