True quality deer management
In the last few years, there has been extensive discussion among deer hunters across the state about the need for better deer management. In the course of those discussions, many hunters, including me, believe we should follow the principles of Quality Deer Management (QDM) if we want better deer hunting. QDM means different things to some hunters. What does true Quality Deer Management mean?
First, for true QDM, one must deal with management of density of the deer herd so that it matches the carrying capacity of the habitat in which they live. Generally, the density should be less than what the average hunter would like to see. The Michigan DNR is on record as recognizing that excessive deer numbers are responsible for ecosystem damage in the Southern Lower Peninsula (SLP). In the SLP, 33 out of 36 Deer Management Units (DMUs) have been determined by the DNR to have deer densities which are above formally established goals. In the aggregate, SLP deer densities are nearly 60% over goal, and several DMUs are in excess of 100% over goal.
Secondly, almost all hunters agree that we should provide a better buck/doe ratio. Ideally it would be close to 1:1. Even a ratio of 1:2 or as high as 1:2.5 would be acceptable if other conditions are favorable. It is not unusual in the SLP to observe four or more does for every buck. This type of situation is impossible to reverse if hunters continue to kill more bucks than does. In the SLP the kill is often close to 60 percent bucks and 40 percent does. We will never have a good ratio if that trend continues
Third, resource managers need to work much harder to help us have an age-structured buck population, 1, 2, 3…7 years of age. We have one of the worst age structures of any publicly managed deer herd in the country. Countless hunter surveys in Michigan show that hunters would like to see a more natural deer herd with a better- balanced age structured buck population. To get to this type of management scenario takes planning ahead and management. To be truly successful, it involves plenty of management techniques over large areas, not just individual farms or individual co-ops. This requires statewide regulatory management to be effective.
There will always be diseases lurking in or near our deer herd and any management plan needs to be diligent in preventing them. Any time deer density increases, there is a greater probability of disease transmission between deer. To provide a healthy deer herd based upon the principles outlined above, hunters need to kill does and decrease the percentage of young bucks killed. Hunters also need to kill enough deer to prevent destruction of the habitat providing natural browse.
For good deer health, the winter/early spring habitat is the most crucial. Summer and autumn food sources will get deer to the critical winter months in good condition, if there is enough food of good nutrition. Winter browse, with perhaps some food plots, will provide bucks and does the extra nutrition to remain healthy adults, and significantly helps new fawns survive and thrive in this critical growth period. At the same time, these natural food sources avoid the need for supplemental feeding. This is also positive for our deer herd because research studies have shown that baiting and supplemental feeding increase the probability of disease transmission.
Most deer hunters have little knowledge about how many deer can be sustained on their winter habitat. Where hunters might want to see lots of deer (50-100 deer/sq. mile) many winter habitats in northern Michigan will be destroyed by winter densities of only 10-15 deer per square mile. In mid-Michigan, this may be a little higher (10-25/sq. mile) and in southern Michigan higher yet (15-30 deer/sq. mile). These numbers can vary somewhat, depending on local conditions. Keep in mind that in many instances the winter carrying capacity has already been lowered by high deer density that has degraded the habitat and will take many years to recover. One of the DNR's biggest deer management challenges is developing a comprehensive and successful forest management plan that provides for protecting and managing critical deer habitat including deer yards in northern Michigan. This is one of the most limiting factors in determining deer populations in much of the northern portions of our state.
Now let us take a look at how deer are being managed by our system of regulations in Michigan. As we do, keep thinking about those basic deer management principles:
1) Deer density
2) Buck:doe ratios
3) Age-structured buck population
Our Michigan deer hunting regulations allow lots of seasons and opportunities for hunting deer: youth, archery, gun, muzzleloader, antlerless. We have single deer licenses and combo licenses. Many other states manage their deer herd by having significantly more restrictions on their seasons or licenses which are a critical component of their overall deer management program. Here are the results from our long seasons and licensing practices:
Many areas are overpopulated. Many areas have a low buck:doe ratio. Michigan does not have an age-structured buck population. We focus on bucks and kill 70-90 percent of the 1-year-old bucks. Those practicing QDM become frustrated because public land and fragmented private land prevent the success that QDM could bring to the entire state. Sure, we kill a few large bucks, but very few compared to what the possibilities would be under truly different management and what our Michigan hunters experience when they travel to other states.
