February 6, 2023

The Science Of Deer Management We All Love To Hate

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Hunters know more about good deer management than any wildlife biologist! Or so many of us would like to think and what’s even worse, we like to spout off about it. After all what would there be to talk about at the coffee shop if it wasn’t griping and complaining about the whitetail deer management tactics used by our state fish and game departments.

The griping is directly proportional to the lack of deer seen by a hunter. The more a hunter beats the bramble and sees no deer, the more the complaining. That complaining drops off drastically once a nice buck is bagged.

Sometimes hunters have legitimate complaints but mostly the lack of deer sightings is the result of their own hunting tactics. Deer a very adaptive animals. Hunters aren’t. Hunters tend to choose the same tree stand, hunt the same patch of woods and approach it the same way every trip in, especially if they have been successful in the past. Deer could care less. They migrate to where there is food, cover and little harassment.

Deer will remain in an area time and again unless circumstances force them someplace else. Usually the two biggest forces they have to adjust to are lack of food and lost of cover. If deer population in your favorite hunting spot gets too large, the deer will eat up all the food forcing them to move to another location to eat. Logging operations will have the same negative affect often because of the reduction of food and lack a good cover.

So when the hunter returns to his old stomping grounds and finds things have changed in any or all of the above mentioned, they translate that into a state-wide event. This of course is not the case but it is good fodder for an intense session of moaning and groaning at the local greasy spoon.

Let’s not kid ourselves either. Deer management is science – it’s supposed to be but we all know that politics plays a role and this is further reason to crucify the fish and game during the same debate at the same coffee shop. Some hunters actually believe that each year wildlife biologists put on their packs and pick up a clipboard and head out into the bush to count deer. The same uninformed think that airplanes are used each year to count deer.

A more accurate description is these methods are used rarely because they are expensive. That isn’t to say the biologists don’t go out into the woods to conduct studies and look at trends. There are far more hunters than biologists and a half-million hunters spread out across the state during hunting season can’t cover every patch of woods how could a handful of scientists do this?

In basic terms, mainly because I don’t completely understand the formulas that are used, biologists use data they collect each year from several resources. All this data is plugged into a “formula” and an estimate of the state’s deer population is derived. Included in those calculations is an educated guess as to what the buck to doe ratios might be. With all this information, biologists make a recommendation to fish and game commissions as to how many permits should be issued for what sexes of deer in order to achieve desired population numbers and ratios.

Is it perfect? No. Is it exact? No, but once a fish and game department puts together a working scientific formula, they stick with it for relatively long periods of time mostly because of cost restraints. There are some flaws to this method but overall the results are pretty good when looking at a management district and the state in general. This might mean your favorite hunting spot doesn’t fall into the same “norms” as the rest of the district your once-honey-spot is located.

Unfortunately for you and me, our favorite wildlife biologist doesn’t personally manage our favorite hunting spots. Contrary to what has been brought up in previous coffee shop discussions, the biologists down at the fish and game office don’t have a personal vendetta against you. Chances are they don’t even know who you are or where you hunt. I have suspected for a long time the my local game warden goes into my favorite spot and chases the deer out before I get there. It has to be. Where else would the deer go?

In an ideal world with a bottomless money resource, biologists would be flying in planes and helicopters counting deer each year, maybe even several times a year. They would be doing more and better studies finding the best methods for deer management not restricted by costs. But what would that do for us when we got to the local yokel diner? What would we have to complain about?

Does this mean we should shut up and leave the fish and game alone? Of course not! That would be un-American. No institution should be given complete autonomy to do as the please with public funds. No, I would suppose that one value we get from our license fees, is bad coffee and a good gripe session.

Tom Remington