Ethical Hunter

Where are all those deer?

Following my earn-a-buck post, I expected a lot more comments like the one posted by Ron, basically blasting EAB. Perhaps the majority of hunters just glazed over the whole thing? Or, maybe things aren’t as bad as I believe? Maybe a lot of hunters do understand that deer populations are still too high in many areas. Frankly, I doubt that.

I doubt it because one of the biggest problems with modern deer management is that when deer populations explode, many hunters never see it — especially in the states with the most hunters. At it’s heart is the disparate localized distribution of deer (or clumpiness, as retired Wisconsin DNR deer researcher Keith McCaffery calls it) and land ownership trends.

The short version is this: Deer are wild animals that go where they want to go. Today’s hunters are limited by property constraints that are increasingly narrowed. Thus, some hunting groups frolic in over-abundant herds, while other hunters, (guys like Ron) sit in woods with few or no deer.

Although game departments are charged with managing deer populations for the public as a whole, they have little control over individual private properties. State managers break up their tasked areas as best as they can, often into deer management units that cover county-sized areas in the range of 500,000 acres. This is partially because it takes a large sample size to produce a reliable count, and partially because of limited resources. So, for a statewide manager, that’s a tiny area to localize regulations to. But a hunter limited to just 40 of those 500,000 acres might find that "his herd" doesn’t match up with the over-goal lands around him.

deer herdDeer & Deer Hunting editor-in-chief Dan Schmidt often uses this example in his lectures: Think about the square mile around your hunting area. That is 640 acres. If the deer population goal for the area is 25 deer per square mile, each 40 acre property would be allotted roughly 1.5 deer if they were distributed equally. However, if you were to see 10 deer on one 40-acre soybean field, that only leaves 15 for the remaining 600 acres.

Deer do not distribute evenly. Land management, agriculture, as well as hunting practices, all influence deer distribution.

"I have rarely argued with a hunter that claims there are few or no deer where he hunts because his claim could be true," McCaffery said. "This can especially be the case if he or she is attempting to hunt a 10- or 40-acre ownership."

Even when expanded to square-mile blocks, deer populations are clumpy. For example a recent aerial survey in the CWD zone of Wisconsin found counts ranged from zero to 147 deer on individual square-mile survey blocks. Of course, not all deer were probably seen and counted. But it shows the problem inherent for managers.

Managers such as McCaffery cite cover and food as the main causes for deer clumpiness.   Hunting pressure also makes a difference. Huge clumps of deer exist within urban zones where hunting is restricted. Baiting, food plots and selective harvest patterns can also increase clumpiness.

What’s the answer to this problem? How do we manage a disparate population, keeping hunters happy with full freezers and our forests healthy?  This is probably a game manager’s most difficult task.

For our part, ethical hunters must be both understanding and steward-minded. If we happen to fall outside of a "clump" we must recognize that some areas might be temporarily "over-shot," as McCaffery puts it, on occasion to protect those lands and a multitude of other interests. He reminds us that "forests are far more threatened by over-abundance of deer than scarcity."

Hunters within those clumps of heavy deer distribution can do more. These are the hunters who must kill more deer than their current harvest threshold allows. This is land stewardship. Plus, in a round-about way, reducing populations within high-density areas will help spread the wealth of venison to hunters outside the main clumps by allowing managers to reduce harvest goals over the broader management area.

10 thoughts on “Where are all those deer?

  1. Soupy

    I dont know about clumpiness, but Pennsylvania should clump Roe Rosenberry and Dubrock together and fire them for the farce that is pa deer management. Environmentalists have no place running GAME managment.

  2. Dan

    The problem isn’t the deer or the DNR, it’s the people that hunt them.

    When you have more and more hunters with attitudes that match that of Nick’s, guys who want to protect 2 or 3 age classes of bucks so they can shoot big antlered deer, you have a problem. Most of these same guys, the self proclaimed trophy buck hunters, ones that refuse to shoot a doe because they a.) make more bucks or because they b.) are looked upon as a lesser animal and not worth the time spent to hunt them are the reason that Game Agencies have to make regulations like EAB.

    So, they piss and moan about EAB, the DNR is forced to use other methods like sharpshooting, etc. and they piss and moan about that. Typical lack of American leadership as of the last 40 years. Rather than making the hard decisions to produce a desired result that benefits everyone, we just sit back and kick the can down the road. Anyone that does try something different, that affects how someone does something and/or may not be successful in their first effort is publicly ridiculed by those that don’t even offer any options themselves.

    Does this sound familiar?

