Deer Summit Day 2: EHD, Predators, and Public Relations

If the first day of the North American Deer Summit gave participants an overview of problems in deer country, the second day drilled down into the specific perils that confront deer and the humans who hunt them.

Epizootic hemorrhagic diseases are on the rise, predation by coyotes and black bears is increasing in places we’re not used to seeing their claws and fangs, numbers of hunters are dwindling, and harried deer managers are faced with a dizzying array of bureaucracies and political influences.

But all that dour news was leavened by a number of big ideas that offer not only hope to deer hunters, but something even more valuable: enhanced social status, political clout, and funding.

Among the biggest idea was offered by Shane Mahoney, the Canadian conservationist who, with funding support from Dallas Safari Club, announced the “Wild Harvest Initiative,” a program designed to “measure and analyze the biomass of wild animal protein harvested by the citizens of the U.S. and Canada.”

The idea of the initiative, which already has the attention of the United Nations’ food-security unit, is to develop metrics that prove that managed hunting is not only good for the ecosystem and rural economies, but that the meat harvested by hunters is an essential food source for up to half the population of the continent.

“It’s time to give back to the deer,” Mahoney told summit participants, who says his initiative would not only broaden support from non-hunters for hunting, but would also return a measure of respect to deer for their healthy protein and not just their antlers.

THE CREEP OF EHD
A number of issues—diseases, predation, hunter recruitment, and hunter/agency relations chief among them—were identified by last year's inaugural summit as vital concerns. So organizers of this year's summit, held this week in Louisville, convened panels to present the latest information on those topics.

Veterinarian John Fischer from the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study noted a northward movement in EHD as well as new serotypes of the virus that may prove even more viral for white-tailed deer.

But he also noted that his epidemiology has identified a number of EHD trends, including a swath of continent between Kentucky northwest to Montana that sees relatively infrequent outbreaks of EHD (on a 5-10-year cycle) but the outbreaks are especially virulent. In the Southeastern U.S., the EHD outbreaks are frequent (every 2-3 years) but are relatively mild. In Texas, Oklahoma and southern Kansas, EHD appears to be endemic in the deer population but rarely causes widespread mortality. And in the Northeast, EHD is rare to non-existent.

“Things are changing with EHD,” says Fischer. “It’s moving northward, probably because of climate change, and we’re seeing new viruses. And we are seeing increasing involvement in cattle.”

INCREASING PREDATION
As coyotes continue their spread along the eastern seaboard and into interior habitats, they are continuing to prey on deer, but University of Georgia professor Mike Chamberlain told the group that the more he studies coyotes, the less he understands their population dynamics. While some coyotes establish defined home ranges, others roam widely and appear to be transitory.

“There are no average coyotes,” he said. “They are all over the map in terms of how they behave.”

That includes their predation on adult deer. For some time, biologists assumed that coyotes preyed mainly on fawns, but Chamberlain’s research indicated that adult deer are a large part of their diet, and rut-weakened mature bucks are especially vulnerable during the winter months.

SOURING HUNTER/AGENCY RELATIONS
In the old days of wildlife management, biologists could pretty much count on the support of deer hunters, whose licenses paid for much of the work of wildlife management. But as hunters have evolved their expectations of hunting, deer populations and densities, they're not always in lockstep with resource managers.

That’s the context for Ron Reagan’s presentation on state agency dynamics. Reagan, the head of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, noted that management biologists are operating in an increasingly complex climate, but that they are committed to grounding their work in the public-trust doctrine, which defines wildlife as owned by everyone, and to the scientific management of game animals.

As wildlife managers retire and are replaced by staff who might not share the traditional view of hunter-first management, and as hunters have increasingly specific and complicated management expectations, friction is bound to develop between the groups.

But Reagan noted that it’s more vital than ever to constructively engage on issues of wildlife management, and to refer to the common goals of the public trust, which is that individual goals may be less important than community goals.

HUNTER RECRUITMENT WOES
The engine of wildlife management in America is the license-buying, gun- and ammo-buying sportsman. Revenue from licenses and from an excise tax on sporting goods funds nearly all the wildlife management that takes place in the U.S. Simply put, without hunters, there is no money for deer management.

John Frampton, head of the Council to Advance the Hunting and Shooting Sports, noted that America’s model of wildlife funding was based on a rural population of active hunters. But he showed statistics that indicate the nation’s population is now 80 percent urban and that the average age of the American hunter is 48 years old.

In order to turn that trend around, hunters must become more numerous, more urban, and younger—and more demographically diverse. The path to that future is not the one-time, day-long field days that many state agencies and conservation clubs offer. Those efforts, Frampton said, are great for photo-opps, but don’t turn participants into lifelong hunters and shooters.

Instead, current hunters need to mentor non-hunters and non-shooters and develop a long-term commitment to take them to the shooting range and the deer woods. That continued effort, he says, will turn around a trend of non-participation that he says “is the biggest crisis we have faced since bringing back wildlife a century ago.”

In the last day of the summit, participants tomorrow will vote on specific action items to pursue over the next two to three years in these topics:

• Hunter Recruitment & Retention
• Political Influences on Hunting
• Landscape Change/Habitat Loss
• Public Perception of Hunting
• Captive Deer Industry