The discovery of five dead deer on a Kansas public hunting area has reignited a simmering debate. Altamont, Kansas resident Robert Broadway was walking down a road through the state land in August when he found the deer. Only their backstraps had been taken.
As it turned out, what Broadway discovered was perfectly legal. The deer were killed by a local farmer.
Kansas, along with virtually every other state that has whitetail deer, give farmers and other landowners what are known as depredation or kill permits. They allow landowners to kill deer at any time and with little regard to normal hunting regulations. In many states, deer can be shot from a truck window on a summer night and then left on the ground to rot.
For most of us, though, any of those would result in a ticket or even a few days behind bars.
In Virginia, 2,308 landowners were given the green light to kill deer that were eating crops or landscaping in 2014. Those landowners killed nearly 12,000 deer, about 6 percent of the state's total harvest, outside of regular hunting seasons. Maryland's depredation kill of 8,840 deer in 2012 accounted for 9 percent of the state's total harvest. Farm-related kills in most other states accounted for just 2 or 3 percent of the total kill, according to data compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association.
Why are farmers allowed to shoot thousands of deer when so many hunters are practically begging for the opportunity? A lack of access is a leading reason hunters drop out of the sport.
"I think a lot of it is political," says QDMA outreach coordinator Kip Adams. "A lot of state wildlife agencies don't really care for the kill permit programs because of the stigma that goes with shooting deer out of season and then not requiring landowners to utilize them, but they don't have much choice."
In a limited number of instances, hunters are actually the first line of defense with those kill permits. In Virginia, about 17 percent of those kill permits issued in 2014 went to urban and suburban homeowners, most of whom use bow hunters to control deer. Farmers, however, sometimes don't and take matters into their own hands.
Although rumors suggest some landowners kill dozens of deer, such instances are exceptionally rare. Fox recalls one instance where a farmer shot "75 or 80," but that was at least a decade ago when deer populations were spiraling through the roof. Last year, his agency gave out just 57 permits and landowners killed 150, or less than three deer each. According to a 2011 survey by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 44 percent of all kill permit recipients did not kill a single deer. Ninety percent shot 10 or fewer.
"The good news is that few states allow bucks to be shot at will. In most cases, landowners are restricted to shooting antlerless deer only. Just 1 percent of Maryland's depredation kill consisted of bucks and only 5 percent were bucks in Virginia, according to data compiled by QDMA. Fox says only in rare cases will Kansas give a landowner a permit to kill a specific buck."
Still, the mere thought of a deer getting shot out of season and then left on the ground or buried in a trench doesn't sit well with hunters. Fox, however, says despite the low number of deer killed in his state, many hunters feel like they are being robbed.
"People tend to get possessive about deer. Some hunters talk as if the deer belong to them and some farmers also think they own the deer," says Fox.
Adams agrees, at least to some extent. He says hunters aren't necessarily lamenting the loss of the deer as much as the opportunity to hunt them.
"These kill permits are always unpopular with hunters and I can certainly understand if a guy is hunting next to a farm that has killed a bunch of deer, he's going to be upset," says VDGIF deer program coordinator Matt Knox. "It can have a real impact at the local level."
However, Adams says that in some instances, hunters themselves are to blame for the various depredation tag programs.
"In some cases, hunters don't shoot does, even though the farmer wants them to, or they pass up does in favor of a buck. We really need to show that hunters are capable of serving as the best management tool available to landowners," he says.
Of course, that can only happen if farmers allow more hunters onto their land. An Ohio program attempted to serve as a matchmaker for farmers and hunters, but was ultimately cancelled after it failed to garner much interest from landowners. Dubbed "deer harmony," a spoof of a popular dating site, it required hunters to fill out an online form that included such questions as years of hunting experience, willingness to shoot does instead of bucks and maximum driving distance.
Not surprisingly, nearly every hunter who filled out a survey was willing to shoot at least one doe before shooting a buck. Kansas farmers are required to allow hunting during the season, says Fox, but there are no requirements on who is allowed to hunt or how many days they can hunt.
The good news is that few states allow bucks to be shot at will. In most cases, landowners are restricted to shooting antlerless deer only. Just 1 percent of Maryland's depredation kill consisted of bucks and only 5 percent were bucks in Virginia, according to data compiled by QDMA. Fox says only in rare cases will Kansas give a landowner a permit to kill a specific buck.
"If there is something like a buck rubbing ornamental trees or trees in an orchard or a nursery, we might give a permit for that, but even that's pretty rare, because we typically don't give depredation permits when there is a legal hunting season taking place.
Bucks aren't rubbing in the spring or summer," says Fox. "We want landowners to use hunters as their first management tool, because we know that hunting is by far the most effective way to keep deer numbers in check."
Like them or not, kill permit programs aren't going away. As Knox says, one of the basic tenets of life in America is the protection of personal property. Agricultural crops aren't just personal property, they are a famer's livelihood.
"We can either reimburse farmers for the crop damage, or we can give them the tools necessary to protect their property," he says. "We certainly don't have the money to reimburse them, so our responsibility is to help them reduce crop damage the most efficient way possible."