Biologists face new challenges as herd dynamics change.
Like nature itself, white-tailed deer management is in a constant state of change. Too many deer, too few hunters, disease, even the constant evolution of hunters themselves creates new management hurdles for deer biologists.
It’s no surprise that a host of new challenges is on the horizon. Some are relatively minor, but others, like the increase in coyote numbers and their impact on deer, are taking center stage in discussions among hunters and biologists alike.
THE COYOTE FACTOR
Coyotes weren’t even part of the whitetail equation in the South and Southeast 20 or even 10 years ago. Coyotes have not only arrived, they have flourished, expanding to every state east of the Mississippi. Thanks to a rash of new studies, we now know they are taking a heavy toll on whitetail fawns.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources deer biologist Charlie Killmaster says studies have shown that coyote predation is responsible for a 26 percent decrease in fawn recruitment (survival) in Georgia over the last 10 years. Other studies have shown even higher rates of predation. As a result, deer populations have fallen. So has hunter harvest. That’s forcing deer managers to make management decisions with coyotes in mind.
“We proposed converting 25 either-sex days to buck-only to decrease the doe harvest,” says Killmaster. “It’s a result of a number of factors, but coyote predation is certainly one reason we want to reduce our antlerless deer harvest.”
Aside from shifting harvest pressure away from antlerless deer, there isn’t much hunters or wildlife managers can do about coyotes.
Georgia isn’t alone. A study on South Carolina’s Savannah River Site examined the effects of intense and prolonged coyote removal efforts on fawn recruitment. It worked, but only because the study areas were trapped full-time by experts skilled at catching coyotes in leg-hold traps.
“We have almost no restrictions on taking coyotes in South Carolina, but our fawn recruitment is still declining,” adds Killmaster. “I doubt hunters and trappers can make much difference.”
That’s why states with growing coyote populations are shifting management efforts in an attempt to stay ahead of the coyote curve.
South Carolina reduced the number of doe days in some parts of the state, partly as a response to increased coyote predation. Other states like Virginia are taking a new look at declines in deer populations and the role of coyotes. Killmaster isn’t too concerned, though. He says any decline in deer numbers can be countered with regulation changes.
“I think they will eventually balance out,” he notes, pointing to states that have always had coyotes and deer. “Texas has lots of coyotes and lots of deer.”
SILENCE OF THE SAWS
The coyote factor may be just one of several issues facing wildlife managers in some parts of the country. For instance, deer numbers have plummeted on public land in the southern Appalachian Mountains, some of the most productive whitetail habitat in the country just 30 years ago.
Hunters flocked to places like the George Washington National Forest in western Virginia, the Nantahala in North Carolina and the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Deer were abundant, success rates were high and, best of all, anyone could hunt those millions of acres of public land.
The land is still public, but the deer aren’t there. The harvest on North Carolina’s mountainous public land is down 31 percent from the mid-1990s. It’s down 44 percent in western Maryland, 51 percent on Virginia’s national forest land and down a whopping 62 percent on West Virginia’s national forests. Even Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest and Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest aren’t what they used to be.
Coyotes may be partly to blame, but the bigger issue is the aging of our national forests. What was once a mosaic of varying-age habitat thanks to timber harvest is now a homogenous sea of trees 80 to 100 years old. Simply put, it’s poor deer habitat.
Thank the environmental movement for that. Groups like the Sierra Club and countless environmental organizations like the Southern Environmental Law Center sue the U.S. Forest Service at the mere mention of a timber sale. As a result, logging and the bountiful habitat it creates is virtually nonexistent on national forest land.
Prime habitat created by logging 30 years ago has aged and no longer offers food or cover for whitetails.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer project coordinator Matt Knox says the decline in deer harvest on Virginia’s national forest isn’t just a result of declining habitat. A number of factors have played a role.
“The vast majority of deer hunters in Virginia do not have to go to the mountains to deer hunt anymore,” he said. “(They) can shoot all they want in their back yard. There’s no question the habitat isn’t what it used to be, though.”
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to change any time soon. While some environmentalists are realizing that early successional habitat is actually beneficial to a variety of wildlife, anti-logging forces still control the debate.
Worse, as our forests grow older, the oaks that provide vital acorns are gradually being replaced by maples and other shade-tolerant trees that don’t produce a mast crop.
