February 7, 2023

Should We Have More Emphasis On Hunter Participation While Computing Deer Populations?

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Deer management is a complex issue, one that baffles me at times. Just about the time I think I’ve gotten a grasp on the basics of how wildlife biologists use their collected data in determining whether they are reaching management goals, I discover there’s another formula that is factored into the overall algorithm.

I was e-mailing back and forth the other day with Lee Kantar, wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, trying to retrieve some information about deer densities in certain parts of the state along with buck-to-doe ratios. Lee has been more than helpful in my quest.

Upon receiving a response from Lee, he also included a few words of wisdom to help me better understand what real information I was looking for.

Please also realize that the model is only 1 element of the entire system. Maine’s system is built on a solid foundation of research within the state and uses principles adopted from research on white-tailed deer in other states including New York and Michigan, looking at just one component of the entire system is like looking at a puzzle with missing pieces, you have to take everything into account.

That all sounded well and good but I wouldn’t realize until several days later exactly what Lee was talking about. Following his advice, I downloaded and printed out a 147-page document about Maine’s Deer Management System(pdf file). As I read and studied, I soon realize full well what Lee was talking about.

One aspect of the entire management system for white tail deer began to jump out at me last night. The part titled, “Deer Hunting Participation, Effort And Success”, blew my mind. I still haven’t fully understood all the ins and outs, twists and turns of how actual hunter participation plays a role in determining deer densities and a host of other important things. Enough so that I began putting together a few formulas of my own and thought to myself, “You know, if I had no other means available to me to determine deer population, I could do a pretty good job with only working with hunter participation, effort and success.”

I’m not so naive to believe that my assumption is completely valid but I have grasped a better understanding. First let me make an attempt at explaining some of the things that wildlife officials do to manage the deer herd. Maybe the first thing to do is clear up some misnomers that haunt hunting camps and coffee shops everywhere. Wildlife biologists don’t spread out in vast numbers during the winter months and count deer. When you read in the papers, magazines and Internet, stories about deer management and someone is quoted as saying there are an estimated 325,000 deer in our state, that doesn’t mean biologists went out and counted them by hand, or with planes and helicopters. If they had done that, more than likely they would have proudly told the world about it.

In essence counting deer is done through estimations derived by taking into consideration many things. Some of those are weather, habitat, carrying capacity, available food, predation, spring birth rates, hunter participation and a whole host of other things. Take for example weather. Maine uses what’s called a Winter Severity Index. In this report I’m reading, biologists have concluded that the WSI might need some tweaking because they have learned about other factors in weather that have significant impacts on deer survival.

It’s pretty easy for you and I to sit in the comfort of our homes and make a determination as to whether or not our winter is mild or severe, or can we? What constitutes a mild winter and what determines a severe one. There are obvious things like depth of snow and cold temperatures but it’s not quite that simple. An average snow year can be detrimental to the deer herd depending on the type of snow it is. How mobile are deer? Can they get to their food supplies? Can they escape predation?

Let’s say a doe conceived early in the rut. Gestation is fixed, so she would have her young, early in the spring. We may have had an average or even milder winter and yet it became prolonged with a very cold, wet spring that perhaps had influence of habitat including food. The fawn may not make it and starve or die from exposure. A weakened fawn also makes them vulnerable to predation. What we thought was an average or maybe even milder than normal winter, turned out to be hard on the spring fawns. Are you getting a picture of some of the complexities?

Wildlife managers create their models and during the course of the year, they inject their data from a host of sources – tagging station information, weather, deer yard data, etc.. This requires an unbelievable amount of time and effort and once completed, a determination is made on the status of the deer herd. With these figures, they go to work to determine how many “Any-Deer” permits will be issued for each of the WMDs across the state. Sounds simple enough, right? I would like to point out that although I said biologists don’t go out and count deer, it’s not exactly complete. During the winter they visit certain deer wintering areas to collect data, which includes some counting.

Let’s get back to hunter participation. Would you consider the idea that the more hunting licenses sold, the more deer will be shot? I’ve made that assumption before, after all it’s only logical. Not necessarily true though. If you look at just hunting licenses sold, you also have to know about hunter effort. Let me try to explain as it is difficult to totally comprehend.

If all other factors in estimating deer densities remained constant, hunting effort can tell us many things. In Maine, hunters are required to tag all deer they harvest. During the tagging process, aside from any data or samples that might be collected by wildlife biologists, we are required to give the tagging agent information about the deer, i.e. which WMD it was taken from, etc. Maine officials use this information to determine how many deer and of what sex where killed and in what WMD. This is extremely valuable information and is the easiest to collect. (Maine is having difficulties with getting accurate counts of antlerless deer since the onset of hunters being able to buy their licenses online. It has to do with matching numbers but biologists would like this corrected.)

If it is estimated that there are 250,000 deer before the hunt and biologists estimate that 47,000 deer will be harvested in the current season and only 42,000 were actually taken, does that mean there aren’t as many deer as first thought? Doesn’t it make sense that there must not be? If Maine sold as many licenses as they estimated would happen, then why isn’t this true?

This is where we have to factor in hunter effort. Participation says XX number of people bought a hunting license, effort tells us how much they hunted and success reveals how many were taken. I’m sure if someone hasn’t already done it, there is a law of averages for how many hours a hunter must put in before he/she bags a deer. Simply because participation was average and success was low, doesn’t determine that deer densities are low.

Weather and a whole host of other factors will determine how many hours hunters spend chasing deer. Under the scenario given, a low hunter effort could produce the same result as there being too few deer. Of course it works the other way as well. I high yield of deer by a fixed average number of hunters doesn’t necessarily mean that deer densities were high before the start of hunting season.

What I have explained is the simplest of examples. When an individual buys a hunting license, we don’t know for what purpose the licensee is buying it. Will they hunt deer, bear, moose, rabbit, all or any of these? Consider also the different kinds of licenses as well and how success rates can influence hunter effort at other times. Here’s an example of what I mean. If I am an avid hunter, I may buy an archery, regular, muzzleloading, and any other license available to me The first day of archery, I bag a trophy buck and don’t hunt the rest of the year. In the overall calculations, these differences all add up when calculating deer estimates. Biologists need to know how much effort I put in when I bagged by deer.

So what does this all mean? Does this mean, fish and game aren’t doing a good job managing our deer herd? Does this mean the algorithms they use are not reliable? For the most part, I believe the biologists are doing a great job. They are the first to admit that the models they use aren’t perfect, after all they are scientists. Biologists wish they had an endless supply of money to do deer counts and all the surveys they want, then they would be certain exactly what the conditions are of the herd at anytime. Not going to happen.

So my question is this. If as I read in the Deer Management System, not factoring in hunter effort has as big an impact on management calculations, why doesn’t fish and game require hunters to participate in hunter surveys? The report says that one every year would be nice but a minimum of every three years would suffice.

Some states require hunters to fill out a report at the conclusion of each season. Surely hunters want the healthiest deer herd possible in order to be able to hunt and have better success. Why wouldn’t they participate in a survey? Is it that expensive to have hunters either fill out a paper or electronic survey?

It would seem that with the importance that can be realized from hunter surveys, this would be a far easier task than most in collecting data. After all, hunters are available and can communicate. Deer can’t. Of the things we can control in efforts to manage deer, I would think required survey participation is asking very little of the hunter.

What do you think?

Tom Remington