As if hunters didn’t already have enough to worry about with things like scheduling time off work, finding a place to hunt, managing the wind or dealing with scent, we also have to worry whether we’ll even spot a deer when we make it into the field. Unfortunately, in some areas of the country, hunters can’t take deer populations for granted anymore. Here are a few reasons why it is that way and what you can do to improve your chances in 2013.
Last summer, texts and emails of giant, dead Midwestern bucks went viral. We all love to admire trophy bucks, but the problem was many of these weren’t killed by hunters. They were all killed by epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). Often confused with a similar hemorrhaging disease known as bluetongue, EHD is a nasty, silent killer. EHD is typically spread by the microscopic midge fly. The biggest bucks are most vulnerable to EHD because they have greater surface area of velvet antler, which increases their chances of incurring a fatal bite. The deer usually get sick, run a temperature and act abnormally brave. More often than not, their corpses can be found days after the bite near a water source of some kind.
Before you embark on a road trip this fall, do some research. Call local DNR offices and ask about EHD casualty statistics. Ask about the history and potential for bluetongue occurrences as well. While doing your homework, check into the statistics of other historical killers such as chronic wasting disease (CWD) and bovine TB. Be sure to ask if there are any other diseases worth mentioning. Last year EHD got all the attention; no one knows what will make headlines this year.
Bears are becoming less and less afraid of people and are moving closer to cities and homes as we speak. Likewise, many states are debating how to deal with wolf reintroduction efforts that have frequently become problematic. Coyotes seem to be as common as squirrels. Cougar sightings are no longer conspiracies but documented facts. What do they all have in common? These predators all love the taste of venison.
Believe it or not, predators are taking a toll on healthy deer populations all across the country. It’s rumored in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that the average wolf will eat at least thirty deer a year. It’s been proven that coyotes are not just feasting on sick and wounded animals, but also preying on innocent fawns and pack hunting the healthy ones. In another instance, a suburban home owner was attacked by coyotes in his own backyard. For this reason, states like South Carolina have declared war on coyotes and feral hogs.
The good news is that deer hunters have become much more proficient at killing predators. In fact, a great cure for cabin fever is winter coyote hunting. If you’re interested in helping alleviate the predator problem, do a bit of research. There is a wide variety of material online about how to hunt coyotes and other predators that add pressure to deer populations.
No matter the motivation—survival or greed—poaching deer has more or less always been a problem. In the old days poachers would drive around at night with spotting scopes and .22 rifles hoping to shoot a deer. The road hunters of old weren’t too selective, and probably ate most of the deer they shot. It’s no excuse for illegal behavior, of course, but their actions didn’t seem to affect the population as much.
Fast forward to the present, when quality deer management is a common practice in the whitetail community, and hunters are putting forth much of their extra time and resources into producing high-quality, mature bucks. Now, more and more poachers have a different agenda: they are trophy hunting. Don’t get me wrong—hunters are a bit competitive by nature, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of wholesome bragging at camp about who shoots the biggest buck.
The problem is, when people brag too much or give away too many clues about their hunting whereabouts, they invite poachers to come help themselves. With email, texting and social media as arenas to show off our latest trophies, we may also inadvertently tempt the dishonest, jealous hunters who want their share of the limelight. Once a picture or email is sent, there’s never any way to take it back. If it shows revealing information about where the buck was shot, you have to realize you may spend a lot of time next season dealing with trespassers.
Each state has its own government agency that manages natural resources and wildlife. Regulations vary across the nation. Therefore, each state agency may be inadvertently sabotaging their deer population. Some states do a great job and require hunters to report kills, which allows for accurate harvest numbers. Having proper kill data will allow for intelligent decisions about the number of permits allowed the next season. Other states don’t require reporting at all and truly have no idea how many deer get killed each season. A few years of poor estimation and over-hunting could lead to a decimated herd. Other problem areas include the implementation of additional doe seasons, having cloudy “antlerless” rules, extra long gun seasons or overly generous tag sales.
Along these same lines, there is the issue of predator management. For instance, many states are protecting wolves that are destroying local whitetail populations. If the state is more concerned about bringing back predators, it can often mean it is neglecting its deer herds.
An unfortunate reality to our sport is that we’ve all lost deer. Likewise, it’s only a matter of time before we stumble across one that a neighbor failed to recover. For some unlucky hunters, finding numerous dead deer is a sad spring ritual. These poor guys hunt next to bozos who shoot first and ask questions later. These are the same sort of people who can’t hit the broadside of a barn and don’t bother looking for a deer if they don’t see it fall. The reality is, these incompetent neighbors are butchering local deer herds.
There is nothing more frustrating than shed hunting and finding several wasted deer carcasses that were poorly hit or lazily tracked. Worse yet, finding dead bucks with only their heads cut off. In this situation, confront the neighbors. Offer to help sight in bows and guns. Talk about proper shot placement, and let them know that too many deer are being wasted. Don’t be afraid to call the authorities either. If these people aren’t legitimately tracking wounded animals, or if they are just horn hunting, they need to suffer the consequences.
Deer are pretty tolerant of people, but they still need a place to live. Sadly, deer are losing habitat at an alarming rate. Urban sprawl and commercial construction projects are forcing local deer to head for the hills. For every new strip mall and housing plat, there’s a hunter shaking his head and looking for a new place to hunt. To help prevent this, consider joining a conservation organization in the fight to preserve our heritage and deer habitat.
Along with habitat loss due to urban sprawl comes the problem of nuisance deer eating the landscaping or hanging out at the neighborhood playground. Instead of allowing bowhunters to come in and take care of these pesky deer, some neighborhood associations and municipalities hire exterminators to slaughter the deer, first trapping and then relocating them, or even introducing birth control drugs.
This is sad for several reasons. First, the deer were there before people moved in. Second, hunters could help naturally maintain a healthy population without eradicating all the deer. Every city in the country has hungry families who would love the opportunity to eat locally donated venison. Any hunter living near one of these nuisance deer areas can approach the powers that be and offer a solid plan for how hunters can help solve the problem.
Wild Dogs and Hogs
Instances of wild dogs causing problems are growing at an alarming rate, especially near areas hit hard by natural disasters where pets can quickly become lost and feral. Another contributing factor is the poor economy, in which people have to decide either to keep their pets or pay their bills. There have been reports of children being attacked, joggers being mauled and household pets coming up missing. Regardless of how they got that way, wild dogs harass and kill countless deer each year. If wild dogs are a problem, there are several ways to deal with them, the first of which is calling the local authorities.
Similarly, feral hogs continue to devastate agricultural lands and deer habitat in states like Texas and South Carolina. It is estimated that feral hogs do about $1.5 billion dollars of damage annually in the U.S., which takes away from farmers’ livelihoods and prime deer habitat. South Carolina openly declared war on feral hogs and coyotes, while Texas—which has 2.5 million feral hogs of its own to deal with—has welcomed the use of helicopters, night-vision equipment and automatic rifles to assist in hog eradication.
This is a reminder to all of us that the whitetail deer populations are a precious commodity and must not be taken for granted. Get involved in a local or national conservation organization. Take time to educate others so they can help make intelligent choices. Learn how to hunt coyotes and give thanks for every deer killed. Whitetails are amazing animals, which is why they must be protected and managed in the face of all these obstacles.