September antlerless season = good deer management
September 01, 2008
While hunters as a whole tend to get most excited about buck regulations, effective control of the whitetail population should be at the forefront of whitetail management discussions and considerations. In my estimation, controlling the size of the whitetail herd in the Southern Lower Peninsula (SLP) should be the predominant deer management focus in our state. The SLP is where the majority of the populous resides, and it's where 55 percent of hunter effort is expended.
In terms of SLP deer numbers, the evidence of an overpopulated deer herd is clearly seen and demonstrated through many independent factors, including the annual harvest numbers from the region, the number of annual car/deer accidents, the amount of crop damage that farmers incur, and through simple observation. It's indisputable that overpopulated deer herds are the most susceptible to disease. In addition, for over a decade SLP deer numbers have been well in excess of the carrying capacity of the habitat, leading to a circumstance that has prohibited regeneration of many plant species. While hunters can and do disagree regarding what may be the optimal mechanism to address the size of the SLP herd, it would be next to impossible for any individual to attempt to make a credible case that SLP deer numbers don't need to be reduced. Hunters are notorious for complaining about changes from the status quo, but the implementation of a new early antlerless season is a case where change was clearly merited, as attempting to solve an ongoing problem by persisting with the same season structure year after year would not have been a credible attempt at a solution.
The challenge of herd control in the SLP is not, in most areas, hunter access. The fact is that in most rural townships there are very few tracts that go unhunted. The challenge in the SLP is trigger management of hunters. SLP hunters are shooting enough deer, but the challenge is they're not shooting the right ones. I've reviewed the harvest statistics of every state within 500 miles of ours, and we have the dubious distinction in the SLP of shooting a higher percentage of male deer as a percentage of the total harvest than any state in the Midwest. This is why the implementation of an early antlerless season makes such good sense, because it will contribute towards shifting harvest pressure from antlered deer to antlerless deer.
Most hunters won't shoot more than two deer annually, and some will stop at just one. In addition, the tendency of many hunters is to delay taking a doe and instead to spend archery season and most of the regular firearm season waiting for an antlered buck. While many hunters initially plan on shooting a doe or two, they instead often end up tagging a buck or two, and no longer have a need for additional venison.
It's also common that as the seasons drag on a hunter's interest level will often begin to wane. At the same time the weather often turns progressively worse and becomes more of a deterrent, the busyness of the holidays eventually comes into play, and the end result is that many hunters never get around to taking a doe or two as they originally intended. Offering hunters an early opportunity to take does with a firearm will help to address these tendencies to procrastinate, will permit hunters to fill their freezer early in the season, and will hopefully lead to increases in the doe harvest.
Also noteworthy is that early firearm seasons offer a proven template - early firearm antlerless hunts have been successful in the past in the Northern Lower Peninsula (NLP) as well as in Wisconsin and Kentucky, and Missouri is also presently considering adding an early season beginning in '09.
Kenny Darwin previously voiced numerous objections to this early season. While I always enjoy reading his articles and have often benefited from the excellent instructional information that he provides, on this issue of a September season I see things much differently than he does.
As far as season timing, September's ideal. Deer movement patterns are fairly predictable during late September so this time frame offers hunters a solid opportunity for success. Whitetail breeding season and the resulting spike in deer movement doesn't begin until a month later, so removing additional deer prior to the breeding season will help reduce the number of deer/vehicle accidents. The biological benefit of an early doe harvest is that it will create a tighter ratio of does to bucks previous to the beginning of the rut, leading to increased competition amongst bucks, a tightening of the window of time where breeding takes place, and resulting in a better experience afield for hunters.
Regarding concerns about September temperatures, our youth hunters have been successfully taking deer in September for the past decade. Other states with much warmer climates than ours are successful with early seasons, such as South Carolina, where firearm season opens on August 15th, and Kentucky, where archery season begins on September 1. The reality is that there is no appreciable change in weather patterns from September 20th as compared to October 1, nor does any meaningful thinning of the woods occur over the course of that timeframe.
What about the idea that an early hunt will stimulate poachers into increased activity?
If you think about it, by definition poachers are lawbreakers who choose to intentionally violate season structure and/or rules. Does anyone actually believe that poachers are presently somehow constrained by the existing season structure? Will the September season now become the tipping point that's going to put a large pool of hunters over the edge and lead to some type of poaching outbreak from hunters who were previously law abiding? Consider the fact that the opportunity to shoot a buck during an antlerless only firearm season already exists throughout much of the SLP during the late firearm season, which of course runs concurrent with archery season. SLP hunters have already proven that they're fully capable of going afield with a firearm and pursuing antlerless deer and not becoming weak in the knees and turning into poachers when presented with an opportunity to shoot a buck. Let's ramp up law enforcement efforts during all seasons and hit poachers hard when they're caught, but let's not get bogged down with unfounded fears about how poachers might react to a new season structure. Good deer management cannot be based on fears of what lawbreakers might do.
Some hunters have expressed concern that this new season might have a negative impact on their early season archery hunting. Firstly, we should keep in mind that September has always been a point of high activity in the woods as many archers utilize that time to hang stands, cut shooting lanes, etc. in preparation for the archery opener. It's also worthwhile to note that a deer isn't able to assess the intent of a gunshot. A hunter shooting at a deer will have not any more or less of an influence on general deer movement than the already existing number of shots that result from small game hunters and target shooters.
Hunter participation level for this September season won't bear any resemblance to November 15th, and this season is not going to create a scenario of deer being meaningfully more difficult to hunt throughout archery season. As mentioned before, this early season will actually improve hunting for bucks during archery season, as the doe to buck ratio will be tighter once some does have been removed.
Most importantly, I would assert that there is a higher calling we have as hunters than worrying about how this early season might affect our early October buck hunting. In recent years I've become fully persuaded of the necessity of hunters becoming greater stewards of the resource. The issue at hand is attempting to manage and control the size of a large deer herd over the span of the entire SLP. What you or I may prefer to see happen as individuals pales in comparison to what is best for the resource.
The success or failure of hunters to work in harmony with their respective state game agencies in order to effectively manage the resource and to keep deer numbers in check has long term implications. Whether or not hunters will continue in the future to be the answer to the question of how to keep deer numbers in check will be largely determined by whether or not we begin to collectively place a higher value on herd management and the health of the resource. I applaud the leadership of the DNR and the NRC on the implementation of this early antlerless season, and look forward to participating in the season and doing my part to help manage the resource.