September 22, 2010
By Gordon Whittington
Are you tired of what you're seeing — or not seeing — in the deer woods? Do you feel as though the herd is bumping up against an invisible ceiling that keeps bucks from getting noticeably bigger and more numerous? Are you torn as to which of many management options to use to remedy the problem?
If so, perhaps you'll find comfort in the fact that you're hardly alone. Across North America, plenty of other hunters and landowners feel your pain. In fact, it's safe to say there now are more frustrated whitetail managers than ever.
At a time when there's so much sound information on how to manage deer land, why is there also such dissatisfaction? To some extent, it's due to the fact that record numbers of folks now are trying to manage their herds. The more people you have involved in any activity, the more will come up short of their goals. If you think about it, there probably are also record numbers of frustrated golfers these days, and it's certainly not for lack of instruction on how to whack a little white ball toward a hole in the ground.
In reality, many hunters and landowners think they're frustrated with deer, when at the root of their discontent lie frustrations with people. Whitetail management is at least as much about our understanding each other as it is about understanding wildlife.
Just as people come in all shapes and sizes, so do people problems in deer management. Let's look at some of the forms they take and discuss some practical ways in which they can be addressed.
You don't have to leave your own property to find people problems. This is particularly true when you don't own the ground you're managing. Often, hunters and landowners have very different views on what one party or the other should or shouldn't be doing.
Whether private land is owned by an individual or a corporate entity (a timber company, for example), what happens there is ultimately the owner's call. If you're leasing hunting access you might feel you have more "rights" than if you're hunting strictly by permission, but what you can do regarding cutting trees, planting food plots or bringing in guests to harvest surplus does still must be settled with the landowner up front.
When in doubt as to whether or not you can implement a certain management idea, ask. Some landowners will care and others won't, but it's far better to be safe than sorry.
Failing to keep a landowner informed is a common cause of friction in management programs, but communication is a two-way street. The landowner can't expect you to be thrilled if he starts cutting firewood 50 yards from your favorite stand when he knows you're there. If you've leased a farm on the basis of it having the only crop fields in the area, the farmer should let you know that he's thinking of enrolling the fields in a government set-aside program instead of continuing to plant soybeans and corn.
Good people skills will serve you well in all aspects of deer hunting and management, and nowhere more so than when dealing with the person who owns the land you hunt. Some deer managers are able to hold onto a piece of land for generations, while others are always on the lookout for a new spot. It takes time for a herd to reach its potential, so if you can't work well enough with the landowner to hold onto that tract, your ability to maximize its hunting potential will be limited.
YOUR HUNTING GROUP
While deer managers often become frustrated with landowner decisions in regard to habitat management, even more common are problems with fellow hunters. This can include the landowner and his family, though it many cases it doesn't.
Occasionally such problems arise from simple "personality conflicts," but usually they're due to differing goals and priorities. Some people are willing to make a serious effort to manage deer, while others aren't.
If you're planting food plots and passing up young bucks while somebody else on the property isn't, it won't take long for the kettle to boil over. Such mismatches of hunters have led to setbacks in many management programs, and sometimes even to their outright ruin.
Anger often erupts when someone kills the "wrong" buck. If it hasn't happened where you hunt, it probably will one day. When it does, take a deep breath and think about how to turn the situation into what educators like to call a "teaching moment."
Several factors can result in the "wrong" deer being shot. First, the hunter might have shot too quickly or under poor lighting conditions that precluded clear identification of his target. This is common on drives and particularly in late season, when hunters are desperate to cull surplus does. There's a lesson to be learned from such mistakes, and if the person takes it to heart, he isn't likely to err in that way again.
Much harder to address are cases in which the hunter who made the mistake just doesn't care. If this is a member of a hunting club, a fine might be in order, with the money being used for habitat improvement. But if you're going to adhere to such a policy, it must be in place long before the season starts.
Dealing with someone who shoots the "wrong" deer can be a particularly touchy subject when the shooter is the landowner or one of his family members or guests. If you're lucky, someone in the family will point out the gaffe and try to prevent it from occurring again. But if not, you might have to embark on a long-term education program to get the person to come around. Sometimes, subtly exposing the hunter to books and videos that show small bucks growing into trophies will make the light come on.
Understand that whatever you do, it doesn't help to jus
tify the mistake by looking at the little buck and saying, "He probably never would have been big anyway." If the deer in question was a yearling, nobody — not even a professional biologist — can say how big he might have been in his prime.
To suggest that it's possible to make unerring judgments about a yearling buck's potential is to declare open season on them. Give hunters any opening to shoot "inferior" young bucks and there will be no end to the excuses they can find for blasting them. This is a proven recipe for failure in a management program.
Among the most common management problems are conflicts with neighbors. Sometimes these result from the guy across the fence having put bait right off the edge of our property (legally or otherwise), in hopes of coaxing one of "our" deer across the line. The same thing can happen with food plots. Generally, though, there's just friction over what we perceive to be neighbors' lack of restraint in shooting "our" deer.
As you probably know if you own or lease hunting land, it's natural to develop a feeling that you own the deer living there. This is particularly true if your agricultural crops make up a fair percentage of the herd's diet. But we must remember that nobody really owns a whitetail until he or she fastens a tag to its carcass.
