Personally, I’m not convinced white-tailed deer are predictable — sometimes not even when in your gun sights. They’re behaviorally too “plastic”, able to bend and adjust to the prevailing circumstances. For that matter, considering the potential changes we face in the future, I hope deer hunters and deer managers are equally adaptable.
Predicting the whitetails future is complicated business, especially when hunters, non-hunters, anti-hunters, biologists, environmentalists, the economy, politics, and a host of other variables are thrown into the mix. Nowadays, it takes a very brave soul to predict the future of deer and deer hunting.
Looking back, I’ve done relatively few articles in the past 20 years that were predictive in nature. I’ll be the first to admit I was sometimes wrong and in other cases failed to identify issues of future importance.
In September 1997, I did a piece titled “Whitetails: Where they’ve been, where they’re going.” In that article, I did forecast declining deer and hunter numbers, continued boom and bust deer populations in the North, no immediate solution to the urban deer crisis, and an increasing guest for quality bucks. However, I certainly did not foresee the negative impact of chronic wasting disease (CWD), climate change, or coyotes spreading into the Southeast. Nor did I anticipate the recent threat posed by possible anti-gun legislation and resultant rush to clear store shelves of certain guns and ammunition.
Nonetheless, predicting the future of deer and deer hunting? Not me. I’ll leave that to the experts, like Brian Murphy, Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) CEO.
In 1985, the Wildlife Management Institute published an all-inclusive volume titled: White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management–a weighty tome of 870 pages edited by Lowell K. Halls, based largely upon more than 600 technical papers pertaining to white-tailed deer.
Legendary deer man, E. L. Cheatum concluded the manuscript with the following: “There are undeniable inconsistencies in the data concerning white-tailed deer, as well as differing interpretations of the data. Questions remain unsolved, not only about deer per se, but also about people for and by whom deer ultimately are managed. Thus, more volumes will and should be written about the outlooks for both whitetails and humankind itself. The link between the two is real.”
Hence, a new whitetail Bible was born in 2011. Edited by David G. Hewitt, this too is a hefty volume, titled: Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer. It includes not only information historical in nature, but also summarizes research findings from another 834 papers concerning white-tailed deer published since 1985. Unlike the 1985 volume, which included mostly input from Northern studies, this new edition includes a wealth of information based on research conducted in the South. Remember, there were very few deer in the Southeast prior to 1985.
In the final chapter, “The Future of White-tailed Deer Management,” Brian Murphy does an admirable job examining how current trends and challenges will likely impact the future of deer and deer hunting. My take on this subject largely comes from his text.
Quality Deer Management (QDM) — Deer population management today certainly is much different than it was prior to 1985. Without question, one of the most important trends has been the shift from traditional-style deer management to QDM. As a result, managers now deal with a totally new breed of deer hunter — in my view, one that is much more educated concerning the behavior and well-being of whitetails.
The goal of QDM is to nutritionally and socially balance deer populations with the available habitat — via hunter harvest. The result is a healthy deer herd, with a greater percentage of mature bucks; more trophy bucks are a natural by-product.
Today, more than 20 states have implemented some form of antler restrictions to reduce hunter cropping of young bucks in order to create more socially balanced deer herds. However, the practice has been so popular that many hunters now voluntarily by-pass young bucks (almost unheard of a couple of decades ago) — a practice encouraged by QDMA in lieu of restrictive antler regulations.
Hunter acceptance of QDM philosophy has made management of overly abundant deer herds easier, because many hunters now more willingly harvest antlerless deer instead of young bucks. For example, in 2009, yearling (1 .5-year-old) bucks comprised 38 percent of the U.S. antlered buck harvest, compared to around 60 percent in 1989. In fact, many states now harvest more antlerless deer than antlered bucks.
Habitat Management — Popularity of QDM has also fueled interest in food plot creation to increase deer nutrition and for hunting purposes, especially on private land. In the Southeast, as little as 1.5 percent of a property planted to year-round food plots has been shown to increase deer productivity.
The birth of QDM has also spawned other habitat enhancement practices that ultimately benefit deer. For example, forest treatment via herbicides, fire, and fertilizer has also increased and makes under-story forest growth more attractive to deer.
Unfortunately, habitat conditions on state and federal lands are a different story. The percentage of forest land now in early successional stages favorable for deer has declined on public lands — especially in important deer producing states like Arkansas, New York, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. Federal forest land management, in particular, has moved to a more naturalistic approach with an increased amount of old-growth.
Management Cooperatives — The advent of QDM also gave rise to more deer management cooperatives. These are groups of landowners and hunters who share a common concern for the welfare of whitetails and an interest in hunting them. Originally formed in Texas, cooperatives now occur throughout the whitetail’s range.
According to Murphy, “A major benefit of QDM cooperatives is that they enable small property owners to gain the management advantages of a larger land-owner.”
