By C.J. Winand


Future Deer Management (Part I)
Are we on the right track?

Last year’s hunting season was one of immense intrigue and excitement. By the end of October, I had more bucks within 20 yards than I have in the past three years combined. This dramatic increase in buck sightings did not occur due to a change in my hunting tactics, camouflage clothing, cover scent or even from increased time afield, it resulted from a change in our approach to deer management. After years of shooting little bucks and letting herds of does walk by, our hunting group had become frustrated because none of the bucks on our property were reaching the 15-inch outside spread guideline desired by our group. As a result, four years ago we opted for a new approach and implemented a Quality Deer Management (QDM) program.

What exactly is QDM? Brian Murphy, Executive Director of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), defines QDM as "A management philosophy/practice that unites landowners, hunters and biologists in a common goal of producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social and legal constraints." According to Joe Hamilton, wildlife biologist and QDMA founder, "QDM typically involves the protection of young bucks combined with an adequate harvest of female deer to maintain a healthy population that is in balance with existing habitat conditions." In other words, the goal of QDM is to produce quality deer (bucks, does and fawns), quality habitat, quality hunters and quality hunting experiences.

Years ago, harvesting any deer with a bow or gun was an accomplishment. This still applies in some parts of the country, but with burgeoning deer populations and liberal bags limits, many hunters have become dissatisfied with traditional deer management practices and want more from their deer hunting experience than just an opportunity to put a young buck in the freezer.

Likewise, until recently, the thought letting a young buck pass would have never been considered by most hunters. However, this trend is changing as an increasing number of hunters are becoming interested in learning more about deer biology and management. The evolution of QDM, particularly in the last few years, has provided hunters with this opportunity. QDM focuses on deer herd quality instead of the total number of bucks harvested and emphasizes active hunter participation in management. In effect, it provides an opportunity to give more to the resource than what is taken.

Nowadays, our hunting group takes does as our main menu item. By shooting more does, we not only help the environment, but increase our chances of taking quality bucks in the future. We now realize that we are not simply "consumers" of wildlife but are in fact "managers". In other words, whenever we decide to take a doe or buck we make a conscious management decision. Collectively, these management decisions dictate the overall success (or failure) of our management program.

Most hunters realize that it is not the hunter, but where the hunter hunts which dictates his/her success. If the truth be known, many of the so-called "celebrity hunters" are no more accomplished than the average hunter. The main difference is that they have the opportunity to hunt some of the best whitetail areas in the country. Without question, the average hunter could take similar quality animals if they had the opportunity to hunt some of these fabled "hot-spots."

If there is any real secret to harvesting quality bucks like these well-known's implementing (and following) a QDM program. The good news is that, armed with a basic understanding of deer biology and management, you too can participate in QDM. Although we all have different objectives and abilities when it comes to deer management, many hunters have been unsuccessful at improving the quality of their herds simply because they do not understand basic deer biology.

Since many agency biologists do not or are not allowed to dedicate much of their time to conducting educational seminars, "What is a hunter to do?" For starters, I would strongly suggest joining the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). The QDMA is made up of many of the country’s top deer biologists who document their latest findings in the QDMA’s quarterly magazine, "Quality Whitetails". This publication is only available to members and not sold at newsstands.

After becoming more informed about deer biology and management through the QDMA’s educational materials you may ask, "What are we doing to our deer herds?" Presently, most state wildlife agencies allow hunters to harvest any antlered buck during the legal season. This approach substantially depletes young bucks, particularly those just 1 1/2 years old, and results in skewed adult sex ratios and a young buck age structure. With no thought to the social ramifications, many herds are subjected to a harvest regime that causes a herd's social mechanisms to become highly stressed. In other words, Mother Nature never intended 1 1/2-year-old bucks to be the primary breeders in the herd.

Dr. David Guynn from Clemson University asks these questions: "Is a given deer population living well or is it suffering social misery due to imbalances in herd structure" and "Why should we concern ourselves with maintaining a natural social balance in a managed deer herd?" His answer; "Because, to survive as long as they have, deer long ago developed social rules or mechanisms that would keep deer herds and their individual members fit and competitive." There is little doubt Dr. Guynn has developed a great deal of foresight regarding the future management needs of white-tailed deer.

