Where Have All the Whitetails Gone?

There was an audible buzz at the recently concluded industry shows. In fact, it was more like a roar. The hottest topic wasn't the best bow or newest camo pattern, the buzz was all about whitetails or the lack thereof.

It seems as if many industry veterans and influencers who make their living by selling whitetail deer-related products are seeing a precipitous decline in deer population numbers in various parts of the country and no one is happy about it. Keep in mind that the hunting industry is driven by whitetail deer (70% of hunters hunt whitetails) and declining deer numbers are a real threat to the industry.

These big shows (Archery Trade Association and Shooting Hunting Outdoor Trade) attract the creme de la creme of the outdoor field. Everyone on the show floor either hunts for a living or makes products for people who would like to hunt for a living. As such, it is a clearing house for whitetail hunting information. This year the information seemed especially grim--deer numbers were down, and big bucks were particularly hard to come by.

This might come as no surprise to those of us who live in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia and Alabama, but it is a new experience for the guys who have been flocking to the Midwest in search of big deer. Hunting has gotten decidedly tougher in many parts of the Midwest over the past few years with 2013 going down as particularly poor tough. But it is not just about big bucks, it's also about overall numbers as evidenced by trail camera surveys and day-to-day sightings. Everywhere you turned, hunters were huddled, wondering what happened and what should be done.

Sportsmen from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri may have been the most vocal. Many hunted hard all season without seeing a shooter buck.

The calmer ones mentioned how some of these states were hit pretty hard with epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) in 2007 and again in 2012 and some of them suffered another hit in 2013. Others mentioned outfitters tying up all the hunting ground and killing more young bucks than ever before. Many believed that natural deer habitat in these states was in need of some serious natural habitat work. A few mentioned tougher than normal hunting conditions last season and an increase in predation.

Some were just mad at everyone accusing state natural resource departments of adopting a "shoot all the does you can to keep the insurance companies and farmers happy" management policy. One thing is certain, they all agreed that the status quo in deer management practices needs to be examined carefully.

There's no doubt that Midwestern deer hunters refuse to sit back and watch the best deer hunting on the planet quietly go to hell. They are all over their state's officials and they are asking all the right questions. Deer hunters know plenty about managing deer these days and are not afraid to show it. Declining deer herds is the lead topic at the National Deer Summit meeting being hosted this spring by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). Hundreds of deer experts, state wildlife managers, hunting industry leaders, the outdoor press, and just plain deer hunters will be gathering the first weekend in March in Springfield, Missouri, to dig into this problem and hopefully come up with solutions. Disappearing deer are a serious problem and the guys that get paid to manage them had better have some pretty good answers.

What do you think? What did you see (or not see) last season? Are deer populations in trouble where you hunt?