April 1, 2023

If I Were In Charge of MDIFW

The Maine Sportsman, a print publication, carried an article in their January 2017 edition written by Joe Saltalamachia, Director of Admissions at Unity College in Maine. The title was, “If You Were in Charge of DIF&W…” In the February, 2017 edition, the magazine published comments left by readers who responded to Mr. Saltalamachia’s suggestions of what things he would change in order to, “increase the number of big deer in Maine,” by changing the whitetail deer hunting rules.

First let me give you the brief list of the author’s recommendations:

1. No rifle hunting during the November rut in the southern third of the state.

2. An early two-week muzzleloader season and expanded archery opportunities.

3. A delay in the firearms season to the first two weeks of December

4. Youth Day rules all season for those younger than 16.

We should draw our attention to the fact that the author’s suggestions are based, evidently, completely upon the concept of increasing the number of big deer in Maine. This is a common desire for those who seem to be hung up on trophy hunting rather than meat hunting. One of the aspects of Quality Deer Management seems always focused on growing older and bigger deer, not necessarily for the health of the deer herd but to grow bigger deer for more opportunities to bag trophy deer. I guess that’s fine if that is the purpose of deer hunting and has no serious affects on the health of the herd, including, but not limited to, age structure and sex ratio. But surveys still indicate the majority of deer hunters are meat hunters, but would be happy to bag a “trophy” in the process.

I’ve been searching to find where one outdoor writer suggested that making rules and regulations, i.e. antler point restrictions or most any rule changes for the purpose of growing older and bigger deer, would bring the structure of the deer herd more in line with a natural selection. I can’t find it, sorry. But, Huh?

What would the age structure, sex ratio, etc. of deer look like if man disappeared from the planet? Of course nobody knows…even if they think or say they do. What would the age structure, sex ratio, etc. of deer look like if man didn’t necessarily disappear but left deer management up to “natural selection?” That we might have a bit of a better idea, depending upon who’s “science” you want to believe to support theories. Despite Romance Biology and Voodoo Science ideology, the ups and downs of Natural Regulation would provide periods, perhaps extended periods, of shortages of game and relative abundance. Perhaps the worst case scenario would be a predator pit environment – where depending upon the availability of alternative prey, predators can and do tear deer and other ungulate populations to effectively zero, but certainly unsustainable levels.

So long as man walks the planet, his influence will be felt in many ways, including the existence and prevalence of whitetail deer in Maine. It was realized at least 100 years ago that if man wanted to sustain and perpetuate game animals as a resource for sustenance, they had to do more than just let things take care of themselves. Game management was born and has been evolving since then – mostly for the good but of late is tending to be dominated by misguided scientists trained by environmentalists with agendas – huge supporters of Romance Biology and Voodoo Science.

In know I have gotten off task just a smidgen, but the point to make is that everything that man does in regards to game/wildlife management is a manipulation, done presumably for the benefit of man for purposes such as hunting the surplus populations to regulate game populations. Whatever we do, to some degree, we are manipulating the age structure, sex ratio, etc. Some activities will strongly and perhaps wrongly alter the age structure and sex ratio., etc. and those acts we need to consider seriously before creating the wrong manipulations for solely selfish reasons – that is, provided we understand what the structures need to be in order to accomplish the goals set out in our plans for game management.

With this in mind, we must then ask the question of whether or not the suggestions being made, to grow older and bigger “trophy” deer, are in the best interest of the deer herd or the best interest of the trophy hunter, both, or are there any real differences worth noting?

Scientifically I cannot fully answer that question, and I’m not sure who can. Yes, we’ll have those who swear by and make claims that these suggestions have proven a great thing (personal value-weighted perspective) in other places across America, but Maine is not other places. To suggest otherwise might be tell-tale of one’s ignorance of the myriad of influencing factors found within a deer’s habitat.

We can have our ideology, but doesn’t, or shouldn’t, the bottom line come down to science? Should game biologists and administrators buckle to the pressures of seemingly selfish trophy hunters just to keep them happy, even if this is to the detriment of meat hunters – or vice-versa? Isn’t this just another example of attempting to manage deer and other game animals based on social pressures rather than sound science? If the science finds changing rules to grow bigger, older deer has no real affect on the deer population, then it may be appropriate to look into finding ways to satisfy the social demands, while at the same time satisfying the majority of hunters. On the other hand, let science trump social demands. It may anger some, but the onus will be on the scientists to factually explain the science behind their decisions. I’m not sure that is being done effectively.

So, from the perspective of the context of what the author is looking for, growing bigger and older bucks, then the discussion can focus on whether or not the four suggested deer hunting rule changes would accomplish that task.

I have some concerns.

First, bear in mind that in my review of the comments from readers about the article in question, it appears that readers were nearly equally split. However, I do not know whether the comments published were all comments or even a representation of the whole. There were those that were fully on board with the author’s suggestions, and while the remainder may not have outwardly opposed the rule changes, many voiced concern (?) that it would be a daunting task to convince the majority of “meat” hunters in Maine to go along with such deer management manipulations. These things I understood.

What appeared obvious to me from the comments was that the majority of those who appeared in favor of bigger and older bucks, also believed in accomplishing this manipulation there would be more deer and that their efforts to harvest that trophy buck would require less effort. Is this the direction we want to go in? – i.e. bigger, older bucks for trophies, more deer with less effort. That’s hard for me to swallow. As much as I might gripe and complain about not seeing many, or any, deer, aren’t we decreasing the value (yes, value-weighted individual perspective) of the hunt. Remember the old adage our parents once taught us that you appreciate more the things you have to work hard for.

