Thursday, October 7, 2010

My Deer Hunting Philosophy

This is not one of those pictures. Enjoy.
Warning: This post includes images of dead animals. I've kept them on the small size, but they are there nonetheless. I promise not to do this very often, but I feel in this case that the photos illustrate my thoughts ~ The Bushman.

What? You mean you don't have a deer hunting philosophy?
Those of you who hunt will probably understand the gist of this post from the title alone. For readers who don't, it may be mildly interesting to know that deer hunting isn't just about outwitting a deer and bringing it home. For many, it has to be the right deer before they pull the trigger or release and arrow.
But first, a step back to look into the history of the whitetail deer in North America. Suburban neighborhoods weren't always overrun by pesky deer, eating through flowerbeds, raiding gardens and stepping into traffic. A century ago, a deer in the eastern half of the United States was a rare creature indeed.
Native Americans utilized the whitetail deer throughout its range, but it wasn't as though the land was abundant with them. With so much of the continent covered in old growth forests, the deer population was a fraction of what it is today. Whitetails prefer a mixture of habitats, including regenerating forests. The first population boom came after European settlers started moving across the land, cutting down trees and planting crops along the way. The resulting landscape was a diverse mosaic of habitat that benefited whitetails as much as white men. By the late 1800s, the whitetail deer was common everywhere humans had disturbed the land. But then, human exploitation started to outstrip the benefits. Commercial hunting, along with unregulated harvest for personal consumption started taking a toll. The deforestation of the country continued at a furious pace and whitetails were left with little cover to conceal themselves. By 1890, there were approximately 200 deer in the state of New Jersey (I know. Ask someone from Jersey what they think of deer now.) and the animal had been extirpated in Connecticut and Rhode Island. In 1930, at its lowest point, the country's deer population was estimated at around 300,000.People - hunters in particular - were starting to get worried the whitetail deer was on its way out.
Their concern led to perhaps the greatest (or most ill-conceived, depending on where you stand) wildlife management success story of all time. Commercial hunting for whitetails became illegal and sportsmen were held to regulated hunting seasons and bag limits. Federal and state agencies started managing public lands to benefit deer again, with small scale logging to open up the forests and wildlife plantings. Along with changes in agricultural practices that created an endless supply of food, the result was a perfect storm for the deer explosion in North America that continues today. Recent estimates put the population at around 30 million animals, inhabiting all or parts of every state in the continental U.S. By all accounts, the number of deer will probably never be higher than it is today.
But there are well-known costs for this success story. In many areas, the deer population is far over the healthy carrying capacity of the land. Remember when NJ had 200 whitetails total? In 2006, the township of Watchung, NJ was suffering under an astonishing deer density of more than 80 animals per square mile! An overpopulation of deer results in overgrazing. Forests cannot regenerate. Rare native plants are depredated. Crops are damaged. Too many deer also leads to high incidents of vehicular collisions (with both material and human costs) and Lyme disease transmission.
So here we are, victims of our own success drowning in a sea of whitetail deer. But what to do about it?
The most effective tool wildlife managers have to control the deer population is the hunting public, but as the number of hunters declines (thank you Internet and XBox) the focus changes. Many of the older deer hunters still remember the days when just seeing a deer was something to tell about. As management goals have shifted from protecting and preserving the resource to population control, these guys are having a hard time adjusting. Here in North Carolina, my $40 annual license allows me to harvest up to six deer, only four of which can be males. This restriction is a nod to the new management philosophy which promotes the harvest of does as much as, or more than, the harvest of bucks. Old timers consider this a recipe for disaster. Protect the does and you protect the breeding stock for the future. Many of them still refuse to shoot anything but male deer.
Does this deer make me a trophy hunter? Nope, just stupid lucky.
