Land management is fun, but it also comes with great responsibility. In our giddy enthusiasm to grow bigger and better deer, many hunters/landowners forget the founding tenant to sound whitetail management: responsible deer densities.
A high abundance of white-tailed deer can create dramatic changes in forest understory that leads to irreparable harm to the habitat and future deer hunting prospects.
Whitetails can and will change a forest’s understory simply by eating their way out of house and home. This can happen quickly in areas where traditional management ideals clash with so-called quality deer management (QDM) efforts. The problem, as I see it, happens where owners of larger parcels strictly limit the number of hunters on their properties while at the same time adhering to limited doe harvesting (“more deer is better”) and strict antler regulations. What happens is we get so caught up in growing and hunting bigger bucks that we take our foot off the pedal when it comes to doe hunting by invariably not harvesting enough antlerless deer early in the season.
It’s understandable, but it’s also a vicious cycle that causes sobering consequences.
Individual efforts are often lost in the land management fray. For example, one property owner might be a true QDM disciple in that he manages the land first and deer second. His neighbor, however, might take a complete hands-off approach because he knows he’ll see more deer if he provides more sanctuary. The result is nothing short of management chaos, really, because it’s no longer a collective county, region or statewide effort. It’s every man for himself.
Pre-hunt deer densities should never exceed 35 deer per square mile on the very best habitat. There are a few exceptions, but those numbers are typically limited to habitat-rich regions within states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia and Texas. Responsible deer density goals drop steeply (20 dpsm or less) the farther north, east and west you travel. It boils down to what’s in the soil and how much native forage that land can provide for all wildlife.
Overpopulation leads to overbrowsing, which leads to the proliferation of non-native/invasive trees, shrubs and other plants in forest ecosystems. Peel back the layers, and what appears to be “thick deer cover” turns out to be one jungle of a mess that won’t do a lick of good for sustaining wildlife populations for future generations.
Three things are certain: It can be fixed. It won’t happen overnight. And it’s going to take the entire deer hunting community to do it.