  3. James Dalbesio III

    The way I see it, deer densities in areas with few or no apex predators are a completely different animal than deer densities in an area with an overabundance of apex predators such as bears and wolves. We are forced to live with that scourge here in Northern Wisconsin, wheras the further south you go, that problem disappears. Doesn’t seem fair that we are being held hostage by unsound predator management. When is the light going to come on?

  4. JC

    Nick said it very well. My research into EAB doesn’t leave much to be desired. As for the clumpiness of deer
    that is good info but should be obvious to nearly any hunter.

    With D&DH forcing another editorial (at least there were some research with this one) down our throats makes me wonder what direction the magazine/website are heading. Hopefully you will stick to information on deer biology, research, tactics. Or at the least cover both sides of an issue.

  5. Jake Edson

    Bob,
    Yes, there are studies in WI that attempt to quantify the effects of predation on fawn mortality. In fact, there is currently another underway. I’ll have more on that in a future post. The fact that predation shifts deer concentrations is much harder to measure. Although, deer aren’t dumb. I’m sure it happens.

  6. Bob Pace

    I agree with the clumpiness theory, but I believe there is an additional issue we deal with besides cover and food and hunting. That’s the bear and wolves in the northern half of WI. It seems to me the wolves have moved the majority of the deer to the safety of the subdivions. Are there any current studies of fawns taken by bear, or the current wolf population in WI?

  7. Chris

    Hi Jacob, I see this every season on our property. We hunt just three guys on our 750 acre parcel while many of the neighbors have large hunting parties on parcels the same size or smaller. On opening day all of their deer come to our property to escape. We are careful to keep pressure to a minimum. However, our property is about 1/2 forest, 1/2 crop land. If the crops are harvested, deer will start looking elsewhere for food. One of our neighbors has a pretty rigorous food plot program and I’m sure he’s pulling a ton of deer onto his property after the crops are harvested. Our lease is grazed by beef cattle which prevents us from planting food plots. We’re limited to the natural food sources available. But for the most part deer are there for safety. We have two separate sanctuary areas we do not walk in at all. After the crops our out we’re hunting deer as they move on and off our place to feed.

  8. Nick

    It probably went largely unoticed because your opinions are just that, and there out of touch with reality, EAB was not and is not based on sound science, you tell us this all as if biologists chosen and appointed by unaccountable political appointees are themselves unbiased, the DNR in Wisconsin has been nothing but a politcal arm for the previous 8 years, strong armed and led by Sierra clubbers and other political appointments, you left field opinions regarding deer managment and Leonards leftist views on global warming are the reasons the publication isnt taken seriously. I’ve seen the effects of EAB none of them good. If calling dead buck fawns for anterled tags good management, I’m glad you don’t hunt anywhere near me in this state.

  9. Ray B

    I’m an "older" hunter and grew up in MD when deer were scarce and the rule of thumb was if it’s brown it’s down. A "quality" deer had visible antlers and 4 legs. Now that deer are more abundant or even over abundant the emphasis has shifted to bigger antlers defining the "quality" deer. The poor deer "manager" is now between a rock and a hard place – complaints from homeowners about too many deer damaging their shrubs or crashing into their vehicles, and hunters who whine when they don’t see/bag at least a 140 class 8 pt.
    CLUMPING. gmab. wildlife is resource dependent and survival motivated. they will congregate where resources are most abundant, especially during periods of low food availability. if you have a property with no or low resources you will have low or no deer numbers. My minimal $ contribution by way of a license purchase does NOT entitle me to expect that poor manager to meet MY needs.

  10. Jeff Huddleston

    While I agree with all that was said in the article "Where are all those deer". My case is just the oppisite. We have to many doe’s. I could kill a doe on any given day with my crossbow, in-line or rifle. Now, a lot of this environment is based on quality scouting and reading sign. Simply put, I know and understand travel corridors. I also hunt on 5000 acres of little pressure land. Our camp is located on the Nevada-Ouchita county line in Zone 12 of Southwest Arkansas. The Arkansas Game and Fish is on the right track for managing Zone 12. They instituted the three point rule a few years back. Now we are allowed to take six deer this coming season with no more than two bucks. You can take six doe’s if that is what you want. The problem with this many deer are the lack of quality buck sightings. With this many doe’s, the buck’s have less competition. They stay in there thick house cover with plenty of doe’s, water, food and good escape routes, no need to roam much. The scouting for a good buck is very difficult. A good buck for our area would be in the range of 130-150 class. Did I say out of the 26 paid members on our lease only about 6 actually hunt on a regular basis. Three of us have the entire 5000 acres during bow, muzzleloading season and the same three after the first week of rifle. Our season runs from October 1st thru Feb. 15th.

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