I don’t have a lot of understanding about rule proposals 1, 2, and 4. The only comment I will make has to do with no hunting during the rut in the southern third of the state. I have heard the argument that when bucks are shot during the rutting season, this prevents does from getting bred. I would like to see actual science behind this theory, as what I have studied does not suggest this. Most past studies will show that does will get bred. This is partially supported by the fact that a doe will continue in estrus until such time as she has become successfully bred.

This reminds of the study undertaken at Cornell University as they attempted to “solve” a problem with too many deer on or near campus. Scientists, and the help of students, created an experiment in which they essentially prevented the does from getting pregnant through the process of tubal ligation. The result ended up with more deer than they started with because the biological manipulation may have stopped the does from getting pregnant but left them in perpetual estrus – a giant calling card for any buck downwind.

To move the regular rifle season on deer to the first two weeks in December, could actually be quite detrimental to the population of bucks and surely would end up killing off older bucks. It is for this reason I have generally been opposed to the muzzleloader seasons that run into the second week in December. Fortunately the hunter effort for this late season is not nearly as great as what is seen in the regular rifle season.

Now, move the rifle season to the first two weeks in December, placing tens of thousands of hunters in the woods chasing already exhausted bucks because of the rut, and the harassment will further prevent the spent bucks from replenishing what little time they have before yarding up, driving them deeper into exhaustion further limiting their survival through the winter. This makes little sense to me. Also keep in mind that shortening the rifle season to two weeks, instead of four, could possibly result in 4 times the amount of pressure on bucks, at this late period of the season.

I am also reminded of a piece of scholarship written by Dr. Valerius Geist, Professor emeritus, Faculty of Environmental Design, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in reference to whether or not killing “trophy” bucks would weaken the gene pool. It should only be fitting that some kind of a definition be given to what a “trophy” deer constitutes. Perhaps my description that I used in the above referenced article will suffice: “the effort of hunters to select an animal for harvesting that has large antlers/horns in combination with big body mass.”

Environmentalists have often attempted to attack deer hunting, as well as all forms of hunting, in various ways. One way was to make up “science” and the claim that “trophy hunting” spoils the gene pool. Not only does the evidence show this claim is false but studies suggest some very interesting things about big-antlered and big-bodied, so-called, “trophy” deer.

Geist writes:

“Optimal results were achieved by artificially preventing males from rutting. Males that did not rut had no need to heal the severe rutting wounds suffered by rutting males, and were thus able to shift their body resources from repair and re-growth into increased body and antler growth. Moreover, the absence of wounding would lead to the desirable symmetrical antler growth.

“However, stags that reached maximum antler development were severely handicapped by their unwieldy antlers in fighting and tended to lose out to normally antlered males. Not infrequently trophy stags locked their complex antlers and died. Large trophy antlers conveyed no apparent benefit to their bearers, quite the contrary. This suggests that in freeliving populations, male deer with exceptionally large antlers may be non-breeders, and thus individuals of low fitness.”

During a time span when there seemed to be much discussion about how, if at all, “trophy” hunting was somehow weakening the big buck gene pool, I posed the question to Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) head deer biologist (at that time), Mr. Lee Kantar. Essentially I asked him if hunters became obsessed with only killing “trophy” deer (see above for definition of trophy) would it disrupt the age structure, or have any negative effects like a weakening of the big buck gene pool. Follow this link to read my complete question and Mr. Kantar’s complete answer. His answer, in it’s entirety might surprise some. Here is part of what he said:

“…about 93% of the bucks are taken in November-December and therefore have most likely had the opportunity to breed. Behaviorally these trophy bucks are covering a lot of ground during the rut and because of their social dominance they are having the first crack at does coming into estrus. Past research in Maine has shown most females come into estrus during the 3rd week of November. Although does are coming into estrus probably in the beginning of November well into December. Last year about 45% of the bucks were harvested after November 13th when the height of the rut was coming on, this provides ample opportunity for mature bucks to breed does. Does that come into estrus earlier will most likely be bred my mature bucks earlier in the season based on social dominance.”

Most don’t understand the rut, the actions and reactions of deer, specifically bucks, which deer are, do and can breed with a doe in estrus, nor do they have much understanding about genetics and how this effects the perpetuation of “trophy” deer. I doubt very few understand taxonomy and how it influences antler growth and body mass.

I believe, and I think I have science to support that belief, that under most conditions all does that are able to get bred, will get bred. Usually, the “dominant” buck will be the successful breeder and as such, the perhaps incorrect belief, is that this “dominant” buck is also a “trophy” buck. Many fear that if the “trophy” bucks don’t mate all the does when they come into estrus, and are killed off before or during the rut, will go unbred. They also lose track of the fact that on offspring of their fabled “trophy” buck may get a jump on dear ole dad and get the breeding done in his absence. Aren’t the genes still being passed on?

It certainly appears that manipulating hunting rules and regulations to grow bigger and older bucks, under some conditions, will not cause harm to the age structure or sex ratio. This manipulation will not alter the gene pool.

However, seriously increasing hunting pressure on deer, including bucks, as late as into the middle of December, could have serious, negative ramification for survival of those dominant, breeding bucks.

Perhaps in search of satisfying our selfish whims to hunt bigger and older “trophy” deer, with considerably less effort, does little good for any deer herd.

A wise deer biologist once told me that if managers are doing the right thing to grow and care for a healthy deer herd, under consideration of the North American Model of Wildlife Management (surplus harvest) most all special interest (selfish) hunter’s dreams will be taken care of. Trickle-down biology?

There will always be places where, historically, that “trophy” (personal, value-weighted perspective) can be found. My advice would be to save up your dollars and make that trip to find the trophy. It’s not always in the best interest to try to make where you are into your dream trophy hunting Shangri-La.