Well, another hunting season has come and gone, and it was yet another disappointing year for many hunters. The Dr. Deer website and Face Book page has been humming with questions about the cause(s), so I decided to devote this issue to answer this question. The unfortunate thing was I predicted this would happen back in the summer, 2015; and, unfortunately, my prediction came true. It amounts to a “perfect storm,” merging unique environmental factors with unsettling declines in deer harvest and numbers in the 21st Century.
Back in the 1980s, I became the lone voice in the wilderness, when I warned about the future of deer populations. Later, Dr. Harry Jacobson and I were invited to the Third International Congress on the Biology of Deer, held in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1994. Our paper, “The white-tailed deer: the most managed and mismanaged species, “ questioned whether or not we really were managing deer or just documenting the rapid repopulation of the original and new ranges? We warned then that the future would see declines in deer numbers and the quality of deer habitat. Needless to say that my warnings during the 1980s and our 1994 plenary paper was not exactly well received. To question the “holy cow” of wildlife management was tantamount to treason to some professional biologists, and sadly many hunters.
Deer management is a three-legged stool: one leg representing habitat, another populations and the third people management. Unfortunately, states have been managing for and have control only over some aspects of population management; namely, setting season and bag limits. It is habitat and people that really determine the health of the deer herd, and the real “fly in the ointment” is that most of the deer habitat in North America belongs to private landowners! Aldo Leopold pointed out in the 1930s that the private landowner held the key to the ultimate success or failure of wildlife management and restoration. Yet, many biologists feel that working with private landowners is a violation of the North American Wildlife Model! Then, working with people is not exactly one of the favorite activities for biologist, most of whom are introverts. My work as the Deer Trustee of Wisconsin proved to me that one of the greatest problems in modern wildlife management lies in ignoring the role of people in the final equation.
Agencies have many allies in not telling you about herd decline, including manufacturers and those offering services to hunters, as well as the outdoor media. They all benefit by not creating a panic that would reduce the number of hunters! Yet, that is exactly what is happening and getting hunters and landowners involved is the key to sustainability of deer populations, habitat and hunting.
One of the best websites available to you is deerfriendly.com, operated by Kent Webb, one of the most knowledgeable deer “watchers” I know. For some time, Kent has done a yeoman’s job of painstakingly monitoring deer harvests throughout North America. The graph below substantiates what I have warned about for three decades. Note that deer harvests have declined by 18.8% since 2000; and this does not just include whitetails. Mule deer and blacktails are exhibiting the same trends. So, what is happening?
It depends on which state you are talking about, but generally accepted causes are loss of habitat, predation, over-harvest, disease and fragmentation. It is interesting to note that, among the 30 or so states reporting declines, not a single one attributes deer decline to CWD! Fact is, the biggest culprit is a viral disease carried by gnats, with the difficult to pronounce name epizootic hemorrhagic disease, EHD. Whatever the cause of climate change, warming trends have once again allowed EHD to reinvade northern states such as Michigan and New Jersey, where EHD was first reported in the 1950s.
Yet, habitat loss and over-harvest remain the primary culprits to deer decline. States waited too long to curb the growth of deer herds through doe harvest. By the time doe harvest was increased, serious damage to the habitats had already occurred, and it was virtually irreparable damage! The MidWest is perhaps the area where habitat destruction is greatest. When you add in other factors many herds are now below the minimum effective population (that needed to overcome all mortality factors). Where is this heading? I cannot predict, but I do not see much hope, other than the landowners and hunters working together to sustainably managing deer herds.
In most areas, the rut was either late or occurred as Trickle Ruts. A trickle rut is one that takes place over up to 60 days, with a few does reaching breeding condition spread out over this time. The Spring and early Summer of 2015 in most areas was unusually cool and wet, preventing bucks and does from restoring losses from the Winter. This set their biological clocks back at least a month. Next, in many areas the wet period was followed immediately by Summer drought, again contributing to nutritional stress.
Then there is the moon! Whitetails “prefer” to breed shortly after the full moon of the month suited for their subspecies. South Texas deer breed two moons after the hunters’ moon in October, while Northeastern deer tend to breed along with the first moon after the hunters’ moon. This year, we once again had blue moon (two full moons in one month) on July 31st. This set in motion a series of full moons that were out of synchronization with the moons deer prefer to breed on. The full moon dates for September (27th), October (27th), November (25th) and December (25th) were all at the end of the month. This moved the rut timing, even for herds in good condition to later than expected. For example, here at the Institute in East Texas, for the last 20 years have bred without fail the last three days of October and the first week of November. In 2015, fetal ages showed our prime breeding was a combination of a trickle rut and a peak of November 25th.
Lastly, the weather for most of the country for deer season was remarkably warm and wet. A deer’s eyes process light about a million times better than humans. So, if there is a quarter moon or more a deer can see at night as you do in late afternoon. The best moon to hunt deer is the last quarter that rises at midnight and sets at noon, thereby eliminating any light until midnight. Opening day for most of the country saw plenty of light to encourage nocturnality of the deer. We noted that most mature bucks were active from midnight to 2 am for most of the country, hardly a time when an honest hunter can pursue them!
The Management Calendar
This article was not exactly about Dr. Deer’s Management Calendar, but actually it is! Starting right now, you need to develop a management strategy for the entire year that sets the goal of minimizing the negative factors experienced in 2015. Start now to organize your food plot program, planting both warm season and cool season crops at a rate of 2% of your land. Develop a plan to produce thermal cover, which takes time to produce. Lastly, you should better utilize trail cameras to provide you with 365 day reconnaissance of what your deer are doing and when. If you follow my suggestions, next season may be a whole lot more enjoyable.