Some wildlife biologists worry the whitetail, the backbone of American hunting, is running tail-flagging for a crash. Doctor Grant Woods, a consulting wildlife biologist who assesses deer herds all over the country, has said, “I think we’re nearing a crisis mode. The best-case scenario is that deer populations drop 10 to 25 percent over the next couple years.”
The thing is, according to numbers crunched by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), whitetail populations in North America already have fallen by about 10 percent since 2008. In 2008 the QDMA estimated there were between 32-33 million whitetails; now the QDMA estimates there are closer to 30 million. If those estimates are accurate and projected forward, it’s conceivable the population could fall toward 20 million.
Increasing predator populations, commodity prices, disease outbreaks and aging habitat in the Northeast and parts of the South are factors making some worry this might be the beginning of a precipitous check in what has been, in many areas, an over-populated herd. Most biologists, however, see this as a much more complex and localized issue.
Brian Murphy, CEO of the QDMA and a wildlife biologist, doesn’t think the whitetail is headed for a crash. “We’re just entering a period many didn’t foresee,” he says. “Instead of the surging whitetail numbers of the 1990s and early 2000s, we’re seeing stable to slightly declining populations in many regions as populations fall in line with habitat.”
Murphy also points out that over the last few decades the quality-deer management concept has been experimented with in many states. In 2011, 22 states utilized some kind of an antler-point restriction; eight of them had statewide restrictions. Meanwhile, 10 states had “earn-a-buck” regulations in parts or all of their states.
“Earn-a-buck regulations are highly effective at increasing antlerless harvests,” notes the QDMA’s Whitetail Report 2012 (QDMA.com), “but are widely unpopular among hunters.”
Reducing herds also can be unpopular. Early in the 20th century America’s hunters footed the bill for much of the whitetail’s comeback and now are actively utilized to manage North America’s game. But the controversy over population goals aside, to some extent the lower overall whitetail population has been accomplished by design.
Beyond the sometimes-controversial measures taken by state game agencies to reduce herds, a few factors affect deer populations that wildlife managers aren’t completely sure how to factor in, and it’s these factors some biologists fear.
Predators on the Increase
Overall, the average fawn survival rate declined significantly from 2000-2010. The QDMA says, according to state statistics, the rate (to 6 months) was .81 fawns per adult doe in 2000 but just .66 in 2010. Regionally, it varied. In Michigan just .39 fawns made it to 6 months whereas in Iowa 1.3 per doe lived until fall. In the Northeast, Maine had the highest fawn recruitment rate (.75), followed by Pennsylvania (.70).
“This, more than any other factor,” says Murphy, “is something we can change by lobbying our state agencies to manage public lands not just for trees, but also for wildlife.”
The Future of Deer Management
Though herd management is a very regional issue and antler size is not necessarily a measure of a quality experience, it is certainly true that the next great movement in deer hunting needs to be centered on how game managers can improve the quality of the environments on public lands. If this doesn’t occur, deer hunting as an American pastime could decline substantially.