Private Ownership — Private ownership of land specifically for deer hunting purposes has also increased, while the number of hunters leasing lands has decreased. Deer hunting is also an important motivation for farmland purchases by non-hunters. Interestingly, land ownership among hunters is positively correlated with age, education, and dedication, but not necessarily income.
Deer and deer hunting, out of necessity, are inseparable if the objective is to maintain healthy deer populations in balance with the environment. Healthy deer are more likely to endure natural mortality factors associated with disease, predation, or harsh climate.
Hunter Participation — Given that hunters now comprise less than 5 percent of the U.S. population and use of public land for recreation is shifting away from hunting, maintaining an adequate, educated population of deer hunters is paramount to the future of deer and deer hunting.
Deer hunters are becoming fewer in number and older. In the past 15 years or so, 35 states lost hunters, while 15 states gained deer hunters. Generally, deer hunter numbers declined in the east, especially in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, while gains occurred in the west as whitetail populations expanded their range westward,
The average age of big-game hunters now stands at 41.5 years and is increasing — signaling that deer hunter numbers are destined to decline in the future. This trend largely results from an increasingly urban society — one that is detached from nature. Whether current programs designed to recruit more youth and female hunters will curb this decline in hunter participation remains to be seen.
Public Support — Public acceptance of deer hunting as a deer management tool is critical if hunting, as we know it, is to survive and prosper. Fortunately, surveys indicate 76 percent of Americans approve of hunting, while only 16 percent disapprove.
Generally speaking, the non-hunting public is more likely to support hunting when it is conducted for meat consumption, animal control, or wildlife management purposes than they are for sport or to harvest a trophy. Unfortunately many non-hunters (as well as some hunters) consider QDM a form of trophy management. They fail to realize that nutritionally and socially balanced deer populations naturally produce more trophy bucks.
Hunter Access — Although most Americans view deer hunting favorably, they don’t necessarily want to see it in their backyard. Also, since the best big-game hunting takes place on private land, access to good hunting property is a problem. Currently, only about 16 percent of big-game hunters only hunt public land.
Landowner compensation for hunting rights — especially where public land is limited — is a common access strategy. However, as noted earlier, leasing of lands for hunting has declined in recent years.
Gaining access to private land that is not leased poses a special challenge. This is especially true for land owned by individuals rather than by corporations. Poor hunter behavior, safety, and liability are primary reasons many private land owners “post” their lands to no hunting.
“Given current trends,” says Murphy, “it is likely that social, economic, and legal barriers will make accessing private land for hunting more difficult and costly in the future.”
Deer Numbers — Although whitetail populations are slowly declining, they still occur in record high numbers in certain areas. As in the past, solving the urban deer overabundance dilemma will continue to be a very nasty problem. Sometimes, even when deer population size is within “biological” limits, deer still may be considered overly abundant by some segments of the public.
Some state agencies have expanded hunting seasons and bag limits or implemented earn-a-buck regulations to increase the antlerless deer harvest. Other deer control efforts have included sterilization, repellents, and relocation — all of which are costly and generally ineffective.
It’s encouraging to note primary sources of funding for Farmers and Hunters Feeding The Hungry, and similar programs designed to make use of excess harvested deer, now come from the non-hunting public.
Diseases — The recent occurrence of CWD and bovine tuberculosis (BT) are good examples of how deer diseases might impact the future of deer and deer hunting. If deer populations are not controlled, “too many” deer may contribute to an increase and spread of certain diseases that either directly or indirectly increase natural deer mortality rates and/or lead to human health hazards — which could be devastating to hunter participation or public support for hunting.
Predators — Coyotes are the primary predator of newborn fawns, and their numbers are definitely increasing in the eastern U.S. Recent research has shown that coyotes can be a significant source of natural mortality among whitetails and can impact recruitment rates.
Where overabundant deer are not controlled by hunting, coyote-induced fawn mortality might be considered beneficial. However, if coyote-induced fawn mortality is causing the deer population to decline to less than favorable levels for hunting, managers must increase deer productivity or reduce fawn mortality. In some cases, this might call for limiting the harvest of antlerless deer. Regardless, coyotes aren’t leaving any time soon, and now must be an integral art of the deer management strategy.
Privatization — According to Murphy, “Of all the challenges facing the future of deer and deer hunting and management, few are more complex and contentious than privatization. While high-fencing and captive deer breeding are widely considered practices which privatize the resource, effects of management practices such as supplemental feeding, baiting, and mineral supplementation are less clear and widely debated among hunters and wildlife professionals alike.”
Managers are especially concerned about the growth of the captive deer industry and its potential impact on wild deer herds and the future of hunting. While the introduction of captive-raised deer into the wild is tightly regulations, there are concerns that captive deer might be entered into the record books, or those that escape might carry and spread disease.
