QDMA Responds to OL's Deer Depression
By Lindsay Thomas Jr. and Kip Adams
Are whitetails heading for a catastrophic crash? Andrew McKean, Hunting Editor of Outdoor Life magazine, asked this important question in his September article, “The Deer Depression.” While the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) doesn’t believe a nationwide crash is imminent, we agree that North America’s most important game species faces very serious challenges, and we believe McKean was on target when he identified a few of the major threats to the future of the whitetail resource. Not only does QDMA recognize these threats, we’ve been speaking about and working to address every single one of them – and many others – for several years.
However, we disagree on an important point in the article: the so-called “leadership vacuum,” or lack of a national group that fights for whitetails. McKean proposed the creation of a “truly national whitetail conservation organization, one that is confident enough to address the wedge issues that divide deer hunters while advocating for habitat conservation, access, responsive management, and research.”
That’s a perfect description of an existing group founded in 1988 – the QDMA. In fact, in 2006 QDMA organized its ongoing mission under the acronym REACH – Research, Education, Advocacy, Certification and Hunting Heritage. With REACH in action, combined with QDMA’s core mission of ensuring the future of white-tailed deer, wildlife habitat and our hunting heritage, McKean’s wish was granted before he put it in writing.
Rather than re-invent the wheel, we believe deer hunters and the hunting industry should get behind a group that’s already working to secure the future of the whitetail resource. We’d like you to consider the actions we have already taken, and continue to take, in response to each of the major threats identified by Outdoor Life.
It’s not news to QDMA members that as forests mature, the quantity and quality of forage and browse decline, as do the number of deer that can be supported in healthy condition. In our 2009 Whitetail Report, distributed free to the hunting industry and the public, we revealed that only 18 percent of our national forestland is in a young forest stage, and we called for a minimum of 20 to 30 percent for healthy deer habitat. Through numerous articles in our journal Quality Whitetails, through hundreds of annual seminars and workshops at local and national events, through intensive education programs like our Deer Steward courses, QDMA continually emphasizes the benefits of maintaining a diversity of habitat succession stages and provides management strategies to achieve those cover types throughout the whitetail’s range. Timber stand improvement techniques, “old field” management, native warm-season grasses, prescribed fire – these and other practices are encouraged. We’re even helping fund university research to study the effects of such habitat techniques on deer forage and cover species, information that will be widely available to the public. But it’s not enough to ensure wise management of private forests. Public hunting lands deserve wise management as well, so QDMA has actively and publicly encouraged state and federal agencies to manage timber on public lands to bring back early successional habitat and young forest stages. We’ve also shown the willingness to help achieve this goal, as QDMA’s volunteer Branches have assisted with habitat improvement projects on public hunting lands.
For years, QDMA has worked to broadcast new research indicating the potential for predators like coyotes to severely reduce fawn survival in localized areas. In fact, Dr. John Kilgo, whose research was featured in Outdoor Life’s article, has spoken at QDMA’s National Convention and contributed articles to past issues of our journal. Other predator research has also been shared by QDMA, and we have applied to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation for funding for additional research by North Carolina State University. Our organization has also shared and emphasized techniques for managing fawn predation, like effective trapping conducted prior to each fawning season, improving fawning cover, and adjusting doe harvest where necessary. Through our membership media and free resources like the Whitetail Report, we have long been working toward Outdoor Life’s suggested solution: for deer hunters to acknowledge the potential impact of predators on fawns and learn techniques to minimize this impact.
Though rated as a lower risk, Outdoor Life calls for the abolishment of “baiting.” QDMA has advocated the swift prohibition of baiting (hunting over bait) and supplemental feeding in every state where chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other serious disease threats have appeared, often working to support state agencies in making this regulation change. We have also opposed the legalization of hunting over bait in numerous states where the practice was not traditionally allowed, including Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and others, and opposed lifting the baiting ban earlier this year in Michigan – a state with CWD and bovine tuberculosis. When the future of the whitetail resource is considered, there is seldom a good reason to expand hunting over bait into new areas, while there are numerous potential negatives associated with this practice. Taking these positions has put QDMA at odds with pro-baiting groups and some QDMA members, but our goal is to consider the best available science in every case and do what is necessary to sustain and protect the whitetail resource and our hunting heritage. Outdoor Life called for a group “confident enough to address the wedge issues that divide deer hunters.” Few issues create a bigger wedge than baiting, and we have confronted this issue repeatedly. (For a complete list of QDMA’s advocacy work from 2006 to 2010 through the REACH program, click here).
Outdoor Life is right: Land fragmentation and habitat loss due to urban/suburban expansion and agricultural trends are serious issues for deer. QDMA is currently partnering with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Minnesota DNR and Concordia University to study deer harvest and herd management in suburban areas before and after habitat fragmentation occurs. We hope this research will identify methods for preserving quality deer habitat and hunting opportunity in suburban landscapes. Additionally, QDMA is working with numerous agencies to promote conservation easements on private lands to help landowners preserve habitat in the face of development pressures (in fact, QDMA’s new Land Certification Program places special emphasis on conservation easements). We continue to promote government cost-share programs that encourage farmers and land managers to set aside field borders, fencerows and other early successional habitat alongside croplands.
