If the past several winters have taught us anything, it should be that habitat is the trump card in any discussion on white-tailed deer management. It should teach us all that, but it won’t. Warm weather has returned, and we’re back to squabbling about antler restrictions, doe tags and other nonsense.
For those living in the Midwest, North and Northeast, we should be worrying about the continued decline of overwinter habitat. As a result, we’re standing at the crossroads of our deer hunting future, and it’s bleak. It started in the late 1980s when timber companies ravaged our forests to capitalize on the booming pulp industry. The associated forest reproduction (and several mild winters) led to population booms that lasted well into the early 2000s.
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The harvest numbers tell the story. Here’s a look at the number of whitetails that hunters from seven states put on meat poles in 2000:
Wisconsin: 618,000 deer.
Michigan: 541,000 deer.
Pennyslvania: 504,000 deer.
New York: 306,000 deer.
Minnesota: 290,000 deer.
Maine: 36,000 deer.
Vermont: 20,500 deer.
Impressive numbers, but this should never have been interpreted to be something we could repeat. Fast forward to the most recent harvests:
Wisconsin: 330,000 deer.
Michigan: 412,000 deer.
Pennyslvania: 308,000 deer.
New York: 228,000 deer.
Minnesota: 190,000 deer.
Maine: 18,000 deer.
Vermont: 12,000 deer.
For state after state, the high-water points are down by 50-plus percent, but it’s ridiculous to think for a moment that any wildlife species could be held up to such inflated numbers for any period of time. You only need look back to the 1970s to find out what reality most resembles.
How do we go about fixing overwinter deer habitat? It’s complicated science and something we as individuals have little control over. A true remedy would require a massive shift on many levels and include public- and private-sector interests on federal, state and local levels working together to improve overwinter habitat. A daunting task?
Absolutely. If we want to see more deer, we need to help them out. And it all starts with quality habitat.
FOLLOW DAN ON TWITTER: @DanSchmidtDeer
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