From a national perspective, whitetail hunting and management seem to be at a crossroads. Not too many years ago whitetail powerhouse states like Wisconsin, Alabama, and Nebraska were seeing all-time record harvests (2000, 2005, and 2010 respectively) and the Boone and Crockett club had never received more entries. But, now a handful of indicators are suggesting that the deer hunting bubble is about to burst — or maybe that it already has. Increased predator numbers, deer diseases like epizootic hemorrhagic disease and chronic wasting disease, and years of high antlerless harvests have put many deer herds on unstable ground. Hunters from corners of classic whitetail country like Montana's Milk River and the riverbottoms of Illinois have already seen drastic declines in deer numbers over the last few years. Then, several bad EHD outbreaks peppered the nation last summer and a brutal 2013/2014 winter struck much of the Midwest and Northeast. This could spell more bad news for deer hunters this season.
Enter a photo of yourself with your 2013/2014 deer and you could win great gear and be featured on the cover of our August 2014 issue! We’ll use the information you give us to generate the charts to the right.
The last place you would expect to see an animal rights group is protesting alongside a hunters’ rights group, but that’s exactly what is happening on Long Island’s East End. When town, state, and federal authorities announced the plan to remove as many as 3,000 deer from the local population, it polarized the community—and created unlikely allies. This is the first landscape-level cull in the region, and it has certainly garnered its share of opposition.
Local sportsmen were outraged over the use of hired guns to manage the local whitetail population. As with a lot of areas, access for hunters is extremely limited on Long Island. Now taxpayers are going to fund a service that hunters would happily provide for free?
Not surprisingly, local animal rights groups were equally opposed. Their protests and petitions started almost immediately. Senators were called, local officials were inundated with requests to stop the impending actions. Many questioned the biological implications of removing so many deer, as they are a keystone species. Mostly, though, the animal rights groups just didn’t want to see that many deer die.
But before you applaud or admonish a deer cull, it’s important to first know how these things actually work. That’s where I come in. As a wildlife specialist for USDA Wildlife Services, I participated in three deer culls over five years.
Some details remain to be worked out, but as of late Monday night it is official: crossbows are now officially a legal hunting implement in New York State. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill into law that allows for the use of crossbows during at least part of the general archery season and through the entirety of the general firearms season.
It may not be everything many New York sportsmen and women asked, but is seen as a huge step forward by the New York Crossbow Coalition, which squared off with the New York Bowhunter’s association for years to get a season ratified.
“Today, crossbows have been awarded their proper place in the sporting community,” said Rick McDermott of the NYCC.
Back in 2000, voters in my home state of Montana passed Constitutional Initiative 143, effectively ending the controversial business of game farming.
The catalyst for the initiative was the discovery of chronic wasting disease in a captive elk facility near Philipsburg, in the very heart of Montana’s wild-elk country. Elk in the facility were quarantined, then euthanized (shot by government marksmen), and later tested for always-fatal CWD, for which there is no cure and which is easily transmittable to wild deer and elk.
The months leading up to the vote that ended game farming was hugely polarized, with pro-business groups claiming that voters were improperly impinging a legitimate industry, while hunting groups mostly argued that a few poorly regulated operators were putting Montana’s publically owned wildlife—and the $500 million-a-year hunting industry—at inappropriate risk.
Big changes are in the works for bowhunting in Connecticut. Not only is bowhunting on the rise among the state’s hunters, but the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection is also considering lifting the ban on Sunday hunting for deer hunters using bows.
Virginia recently decided to allow hunters into the woods on Sundays, and Connecticut wildlife officials are considering the same revision. If implemented, the legislation would permit bowhunters to pursue deer only on private land on Sundays, reports the Hartford Courant. Wildlife officials say the whitetail population is growing too large and an extra day would give hunters additional opportunities to take a deer.
Back in 2011, when we published a downbeat assessment of deer trends across North America, we were called alarmists, pessimists, and even unpatriotic.
How could we dare challenge the notion that America’s whitetail resource was anything but renewable, robust, and ever-giving?
We were simply reading the tea leaves when we published “The Deer Depression,” a forecast of downward-trending whitetail signs that, looking back on it from this dismal year, seems especially prescient.
It’s worth revisiting the story to look at how quickly wildlife populations can cycle, and to remind ourselves that especially when we deer hunters get comfortable, disease, winterkill, land-use, and even our hunting regulations can quickly change the calculus.
My son Neil phoned me this morning with a winter kill report from one of his client’s properties. He has been walking the property for two days and so far he has turned up almost a dozen carcasses. He estimates this to be about 5 or 6 percent of the deer using the downstate New York property, which was hard hit with winter weather this year. Overall the habitat in the area is poor. Short of a few standing cornfields (which were cleaned up in January) and some greenfields (which were covered in deep snow), there was little food available through much of the winter. The area is also plagued by an overpopulation of deer; roughly 100 deer per square mile. They are lucky to only have lost that many.
In late summer of 2012, bowhunters in southern Michigan began finding large numbers of dead or dying whitetail deer. Prior to death, affected animals showed similar symptoms: swelling of the head and neck, lesions in the mouth, lethargy, and a loss of their natural fear of humans.
All signs pointed to an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD. The disease doesn’t affect humans, either by contact or by consuming meat of an affected deer, but the 2012 Michigan event was responsible for the deaths of nearly 15,000 deer across 30 counties. Ionia County lost 2,000 deer to the disease, or about half the number of deer harvested annually by hunters in the county.
While most hunters spend their spring weekends waiting for turkey season, Aaron Milliken spends hour after hour studying Google Earth. He dedicates so much time to the virtual mapping program partly because it's his job, but also because he knows it's the first critical step in finding and patterning mature bucks. Milliken is a Land Specialist with Whitetail Properties (a real-estate company that deals some of the best deer hunting land in the country) and it's his job to assess properties and predict how trophy bucks will utilize them.
Earlier this month I spent a weekend scouting and shed hunting with Milliken on his home turf in west-central Illinois. Later this year we'll hunt the rut in this classic Midwestern whitetail country, but first we need to find the right place to hunt. Here's what we did to get started, first with aerial scouting through Google Earth and then by putting boots on the ground.
They may be playing baseball and hunting turkeys down in Florida, but winter refuses to let go most everywhere else. So what's a hunter to do? Anyone near Columbus, Ohio this weekend is hereby cordially invited to personally join me at the State Fairgrounds for the 2014 Ohio Deer & Turkey Expo.
The doors open at 2 this afternoon (Friday) and the show runs through Sunday. If you think that giant home-grown deer antlers are cool, you've got to check out the bucks on display here. Looking to get your stud buck scored? Bring it in to have it officially measured. And while you're at it, enter that buck in the Outdoor Life Deer of the Year.
Come check out the awesome racks in Columbus and track me down on the show floor because I want to hear your deer story!!!