Let’s pause to take a serious look at the problems with deer hunting in America today.
You can’t always view the world through rose-tinted glasses. The same goes for deer hunting. Sometimes you need to rip them off your face and address the problems head on.
If we don’t take action soon, I fear that our cherished sport will get more complicated and slowly fade away.
1. Overly Political
Recently your television, radio, and newspapers are probably overflowing with political ads and spin campaigns. Unfortunately, politics spills over into deer hunting more often these days than it should.
Politicians, and not wildlife managers with PhDs and years of field experience, are making sweeping decisions that go against basic wildlife biology.
A stark example of this is the gray wolf. It was a success story of the Endangered Species Act, and its population in the western Great Lakes area (Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) had bounced back to where it was delisted.
State wildlife agencies took over management, and even started hunting seasons for them because the populations had exceeded the carrying capacity. Wolves had started to interfere with deer management objectives and farmers were losing livestock at an increasing pace.
Things were finally starting to come into balance again, and then a federal court decision by a judge in Washington D.C. reversed the whole thing and re-listed them as threatened or endangered in different states.
In a world where the loudest voice often wins, let’s make some noise!
The reason the judge reversed the listing status is because anti-hunting groups do something extremely well. They are vocal and know who to bring their problems to.
As a hunting community, we need to stand together and let our local politicians, state representatives, and U.S. congressmen and women know that we care about hunting and will fight for our right to do so.
2. Management Decisions
As a direct result of number one above, wildlife management regulations are often influenced more by political agendas than sound scientific principles.
As a recent example, deer populations in northern Minnesota were overly abundant in the early 2000s, to the point where the state opened very generous seasons and limits on them.
It continued like this for several years until it was very difficult to see a deer in the woods. Now seasons are severely restricted to one deer (buck only) in the vast majority of the state.
Should the aggressive approach have stopped a little sooner? Yes. Should they have closed the season in recent years to allow a low population to bounce back? Possibly.
We have to be aware that humans are capable of error. If you look back at the history of wildlife management, were there some poor decisions that had large ramifications? Of course.
Hindsight is always 20/20 though, right? We’re bound to make more mistakes too. But that’s what science is. No scientist ever learned as much from successes as they did from failures.
Wildlife managers and states have to make very difficult decisions, and they will NEVER please everyone.
Our job as hunters is to let our state agencies and wildlife departments know what we think. Fill them in on what’s going on in the whitetail woods (e.g., how many deer you see, males/females, evidence of disease or predators, etc.).
Without all the information, they can’t do their job very well. We’re part of the problem, so let’s pitch in.
3. Low Hunter Recruitment
Today it’s getting more and more difficult for younger people to experience nature.
Most of us grew up in the country. If not, perhaps we had relatives with farms that we could visit.
As America becomes more urbanized, the natural areas are shrinking and farms are being sub-divided. Kids no longer have an outlet to nature, or anyone to take them on their first deer hunt.
And it’s not just limited to children either. The fact is that people are just not as familiar with hunting in today’s society as they were 10, 20, or 50 years ago.
So what? Low hunter recruitment means that there is less revenue and tax dollars to go towards wildlife management goals and objectives.
Managers can’t do much for wildlife if they don’t have adequate funding.
Also, people psychologically don’t trust what they don’t understand. If someone’s never been exposed to hunting, they will more easily side with an anti-hunting group, which caters to an ever-increasing urban population.
This one’s fairly easy in principle, but takes some time and effort.
We need to get America involved in hunting again. Take your kids out with you when you go scouting. Ask a relative, neighbor, or friend to go for a short trip to the woods for shed hunting.
If you keep it short and fun, they’ll likely want to come along a second time. Each time, remove another boundary (real or perceived) that would keep them from hunting themselves.
4. Addiction to Technology
Technology has made game-changing advancements to the sport of deer hunting over the years. More accurate weapons, GPS in our phones, the list goes on.
While this is great and has its place, too many hunters today rely only on these things. We’re losing the traditional skills that our grandparents used.
If someone gets off the beaten path, they panic and reach for their phones to find their way out instead of taking time to get to know the land.
Many now rely so much on scent-elimination products or camouflage clothing that they don’t even bother to consider the wind or stand placement, two of the most basic hunting skills there are.
Fewer hunters know how to really study and understand deer signs. They throw up a treestand at the first rub or scrape they see, instead of trying to track the animal and discover more about its habits.
Perhaps it’s laziness; perhaps it’s the lack of knowledge from number three above. But it needs to change. If you’ve hunted pressured public land, I know you’ve witnessed this.
For your own good, challenge yourself this upcoming season to rely less on technology and more on your skills as an outdoorsman or woman.
Learn something about nature or whitetails every time you go out. If you take a new hunter to the woods, set the precedent that they should first learn traditional skills, and then add technology to that skill set as an enhancement.
5. False Expectations
While it’s certainly exciting to watch trophy whitetails taken on television, we need to realize that these are still rare animals.
What you don’t see on many shows are the weeks or months it took for that crew to finally connect with a giant deer. They generally don’t just stroll out on opening morning and bag a 200-plus-inch buck.
In many cases, they’re also hunting intensively managed leases with the aid of an outfitter. Compare that to your average public land deer hunter who’s lucky to see a buck…period…all season.
I believe programs are getting better at showing the work it takes to consistently take big deer. However, we need to realize that many parts of the whitetail range will rarely, if ever, produce a deer that large.
If you’re really trying to take a trophy animal, do your homework and seek out areas that have the potential to produce one. If you’re sticking to accessible public land where there is other hunting pressure and marginal nutrition, lower your expectations. That way, even glimpsing a mature buck will be more than enough payoff.
Whitetails have a right to be so jumpy all the time. Not only are humans chasing them each season, but coyotes, bears, bobcats, and wolves pursue them year-round.
Most of these predators really do their damage by taking fawns, which are more defenseless than adult deer. A few coyotes, for example, can remove dozens of fawns in a single year.
Where legal in your state, do your part to control predator populations. If they run unchecked, they can have a large impact on your deer herd.
This doesn’t mean eradicate them all. Predators have their part to play too, but populations should be managed.
At increasing paces, diseases are taking their toll on whitetail populations across the country.
Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), chronic wasting disease (CWD), and blue tongue cases occur at regular intervals in several states.
Areas with higher population densities tend to have the worst impact, simply because of frequent interactions between individuals. Add to that list other common bacterial diseases, such as brain abscesses, Lyme disease, and other parasite-driven issues, and deer have a lot stacked against them.
The best solution to these problems is having a well-managed deer population. If we can keep their numbers at the right level, there’s less of a chance to spread diseases amongst them.
Well-managed forests can also help, to some degree, with parasites. If you notice a possibly infected deer, let your local wildlife agency know about it so corrective actions can be taken. Several states require testing for these diseases as well.
8. Food Plot Obsession
This may seem counter-intuitive. Won’t more food plots help deer? Yes, to a point.
Having quality nutrition within easy access will certainly help nursing does to produce healthy fawns, and bucks will be able to grow some inches on their head.
However, it seems everyone and their brother wants to transition every acre they own into food plots. Food will bring them in, but it won’t hold them.
Unless you are surrounded by neighbors who don’t hunt, it’s best to leave some of your property in native habitat.
You can improve it using timber stand improvement (TSI) techniques, but you want thick cover on your property so deer feel safe and will stay within its boundaries. Actually, native plants account for much of a deer’s diet as well, so you kill two birds with one stone. Or two booners with one bullet, as it were.
These are big issues, and it will take a lot of effort to solve them. But if we all pitch in as a hunting community, we can change things for the better and make a positive impact.