Whitetails are adapting to life in the suburbs, but not all suburbanites are adapting to their new neighbors. QDMA is working to help suburban non-hunters learn about whitetails and appreciate the role of hunters in managing this resource. Our award-winning school curriculum kit, “Living With White-tailed Deer,” has been used in middle and high schools across the nation, and it was followed by a community version aimed at homeowner’s associations and other suburban resident groups. We funded a PhD graduate project assessing the effectiveness of this school curriculum at teaching urban/suburban students the realities of living with whitetails and the need for deer to be removed (harvested) annually. While we recognize that managed hunting is not appropriate in every urban/suburban situation, we believe it is the best option in most cases, and we have advocated for managed hunting on state and federal parks and private lands near suburban areas. We have provided our members with information about successfully creating and managing hunting programs in suburban settings. We also directly support and encourage venison donation programs, such as Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, which often make it possible for hunters to take adequate numbers of deer in suburban settings.
Inadequate Population Monitoring
To better detect swings in local and regional deer populations, Outdoor Life calls for more emphasis on “intensive spot monitoring” and less on statewide estimates. The reality is that states manage deer populations at the WMU (or DMU) level, but hunters hunt at the property level. QDMA teaches hunters simple monitoring and data-collection techniques to get a better feel for local population trends, like collecting harvest records and evaluating habitat quality. After all, “Herd Monitoring” is one of the Four Cornerstones of Quality Deer Management. A new tool – the trail-camera – has given hunters the most powerful equipment yet for tracking deer population and demographic trends. QDMA even published a book recently on how to use trail-cameras to estimate deer density, sex ratios, fawn recruitment, and age structure – and track these indicators from year to year. While there are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the QDM philosophy, it is really about producing sustainable, healthy deer populations and hunting satisfaction, and that is difficult to do without monitoring techniques to guide harvest decisions. QDMA always has, and always will, promote ongoing deer population monitoring.
Hunters’ Unrealistic Expectations
Managing deer is easy, but managing hunters? Not so much. The difficulty comes from unrealistic expectations, like expecting to see specific results that are unlikely given local conditions, or believing these achievements will happen rapidly when they may require years. Outdoor Life specifically warned of hunters expecting deer populations to remain unchanged forever, or failing to recognize there is such a thing as “too many deer.” QDMA constantly warns hunters of these common pitfalls in deer management and provides the means for establishing realistic expectations regarding herd density, reproductive potential, and body and antler size. We’ve been doing it for years, and we’ll go on sharing this message through every channel possible.
On this threat, we disagree with Outdoor Life. Long before the “The Deer Depression” was published, QDMA was working to address the specific threats listed above, and more recently we have intensified our efforts to raise concerns about the future of the whitetail resource. For too long, hunters and the hunting industry have taken this vital resource for granted. To bring attention to threats and concerns, in 2009 QDMA launched its annual Whitetail Report, a status report on the game species that carries the entire hunting industry on its back. For the past three years, this compilation of vital deer statistics and review of emerging threats has been provided free to the public through our website, distributed to members of the outdoor media, and presented as a live press conference at the SHOT Show, the annual trade show of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. The fourth annual Whitetail Report is due out in early 2012.
Take a look at any of the three existing Whitetail Reports and you’ll find QDMA is also monitoring and acting upon additional threats to our deer-hunting tradition. Declining access to hunting land, deadly whitetail diseases, the growth of the captive deer and elk industry, declining youth participation in hunting, shrinking wildlife agency budgets, feral hogs – we’ve examined these and other concerns and taken action. Our efforts begin at the grassroots level, where QDMA’s Branch volunteers are at work in nearly every state in the whitetail’s range, teaching fellow hunters about the QDM philosophy, recruiting and mentoring new hunters, and promoting sound wildlife and habitat management.
The Whitetail Report also quantifies QDMA’s annual efforts by listing actions and achievements under the REACH program. For example, QDMA has engaged state and federal agencies and legislative bodies on nearly 300 separate policy items since 2006, advocating sound deer management to protect the whitetail resource (Advocacy is the “A” in REACH). The “R” is for Research, and in that same time period QDMA has acquired a total of nearly $400,000 for numerous research projects that are improving our stewardship and protection of whitetails. No other conservation group in North America is even playing in this ball game. Numerous awards are proof of the respect QDMA has gained in the hunting industry, including most recently this year the Career Achievement Award from The Wildlife Society (never before awarded to a conservation organization) and the 2011 Budweiser Outdoors Conservationist of the Year, awarded to QDMA founder and staff member Joe Hamilton.
Even more significant, QDMA recently received funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to host the first-ever National Whitetail Symposium, a gathering of state and federal agencies, universities, private consultants, industry leaders, the outdoor media and other groups. The goal: identify the major challenges and threats to whitetails, the most economically important game species in the world. No such gathering focused on the future of whitetails has ever occurred. QDMA took the lead on making it happen and will coordinate and host this historic event in early 2013.
Is the whitetail taken for granted? Perhaps Outdoor Life provided the answer in pointing out that elk, turkeys, even pheasants each have their hugely successful conservation organization, while whitetails do not. QDMA may be small relative to the number of deer hunters, but our organization has been very successful at educating its members on sound deer and habitat management and at advocating for white-tailed deer on a national level. However, there appears to be less urgency among hunters to protect whitetails – after all, they are North America’s greatest conservation success story. QDMA believes we are overdue for an attitude change, and we have been working to call attention to emerging threats to the whitetail resource. We are pleased Outdoor Life is helping raise the volume of our concerns, and we hope deer hunters will rally behind QDMA, join our organization, and support our ongoing efforts to secure the future of North America’s most valuable, most sought after, and most beloved big-game species.
Join other hunters who are working to secure the whitetail’s future. Become a QDMA member today.
The man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic. ~Roosevelt