April 27, 2023
When I was seven years old, I was asked this important question: What do you want to be when you grow up? My answer was quick and simple — a wildlife biologist! The Lord has truly blessed me to have lived that dream for over 50 years, as a deer scientist, manager and hunter. In 1973 I was working at a college in West Virginia, when I received a call from Dr. Larry Walker, Dean of the School of Forestry at Stephen F. Austin State University. He explained that he was expanding programs at SFASU to include a degree in Wildlife Management; and, he wanted me to come to Nacogdoches, Texas, and be the person in charge of carrying out that mandate.
It was an offer of a lifetime for a young scientist. I accepted on the phone and waived an unnecessary campus visit.
Course work came first, so my personal research projects had to wait until 1974. By that time, I had published dozens of scientific articles on a host of subjects and had become somewhat disillusioned by the growing numbers of research projects that had no real practical applications! I wanted my research to be useful and make a difference in the whitetail world. My approach would be to create an institute devoted to my meaningful research with practical applications. I decided to put together what today would be called a “focus group” made up of hunters, landowners, foresters and managers to find out what they thought were relevant problems for study.
The groups uniformly asked three main questions: Was there something they could plant for whitetails? Next, how could they outwit older bucks? Lastly, how could a landowner or professional manage habitats to benefit deer? The first 20-year plan for the new Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research was set! Over the next 20 years, then 20 more years, and now into yet another, we conducted dozens of research projects to answer those three primary questions.
Those were wonderful times, and I was not the only scientist studying whitetails! I quickly accumulated a group of like-minded colleagues primarily across the South, who were just as committed to finding out new things about deer. It was a different time then, as science had not yet become a “competitive sport.” Scientists were eager to share and help each other in the conduct of experiments, and we quickly organized into the Southeast Deer Study Group, which met each winter for sharing of new findings.
I fully admit it was easier in those days to find out new things, as most of what we now know about whitetails came during the last 40-plus years. It was a “land of low hanging fruit,” and we were eager to harvest it.
Today, I’m often amused to hear young folks talk about what we learned from years of hard work, with an “everyone knows that” attitude. New discoveries are becoming less frequent, as we now have a pretty good picture of what makes whitetails tick. Research is parsed so finely that I have grown to think we are down to what an old colleague referred to as “slaughtering gnats for hides and tallower!” Yet, for the watchful scientist there are still plenty of unanswered questions that fit the bill of “being useful.” Given what we have learned over the last 40 years, what do we still need to know and why?
DISEASES & MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES
Deer are beset by a host of diseases and parasites, including bacteria, viruses, fungi and invertebrates. These include tuberculosis, foot-and-mouth disease, chronic wasting disease, brucellosis, vesicular stomatitis, Johne’s disease, pneumonia, polio, malignant catarrhal fever, yersiniosis, leptospirosis, pasterurellosis, anthrax, salmonellosis, colibacillosis, epizootic hemorrhagic disease and blue tongue.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture! There are many, but I bet you only recognized two or three of these, most notably chronic wasting disease (CWD), epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and maybe tuberculosis. No one really worried about any of these until CWD came on the scene in the 1960s; yet, even then it took 40 years for even professionals to become concerned about its impacts. The appearance of CWD ushered in a landslide of research projects funded by state and federal agencies. I can safely say that careers have been made on this disease! Yet, despite millions of dollars in research, we still cannot answer two basic questions: 1. Will it devastate deer populations? 2. Can humans contract the disease? If the answer is NO to both questions, then CWD is not a significant issue.
Research focus has been on how to eradicate a disease that apparently cannot be eradicated. Future research hopefully will emphasize effective strategies to manage CWD and other diseases. I predict some of this research will be aimed at identifying genetic solutions to management; that is, finding out if susceptibility is related to certain genes and can these be manipulated to reduce impacts of the disease.
IMPACT OF PREDATION ON WHITETAILS
When I began my career, there were few significant predators of whitetails. Years of trapping and shooting predators had almost eliminated them from the landscape. To control deer populations, we were pretty much relegated to harvesting females (does). In those days, we enjoyed what we came to call “a compensatory response” to herd control. If we removed a large number of does from the range, we were rewarded by more fawns reaching recruitment age. Unfortunately, since that time predator populations have increased and spread into former ranges; primarily due to changing land use and public opinion. The few research studies on impacts of predators on deer populations have been on a single predator species. In many cases, scientists reported the impact of a specific species on deer herds was acceptable.
Yet, what has not been considered is that there is a suite of predators now operating in deer country; but, we do not know what the combined impact is of the total predator population. Predators are viewed by professionals as a “good” thing, doing their part to control deer populations. However, will this continue to be the case, especially when we consider the ultimate deer predator — wolves? Deer and their predators are part of a complex ecosystem. If we need to manage deer, do we not also need to manage predators? There is a critical need for research on how to manage both deer and predators; and so far that need has not been satisfied.
IMPROVING FOOD PLOT VARIETIES
The Institute has been involved in food plot research since 1974, and much of this work has been aimed at improving varieties to better meet the needs of whitetails and managers. The first folks we talked with in developing the program were dairymen, the folks who know more about forages for ruminants than anyone. Working in cooperation with Louisiana State University’s Dr. Steve Harrison, we have developed a variety of oats that is “designed” specifically for deer. Now widely used with great success across much of the whitetail’s range, Buck Forage Oats have proved to be an excellent deer food.
Unfortunately, there are few such research programs in existence today. We need to engage state experiment station scientists in these efforts. Yet, there is little interest among these scientists, because the average experiment station focuses on the needs of farmers and ranchers.
Over the last two decades, you have been assaulted by countless promotions for the latest “magic bean,” guaranteed to grow bigger antlers. Why spend effort trying to find the latest new plant, when the real research need is to improve the ones we have? The need is for plants that are more drought hardy, cold hardy, have higher production and are broadly adapted to site/soil conditions.
TIMBER & RANGE MANAGEMENT
How often do you hear about the damage deer are doing to forest regeneration and agricultural crops? As Deer Trustee of Wisconsin, I was shocked that the vast majority of research on deer and habitat revolved around deer damage, rather than how we can manage habitat to benefit both deer and forestry/agriculture.
In fact, the southern U.S. is the only place where scientists have routinely conducted such studies. The result is that we can answer a very simple question: How do you manage the forest to bene t both deer and fiber production? In the 1980s, we knew what would happen to deer food production if we thinned a mixed pine-hardwood forest to a specific density. Yet, today, there are few other geographic regions where that question can be answered, or is even being considered.
I often have talked about the “whitetail landscape,” yet how much do we really know about it for specific geographic regions? Certainly, we know the components: forage, cover and water. But how should these be arranged on your land? How much cover do whitetails need and what should it look like? What are the most effective and economic ways to provide the landscape components for our deer? I have to say these questions seldom have been answered.
I could go on for pages and pages, but hopefully I’ve highlighted the most critical research needs that remain in white-tailed deer management.
Yes, there are others, including but not limited to: 1. How to manage deer on private and public lands to benefit all hunters. 2. How can we recruit more youth, women and minority hunters? 3. How can we make hunting more convenient to urban hunters? 4. How can we improve our methods for harvest data keeping at a national and state level?
As stated, we picked the low-hanging fruit during the last 40 years. The new generation of whitetail scientists will have to answer these really difficult questions and more that are currently unseen.