By Glen Wunderlich
Deer hunters have had it pretty good. From the days of market hunting to today’s regulated hunting, nationwide whitetail deer numbers have gone from the brink of extinction to approximately 20 million. Sadly, however, what goes up must come down and some experts believe we are in for a drastic downturn. In fact, it may have already begun.
Anecdotal evidence in our region has indicated that deer numbers are already down compared to recent years. If true, it’s paramount to determine what has happened, and then, of course, what should be done.
Dr. Grant Woods, a consulting wildlife biologist rocked the whitetail world when he revealed his findings and predictions in an Outdoor Life article a few months ago. He believes we are at the verge of a crisis.
He claims a combination of habitat loss, increasing numbers of predators, underfunded wildlife agencies and, yes, hunters’ behavior and expectations are stressing America’s deer herd.
If Dr. Woods is correct, lower deer numbers will mean fewer hunters. Fewer hunters will mean less revenue from license sales and excise taxes. And, with animal rights activists suing governmental agencies over plans to hunt wolves, for example, available tax-payer funds, that are designed to help animals, goes toward paying attorneys.
And, then there is the loss of habitat. We’re not making more land, yet somehow we believe that deer numbers can be maintained. In Michigan, we’ve already lost our pheasant habitat and our pheasants. Although there are still pockets of healthy birds, they will never return to the glory days of the 1950s, in spite of current efforts to resurrect them. Why should our deer population be any different? Mother Nature has the answer: It isn’t.
Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association. (QDMA) puts it this way: “The fact that we have fewer deer is by design,” he says. “We have been way over (population) objectives in many places, and a number of states wanted to drop herd numbers by increasing doe harvest. But it’s also true that predators—wolves, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, even raccoons—caused some of these drops to be sharper than intended the last couple years.”
“Historically, the private and public habitat was approximately the same. But today, the average private land is far higher in quality than the adjacent public land. You have private landowners actively managing their land for wildlife. But on public land, you have a forest that hasn’t been logged and habitat that hasn’t been managed. Most of our deer hunters hunt public land, and they’re starting to notice that quality gap. It’s going to get even wider”, says Adams.
Forests are old and getting older with no meaningful management of timber. As groups like the Sierra Club fight logging operations at every turn, the downward spiral of habitat loss will progress.
Predators must also be factored into the equation of decline. Coyotes are suspected of killing up to 75 percent of all fawns before the fall of each year, and bobcats are not far behind in deadly attacks on newborns.
We must face the fact that habitat is not coming back and we cannot rely upon governmental fixes. Yes, everyone likes to see lots of deer, but frankly, Michigan has managed its herd for numbers, rather than quality for far too long. The trouble is, shrinking available land will not support the numbers we have grown accustomed to without consequences such as diseases we are already experiencing.
Our new normal is evolving.