When we look at the present management and what we have in our deer herd, I challenge all who believe they are QDM managers and really, all deer hunters: Is this what you want? If you are satisfied with the status quo, I believe you need to do some additional reading and research. Remember again, what are we striving for and what are the current conditions of management?
I have decided that current management is not sufficient. As a body, deer hunters have tried to get experimental antler restriction programs started through the DNR/NRC. DNR and the NRC have not allowed those experiments to go forward and have not made experimenting with alternative deer management practices very easy. In some cases, QDM experiments have been discontinued when it appeared those practices were a success and were supported by a majority of the hunters.
Decrease of deer density and doe harvests have not been successful in the southern Lower Peninsula under the current traditional deer management practices. Buck/doe ratios are adversely skewed. Age-structured buck populations do not exist. I believe some change needs to take place in the deer regulations. I am not certain what the best solution is in Michigan, but we need to try something like the other states have successfully tried. Certainly, the antler restriction proposal (3 points on a side) in the entire Upper Peninsula would work. Despite strong support for this initiative throughout the UP, the DNR/NRC will neither permit nor promote this regulation because there was a requirement of two-thirds (66.6%) approval by hunters. With a 60% approval rating for this program, how can anyone argue this approach is not something that should be tried? Let's be real, getting 60% of deer hunters to agree on anything is tremendous support. So why would the NRC place a two-year moratorium on any QDM proposal with that kind of support for this program?
What are other states doing? Comparisons to Michigan confirm that we are one of the few states that don't implement more aggressive regulations to protect more young bucks and encourage a higher antlerless harvest. Mississippi has some antler restrictions, as well as Texas and several other states. There are at least 11 states that have some type of antler restrictions. Michigan requires at least 4 pts. on one side on one buck if two bucks are harvested. Many of the states that have antler restrictions, have programs in part of their counties or units. Pennsylvania's antler restrictions are working on a state-wide basis. If you think they are not, let me know why you think they are not.
Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana have one-buck management regulations, all of which appear to be successful. How successful? Higher percentages of does are harvested. Smaller percentages of young bucks are killed. They have achieved a better age-structured buck population. QDM member Jeff Kunkel has extensively studied and summarized all of their data and it appears to be an attractive alternative to what Michigan has.
So, along comes a proposal from the NRC for a one-buck proposal. Wait a minute, is this a true one-buck proposal? No, it is one buck in archery season and one buck in the gun season for either just the Upper Peninsula or for the entire state. I would have preferred a true one- buck proposal that may have put more pressure on doe harvest and would, I believe, persuade buck hunters to be more selective in harvest of their one buck, perhaps passing up young bucks as has happened in these other nearby states. As hunters and especially if you are a QDMA member, we need to be aware that all kinds of proposals can come forward through or to the NRC. You never know just when these proposals will occur or the nature of the specific proposal.
When the NRC requested DNR to prepare the "one-buck" proposals, our QDMA State Board had little time to react. A committee of five persons was formed with me as chairman. We reviewed options, discussed the possibilities, reviewed Jeff Kunkel's data on other states, developed a draft letter to the NRC, shared it with the national QDMA staff, developed a final draft with QDMA national staff and then shared it with all board members and Branch presidents. This was all accomplished under extreme time limits. In my estimation, the letter represented our state QDMA and national QDMA as well as possible. That does not mean that everyone agreed or that all QDMA members would agree.
State Chapter QDMA secretary Dan Timmons and I made the presentation at the NRC meeting in Saginaw on March 8th. Dan and I were the only supporters for implementation of a "one-buck" rule for the entire state. More than a dozen outdoor groups or individuals testified against the one-buck proposal. I am a member of MUCC; they opposed the change. I am a member of Michigan Bowhunters; they opposed it. My challenge to all QDMA members and non-QDMA members -- at that NRC meeting and right now: are you satisfied with the current Michigan regulations? Are the current regulations providing us with management possibilities that meet QDMA and sound, scientific deer management objectives? If you answer no, then how would you change the current regulations? What do you propose to address the failure to correct deer overpopulation in our state?
Not one of the persons or organizations that opposed the one-buck rule offered an alternative. Are all these organizations and their members, including QDMA members in Michigan, satisfied with the current situation? If not, what are you going to do to improve deer management in Michigan other than remaining silent or by criticizing others? Do you have an alternative?
Larry C. Holcomb, of Olivet, Michigan is a Certified Wildlife Biologist, Calhoun County QDMA Treasurer, and Vice-President of the State Chapter of the QDMA. These are his personal views.
Larry C. Holcomb
July 13, 2007