For years many private biologists and wildlife researchers have been urging governmental game agencies to consider the social mechanisms of big-game populations in their management approach. While some agencies have listened, the majority have not. As a result, many landowners and hunters have accepted the responsibility of harvesting the correct sex and age of deer on their property by implementing a QDM program.

For example, in 1993 the landowners and hunters in Dooly County, Georgia, voluntarily implemented a county-wide QDM program. The three-year trial program began with a 66% public (landowner and hunter) approval, but just three years later, a follow-up survey revealed that 74% of landowners and 89% of hunters approved of the program. Imagine nearly nine out of 10 hunters in an entire county in total agreement! Impressively, the number of 3.5+ year old bucks in the harvest increased by 156% in three seasons. Even with a very liberal doe harvest, the deer population has not disappeared as some hunters initially feared. Dooly County hunters have passed the test and now practice what they preach. Credit for this success goes to the landowners and hunters of Dooly County. The Georgia DNR has agreed to allow Dooly County to continue their QDM program and has established procedures for other counties to do the same. As a result, another county has implemented the program and several other counties are currently going through the process to do likewise.

It is amazing what landowners, hunters and biologists can do when they work together for the future of white-tailed deer. Although many traditions are hard to change, according to Dr. R. Larry Marchinton, noted whitetail authority and Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia, "QDM is a management philosophy whose time has come."

Like some biologists, many hunters do not understand what QDM is all about and simply discount the philosophy. Instead, they advocate the traditional deer management (TDM) approach of shooting almost all of the yearling bucks and insufficient numbers of does. What typically results are large, poor quality deer herds containing few, if any, adult bucks. Dr. James Kroll from Stephen F. Austin University writes, "A study of population trends, harvest age and sex structure of white-tailed deer provides concern for the future of the species and creates serious questions about the efficiency of modern deer management principles."

While TDM was successful in restoring deer herds across much of this country, increasingly, this approach is becoming obsolete. Since we face so many deer problems today, there must be an alternative to TDM. The need to embrace a new deer management paradigm has come and the answer is QDM! Dr. Kroll urges "all agency biologists to develop strategies immediately, which are aimed at dampening white-tailed deer population growth", specifically, using QDM principles!

In conclusion, it is clear that today's hunters are more knowledgeable about deer biology and management than ever before and, armed with the right information and assistance, most are capable of effectively managing the deer on their lands. We must recognize that biologists make management recommendations and hunters make management decisions. This is not to say that the services of qualified wildlife biologists will no longer be required. On the contrary, wildlife biologists have and will continue to play an integral role in scientific deer management.

Furthermore, we encourage governmental agencies to recognize the benefits of QDM and become active participants in directing the future of deer management. Ultimately, our children and grandchildren will have to live with our we stay with TDM or turn over a new leaf called QDM?

Prominent wildlife biologist, John Ozoga says it best, "Generally speaking, we have a choice. We hunters can either lead the way with progressive QDM, in an effort to create more natural deer populations, and show our true concern for the long-term welfare of the whitetail, or we can wait until we're literally forced into action - just to save our sport." Clearly, the future of deer hunting is in our hands. In Part II, we will look at hunter attitudes under a QDM program and discuss habitat impacts associated with too many deer.

For more information on Quality Deer Management, contact the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) a non-profit organization dedicated to sound deer management and ethical hunting. Call 1-800-209-DEER or write to P.O. Box 227, Watkinsville, GA 30677. The $20.00 annual membership fee entitles you to their quarterly journal, Quality Whitetails, and access to a wealth of other educational materials such as their latest video "Let Him Go So He Can Grow: Understanding Quality Deer Management" and their book, Quality Whitetails: The Why and How of Quality Deer Management, written by 24 nationally recognized biologists and edited by Dr.'s. Karl V. Miller and R. Larry Marchinton. Membership in the QDMA is a hunter’s first step in achieving a quality deer herd and improving the quality of their hunting experience.

True or False? Increasing your doe harvest can increase the number of bucks on your property the following year.

Obviously there are many factors influencing this decision, but generally the answer is true!

C.J. Winand is a whitetail biologist from Randallstown, MD. He is a staff writer for Bowhunter and writes the "Huntin' Whitetails" column.