by Daniel E. Schmidt
If this winter has 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. No, it won’t take but a few sunny, snowless days later this spring or early summer, and we’ll be back at it — squabbling about antler restrictions, doe tags and other such nonsense.
For those of us who live in the Midwest, North and Northeast, we should be worrying about the continued decline of overwinter habitat. Boring topic? Certainly. But it’s the most critical topic for all things deer and deer hunting as we head into the next couple of decades.
In short, we’re standing at the crossroads of our deer hunting future. And it’s bleak. It all 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 booms in deer populations. This lasted well into the early 2000s. But there were bust years when winters were harsh. But the booms usually exceeded the busts, and we put up some incredible deer harvests in those years.
The numbers tell the story. In the fall of 2000, we peaked as a deer hunting country from a production standpoint. It was the perfect storm, so to speak, of optimum growing conditions weather and habitat-wise. But it would not and could not last. Here’s a look at the number of whitetails that hunters from seven states put on meat poles that fall: (numbers are rounded off for this example)
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, no doubt, but this should never have been interpreted to be something we could repeat. Mother Nature helped us out a lot in that regard, but we also had a hand in it.
Fast forward to more recent times. Here’s a snapshot of the deer harvest from those same states more recently:
New York 228,000.
For state after state, the high-water points are down by 50 percent and more. Really sobering stuff, isn’t it? Well, yes and no.
“Yes” in the fact that we all love the good old days. We wish they’d never end. “No” in the fact that 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 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to find out what reality most resembles.
Thankfully, today we can certainly aspire for better deer and deer hunting than our fathers and grandfathers enjoyed in those years, which by the way, was one-third fewer deer than we’re shooting now — with the same number of hunters in the woods.
How do we go about fixing overwinter deer habitat? Should we scream at our elected officials? Hold sit-ins at the governor’s office? Fire up our chainsaws and get to pulpin’?
Sigh. No one said it was going to be easy. It’s complicated science, and something we as individuals have little control over. To fix our declining deer herds and improve our yearly harvests will would require a massive shift on many levels and include public and private sector interests on federal, state and local levels all working together to improve overwinter habitat.
A daunting task? Absolutely. That’s precisely why we’re sitting at this crossroads and most likely won’t be moving forward any time soon.