Of equal concern are the potentially negative effects of diet supplementation and baiting. Artificially attracting and concentrating deer for hunting purposes not only raises ethical concerns — especially among the non-hunting public — but also adds to the risk of disease transmission. As a result, more agencies are banning or restricting these practices.
Funding — Historically, hunters, trappers, and gun owners have been the ones funding wildlife conservation and management. Generally, non-hunters contend these sportsmen have too much control over decision making while the general public is excluded. Likewise, sportsmen argue that they have been responsible for an extremely successful wildlife program that benefits all of society. As hunter numbers decline, funding will become more limited.
Therefore, some suggest all of society should help fund these efforts, possibly via a system whereby state wildlife agencies would be funded by sales tax revenues.
The Wildlife Profession — Professional wildlifers are not what they were a few decades ago. Many wildlife biologists today not only have no hunting heritage and do not hunt, a growing number of them are probably anti-hunters. One study found that hunting among college wildlife students declined 10 to 60 percent in the past 30 or so years, while students with anti-hunting attitudes increased 30 to 50 percent.
Murphy readily acknowledges “hunting participation among wildlife professionals will [likely] decline, which could erode the level of support for hunting within the profession.”
What direction will white-tailed deer hunting and management take in the future? Certainly, as noted by Murphy, “future deer management will be shaped by an increasingly complex mix of biological, social, political, and economic forces…the answer will be determined by the effectiveness with which hunters, wildlife agencies, and the public establish ecologically responsible and adaptive solutions to future challenges.”
Hunters — Hunters are more educated, more dedicated, and more effective than ever before. In my view, that’s not the problem
— they’ll do their job, and do it well, given the opportunity. The problem is new hunters are not being recruited in sufficient numbers to replace us old guys. And I’m admittedly not certain we can maintain the current ratio (5 percent) of hunters in the population.
On the other hand, Murphy is optimistic. He contends “hunters will certainly become more diverse,” and that “fears regarding the demise of deer hunters in North America appear unfounded, at least for the foreseeable future.”
He acknowledges, however, that hunters will have to become more “politically engaged,” given the declining hunter participation within the wildlife profession and general agency shift toward non-consumptive wildlife uses. How well hunters are organized will largely determine their impact on agency direction in future deer management.
Intensive deer management on private lands will undoubtedly continue, whereas the fate of the captive cervid industry is less certain. Nonetheless, there are those who predict that hunting in North America is headed down the “European pathway” where only the wealthy will have access to deer hunting in the future.
The Public Trust Doctrine ensures that the government preserves and maintains natural resources on public land for reasonable use. But this does not guarantee a quality big-game hunting experience — a major concern given current policies in place.
Even so, Murphy is encouraged by the trend toward increasing land ownership and intensive habitat management for deer hunting purposes. This, he says will benefit all wildlife and help to maintain biodiversity.
Agencies — Funding to support the current level of wildlife management at the state level will likely become an even more serious problem, because license sales revenues are expected to decline while responsibilities increase. Although non-hunters will probably foot more of the cost of future wildlife management, deer hunting will become more expensive. New licenses and fees will emerge, and private consultants will become more involved, especially with regard to urban deer management.
The steadily increasing demand by hunters for older bucks is destined to lead to expansion of antler restriction programs and other techniques to protect young bucks. This will be a special problem on public lands.
Where deer are overly abundant, hunters can expect to see lengthened seasons, increased antlerless bag limits, and special weapons seasons. In forested and agricultural areas, where lower deer numbers are desired, more radical changes such as “shoot and let lay,” no bag limits, nighttime shooting, etc. are within the realm of possibilities. Even a commercial industry for wild-harvested whitetails could develop.
Monitoring of diseases such as CWD and BT will be an on-going expensive proposition. If other deer-related diseases emerge,
and seriously impact human health or the livestock industry, deer management and hunting could be faced with changes like we’ve never known.
Effective deer predators such as mountain lions, bears, wolves, and coyotes are here to stay. Coyotes, in particular, are likely to play an even more important role in future deer management strategies, and in some cases may be beneficial. We’ll just have to learn to live with them.
Public — In the future, it will be critically important for deer hunters to maintain a high degree of public support — or animal rights advocates may swing many to their camp. Wildlife managers and deer hunters must effectively demonstrate the positive role hunters play in all levels of wildlife conservation.
None of this will be easy. As society becomes more urbanized and nature ignorant, the non-hunting public will expect hunters to be more educated, proficient, and accountable — especially when involved in hunting the urban environment.
Indeed, the future of deer and deer hunting is precarious, to say the least. The opportunistic and adaptable whitetail will most certainly survive, but the future of deer hunting is more questionable.
As Brian Murphy has aptly demonstrated, there are good trends in progress that will strengthen the whitetail and hunter bond. Unfortunately, there are other potentially
serious negative effects just waiting to happen — any number of which could suddenly contribute to the
demise of deer hunting as we’ve known it.