The current leader in the quest for a healthy and sustainable deer herd is called Quality Deer Management and it refutes this old way of thinking. In order to manage the deer herd, hunters should be encouraged to shoot as many or more does than bucks. You see, all the years of "bucks only" mentality have resulted in overpopulation and a sex ratio that's out of whack. There are places where does outnumber bucks by 15 to 1. That's good for male college students. Not good for healthy deer behavior and overpopulation. QDM does not come without its legitimate concerns. Much of the plan revolves around creating the perfect habitat mix for deer to exist and thrive. That doesn't do much for controlling populations does it? There is also an underlying suspicion that the philosophy is geared toward so-called "trophy hunting." Trophy hunters are those who have chosen to pursue large, mature bucks exclusively, and they have a bad reputation among the non-hunting public.
Does this spike make me a "bucks only" guy?
For some folks - meat hunters of the highest caliber - a deer is a deer is a deer. If it's brown, it's down. You can't eat the antlers. (And whatever other crude sayings that are out there.) The point is, whether they know it, or care, dedicated meat hunters are probably the most-effective solution to the current deer problem. They see 'em, they shoot 'em, they eat 'em. (Damn, there I go again.). Then there are those who have come up in or been influenced by the era when does were taboo. These hunters want to eat venison, they're just not convinced that shooting anything but a male deer is a good idea and they're not willing to jeopardize the deer herd just so they can make some jerky with doe meat. These hunters hold their fire until they see the first glimpse of antler.
And then there are the rest of us somewhere in between. When I started hunting, QDM was thought to be the answer to all our problems. As a biologist, I got the part about reducing the population to healthy levels, but I also wanted to have the opportunity to see and maybe even kill a "trophy" buck. To do this, I bought into the philosophy of letting young bucks "walk" so they could grow to one day become big bucks. In the meantime, I'd shoot every doe I could to do my part toward population control and keeping the freezer full of venison. This was all well and good. I lived in an area with a lot of deer, so letting younger bucks go and concentrating on does was not a problem. If a giant deer happened to step out into one of my shooting lanes, I'd take him. That two-year period was perhaps my most self-righteous and embarrassing. I actually looked down on my fellow hunters who harvested young bucks. "What a shame." I thought when I saw someone with such a deer. "Imagine what he could have been if he'd had a chance to grow another year or two." There are shades of the trophy hunting mentality there. It didn't get any better when I stumbled into the deer of my dreams during a hunt in the South Carolina low country. It was just my third hunting season and I didn't do anything to kill that buck other than sit where the guide told me to sit and watch the pile of corn that had been put out to lure deer in. The only thing I did was shoot straight, but you'd have thought I'd become a great trophy hunter if you'd just met me. I was racking up the doe kills during those years, but "Big Boy" was the only buck I'd ever shot - and the only one I cared to unless his big brother happened to step out of the forest. And then real life happened.
7-point - on purpose.
Button buck - on purpose.
I shot my first button buck (a yearling male with tiny, hair-covered bumps that serve as the base of the antlers he'll grow in the coming years) later the same season. It was an accident. I thought it was a doe, but I was crushed. The meat from that animal, however, was superb. Two seasons after that, I mistook another button buck for a doe, and then a smallish-racked 7-point went down. It was time to amend my philosophy or be guilty of casting stones. I decided it was okay to shoot any legal deer, depending my need for meat (or, more honestly, my blood lust) at the time. My philosophy has become more flexible, both for myself and others. I tend to think a deer, is a deer, is a deer these days, but I'd still rather hunt does and let the young bucks go. That doesn't mean I won't harvest one if the desire arises. Just last season, I watched yet another button buck feed in a soy bean field for the better part of an hour. He was well within my range and I had him lined in the scope for countless "imaginary" kill shots. I eventually decided that, if this little buck came within 50 yards of my blind and offered a perfect opportunity for a clean shot, I'd take it and not think twice about it. He walked in to 40 yards and ended up in the freezer.
Given a choice, this is the deer I want - a nice fat doe.
Now I've moved to the other end of the state, where deer are not nearly so numerous and my opportunities will be fewer and farther between. What will my philosophy be this season? What if a young forkhorn is the first deer I see? Will I shoot him, or will I wait to see if there's a doe with him? I don't know. I'm leaning toward the "brown it's down" mantra, at least until I get the first one. Hunting these mountains is going to be a challenge to my skills as a woodsman, but not my whitetail philosophy. I've finally learned to be flexible on that count.


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