Maintaining this mindset is a big part of keeping your sanity as a manager. Unless someone is breaking a law, there's nothing you can legally do to force a behavioral change. Instead, figure out what motivates the person and then use that to your advantage.
As we've often noted in our "Building Your Own Deer Factory" series in North American Whitetail, the greatest management gains occur when you work with neighbors, rather than against them. If you're trying to protect all of the young bucks in your area from being shot and want to make sure enough surplus does are taken, it's far more effective to work with neighbors than against them.
History has showed that it's seldom effective to try to shove management down anybody's throat. Just think how you'd respond if a neighbor suddenly tried to tell you what to do on your land. The natural reaction would be to resist, even if you thought his ideas had some validity. This approach only creates animosity and reduces the chances of anyone wanting to work with you in the future.
To their credit, many wildlife agencies have sensed the growing interest in deer management and now work hand in hand with landowners, hunting clubs, etc. The Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) concept has proved popular in many states, including Oklahoma, Mississippi and Virginia, and it keeps expanding.
The pluses and minuses of DMAP depend on how the program is set up and who's involved . . . on both sides. At worst, DMAP is little more than a way to increase the doe-hunting opportunity on a piece of ground. Properly set up and administered, DMAP is a good way to get on-site evaluations of your herd and advice on herd and habitat management.
Everywhere deer now are being actively managed on private lands, somebody in the area had to be first. Many of these landowners and hunters were ridiculed for being so naÃƒ¯ve as to think they could improve the herd. Yet over time, many of the doubters have changed their tune.
Wildlife agencies that have long pushed deer quantity over quality seldom change that approach overnight. Much like large companies that have been around for many years, they're institutions and have their own unique cultures. But for the most part, these agencies still are made up of individual people who mean well. Over the long haul, like the rest of us they do tend to respond to steady pressure. The key is applying it in a positive fashion.
What causes such a shift is results, plain and simple. Once folks see that management works, they want to start reaping the same rewards. As more and more folks get onboard, peer pressure can really go to work. local landowners and hunters who don't think management works can find themselves in the minority. Never underestimate the positive impact of having peer-group leaders get behind improved herd management.
First, discuss local deer problems with other hunters and landowners. Should you find that many of them share your concerns over what's going on, and you can come up with a reasonable solution, take your views to wildlife officials. Be sure you do so in a non-threatening way, however, or there will be no hope of a positive response.
To get the ball rolling, perhaps you should suggest to doubting neighbors that they read the features on this Web site or in the print version of North American Whitetail. Extend a pressure-free invitation to add their land to your management program, or at least adopt some of the principles you follow. Seize every appropriate chance to point out the hunting benefits of a better herd, and note any improvements you've seen since beginning your own program. In short, help your neighbors convince themselves that by getting onboard, they can enjoy the benefits of a healthier deer population.
It's easier to effect change when you're organized and have numbers on your side. In fact, that might be the only way for Joe Citizen to get anywhere when taking on public policy.
If you keep this up, at some point you likely will get at least one of them to join your program. And, over time, as the number of participants grows, there will be subtle peer pressure on others to join as well.
For instance, in the late 1990s several hundred frustrated whitetail managers formed the Texas Deer Association (TDA) to carry the banner for regulations changes in that state. It looks to be working. Landowners and hunters there now have more options for culling surplus deer, which should upgrade habitat quality and herd health. Had TDA not been formed, it's unlikely that the changes would have occurred so quickly.
If you decide to push for revised regulations, go in knowing that the people you're petitioning likely will view the request as either naÃƒ¯ve or incompatible with public interests. Also, realize that when you demand change, you're saying that the current system is a problem. Human nature being what it is, this won't get a positive response from whoever put that system into place. Chances are, some of those folks are still around.
In other words, even if you're well organized and do everything just right, you'll need to be persistent. If you are, perhaps you'll be rewarded. We need look only at Dooly County, Georgia, to see that.
In the early 1990s, a number of local landowners and hunters asked the Georgia Department of Natural Resources for a countywide minimum size limit on bucks. At first the idea was rebuffed, because DNR officials doubted there was sufficient public support. But the petitioners kept at it. After a survey of residents and hunters indicated high support for size limits, the DNR agreed to try the idea in a three-year experiment.
Today, Dooly County still has that minimum size limit on bucks. In fact, public support for it is even higher now than it was back then, and the concept has spread to other places in Georgia and elsewhere. And to think it all began because a few folks got organized on a grassroots level.
You can reduce bucks' home-range size by growing a lot of prime year-round forage and cover and not overhunting your land. But bucks still will tend to wander a bit during the rut. That means some might end up wearing your neighbors' tags. Perhaps a few more will be hit by cars out on the freeway. The town poacher might get one, too. You know the story.
Practically speaking, while you can cut such losses, you can't eliminate them unless you're willing and able to build a high fence. So don't let normal setbacks cloud the big picture of what you hope to achieve. Perhaps you'll find the odd loss of a buck easier to take by lumping it under the heading of "natural mortality," along with losses to predators, diseases and other such factors.
Like golf, deer management should be fun. To keep it that way takes the right mindset, because at any moment you might run into a problem that can ruin an otherwise great day. Getting too riled up over people problems in management is no more helpful than wrapping your 6-iron around a tree after a flubbed shot. In either case, just try to smile and keep looking forward . . . because the future is all any of us still can do anything about.