Deer numbers might have crashed on large tracts of public property over the last decade, but populations skyrocketed on private property during the same time, so much so, in fact, shooting an antlered deer is as simple as sitting still for a few hours for many hunters.
The deer boom helped foster a new attitude among hunters, one that focused on healthy herds and older bucks. It also spawned the quality deer management movement.
Mississippi was the first state in recent history to adopt some QDM principles when it implemented antler point restrictions on some wildlife management areas in the late 1980s. Since then, at least 22 states have adopted some form of quality deer management regulation.
Quality Deer Management Association Director of Outreach and Education Kip Adams, however, sees a future without QDM regulations, not because they aren’t working or because hunters don’t want them anymore. Instead, he thinks state wildlife agencies will reverse QDM-specific rules because so many hunters will be fully engaged in QDM principles on their own.
“More and more hunters are voluntarily practicing QDM and, in many cases, are going beyond the regulations,” says Adams. “Hunters are in the driver’s seat when it comes to deer management. They are far more knowledgeable than they have ever been, and they are much more engaged in policy that affects deer and deer hunting.”
Adams also sees the future removal of QDM regulations as part of a trend to simplify all hunting regulations. Efforts to recruit new hunters and retain existing ones include revamping laws and regulations that can be confusing to occasional hunters who make up a large percentage of license buyers. What beginning hunter wants to risk a ticket over a buck that didn’t meet a minimum measurement?
DECLINING HUNTER NUMBERS
Even as wildlife managers appease their constituents, hunter numbers continue to slide in some states.
Overall, the number of hunters increased nationwide between 2006 and 2011, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Long-term trends paint a bleaker picture, though.
In 1988, for example, 8% of Virginia residents bought a hunting license. That number fell to just 4% in 2011. It’s expected to slide to just 2.5% in 2040.
The decline will have a significant and lasting effect on state wildlife agencies and their ability to manage deer.
Knox can’t say what will happen if hunters fail to control deer numbers. While that’s not likely in the near term, he admits anything is possible in the distant future, and it might not be good for sportsmen.
Whitetails could be reduced to non-game status, which could give landowners and farmers the freedom to shoot deer at will.
Also, population control would likely be conducted by sharpshooters using spotlights and bait piles. Both are already used as a management tool in extreme situations, but such methods may become far more widespread if hunters are unable to do their part.
A NEW TYPE OF MANAGER
State wildlife agencies could turn deer management over to individual landowners for a related reason: They simply can’t afford to oversee deer on a fine-scale level.
If hunter numbers continue to fall, so will revenue from license sales, the primary source of funding that pays for biologists. That could leave a skeleton crew of biologists to manage all wildlife for an entire state.
It’s unlikely wildlife agencies will abandon their deer programs, though, even as money becomes tighter. Whitetail management will always be a vital part their mission. But the new generation of biologists could be more willing to allow hunters the freedom to make more decisions about their deer herds.
“Many of these new biologists grew up under the QDM philosophy, so they are much more QDM-minded than their predecessors,” Adams says. “I think they are much more likely to be open to new ideas and more engaged with hunters and more willing to cater to hunters’ wishes.”
ISSUE NUMBER ONE
One thing rookie and veteran biologists agree on is the looming danger of diseases, mostly chronic wasting disease. First identified in captive mule deer in Colorado in 1967, the disease was found in wild elk and mule deer in the 1980s. It made its way to wild whitetails in 2001 and is now in 22 states and two provinces.
“Disease, particularly chronic wasting disease, is the biggest management challenge we are facing,” says Adams. “It could have a devastating impact on whitetails. It’s not going away any time soon, either.”
Virginia’s Matt Knox agrees. Coyotes, QDM, declining hunter numbers and declining deer numbers are minor compared to CWD, which continues to spread its range and increase in prevalence.
The neurological disease is always fatal to animals that contract it, but it is not transmissible to humans. Rates of infection have reached 27 percent in some parts of Wisconsin. Additionally, positive tests have increased tenfold in all tested whitetails in Wisconsin in the last 10 years.
“The other challenges are certainly something we need to address as they arise, but I’m confident we can figure them out,” says Adams. “The CWD issue is much more complex, and it will take a broader effort to come up with a manageable solution.”
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This article was published in the September 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.