WITH JULIE ANDREWS’ familiar “Do-Re-Mi” lyrics playing inside my head, I’ll readily confess that I have no idea how many does I’ve shot over the past 50-plus years of bowhunting. “Lots” would be one word that succinctly sums up my success at putting tasty and healthy venison in the family freezer season after season.
And I’ll add here at the outset that I have no problem with anyone legally shooting and tagging female deer. Arrowing any adult animal, under written and unwritten Fair Chase rules, is typically challenging and beneficial to the overall health of the herd. And truth be known, I’ve encountered many eagle-eyed female deer that were far more alert and harder to tag than bucks sporting handsome headgear. Heaven help the hapless hunter whose presence is detected by some wary old doe! Who among us hasn’t heard an alerted matriarch’s noisy, foot-stamping, snort-blowing fit alerting the entire woodland world that an intruder is nearby?
At the same time, I don’t tag many does these days. It’s a conscious choice I’ve made on the heels of EHD outbreaks and overhunting pressure that have reduced whitetail populations in my favorite Indiana hunting areas. Simply put, I love watching deer almost as much as I love hunting them. And when there aren’t as many animals to watch, the woods seem strangely empty.
TODAY I’M VERY TROUBLED BY REPORTS of steadily declining deer hunting success in a number of Midwestern states. During the 2014 archery season, I heard and saw anecdotal report after report of hunters finding few deer, compared to past seasons. Following the 2013 harvest reports, I devoted one of my recent online columns to examining steady declines in popular whitetail havens including Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Minnesota, and other states like Indiana, where I now live and tagged my very first deer in 1963.
So what’s happening to our deer herds? Here’s my two cents’ worth.
Admittedly, I’m a hunter, not a wildlife biologist or conservation professional trained to manage deer herds. And as you read what my heart, mind, and eyes tell me is a growing problem, please keep that perspective in mind.
I point a finger of blame directly at disease and deer herd mismanagement – including the overharvesting of does — as the primary causes for not just fewer sightings but actually fewer deer.
This is not to say there aren’t pockets in each state where deer are still abundant and sightings common. My own southern Indiana farm and the southern Illinois farm I bowhunt are homes to healthy numbers of whitetails. But only a few short miles away, hunters on neighboring farms and state-owned land are bemoaning the lack of deer and shooting opportunities.
Why is that? Well, half a dozen years ago an outbreak of EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) hit our farm’s herd, and the stench of death greeted me each time I set foot in the hardwood hills surrounding our rural home. Carcasses of seven dead whitetails were found on my property, each serving as mute testimony the disease was taking its toll. Naturally, we failed to see as many deer as in previous years. And so to help restore the local herd, I declared does off limits for several seasons thereafter. To me, that’s only common sense.
Meanwhile, the state’s annual deer season was not shortened nor bag limits reduced. In fact, within a couple of years a new late season for antlerless animals was introduced. Even now, in some Hoosier counties deemed “high density” deer areas, hunters may legally kill a total of eight does and fawns. Never mind that late season does are typically pregnant and many button bucks are also killed; Indiana officials say they consider this year’s end harvest period a prudent method of solving the problem of too many deer.
Too many deer? Try convincing a growing number of Hoosier hunters that the areas they hunt have too many deer.
Even the DNR’s claim that 85% of successful Indiana deer hunters only tag “three or fewer deer” is scant comfort to disappointed hunters. The official DNR word is less than 1% of hunters take eight deer per season. But many wonder – especially those seeing fewer and fewer animals — why anyone needs to kill eight deer per year under any circumstances.
Surprising to me and many other deer hunters, the DNR flatly states that wildlife biologists and statisticians believe “… population estimates are not necessary for effective deer management.” Rather, they rely on trends and public surveys to tell them whether the herd is increasing, stable, or decreasing. It’s enough to make some skeptics wonder if biologists might actually recognize a clear downward trend – and effect necessary hunting restrictions to solve the problem – if they’d rely more on what a majority of hunters report and less on theory, computer models, and textbook formulas.
ONE THING SEEMS CERTAIN to me and an increasing number of cynical and dissatisfied Hoosier deer hunters, the DNR decision makers seem to be managing people more than whitetail deer. Selling licenses equals much-needed revenue. The legalization of crossbow hunting is certain to increase reported Indiana “archery” kills. And even as these words are written, it appears that deer hunters could soon legally hunt Indiana whitetails with high powered rifles (despite no active lobbying or public outcry for a rifle season by any bloc of sportsmen and women). This means increased hunting pressure on Indiana’s deer.
The Indiana DNR also reports that deer damage control accounts for “approximately 2,400 or fewer” whitetails annually (that’s about 2% of the yearly harvest). Undeniably, deer can and do take a toll on farmers’ corn and soybean crops. But allowing the off-season killing of 2,400 or so deer each summer means 2,400 or so deer than won’t be alive when hunting season rolls around. And what about the 15,000 to 16,000 deer that become road kill each year on state roads? Is the recent decline in deer/vehicle collisions due to increased public awareness and caution or the fact there simply aren’t as many animals around?
My hunch is, despite claims that the agricultural and insurance lobbies don’t unduly influence deer population goals set by the DNR, complaints by State Farm and other insurers – plus calls from farmers upset over crop damage – do impact decisions in Indiana and other states where deer herds are now obviously declining. And while each state is different, alarming declines in deer harvests indicate this is not a one-state problem.
Annual harvest success numbers don’t lie. Undoubtedly, hunter discontent is increasing as deer numbers fall. What do you think? More importantly, what are you planning to do about it?
Me? For now, I’ll continue to pass up shots at does in hopes of helping local deer numbers recover. I also plan to write letters and columns, make phone calls, attend public meetings, and speak up for fellow hunters who are concerned over a growing trend that threatens the future of a magnificent big game animal and a sport I truly love. Maybe if enough people speak and act, someone will finally listen.
If you like to read M.R.’s bowhunting adventures you will love his newest book, Hunting the Dream.
Hunting the Dream is available now so be sure and get your copy of this great book.
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