An hour before a November dawn, I’m at a dirt pull-off in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Around me are more than 280,000 acres of public forest. These are big woods, and getting bigger. By legislative decree, the oak, maples, and ash here can never be cut. They’ve been growing for a century now. Some hunters whose legs have become too old to climb these steep forested hills tell me there were once a lot of deer here. There were grouse and rabbits, too. And hunters came from a hundred miles away to chase them. These days, both the game and the hunters are mostly gone.
As I shoulder my rifle, a pickup stops. A man, his face dimly lit by dashboard lights, says, “Have you seen a deer yet?” “No.” “Why do we keep coming back?”
“Hope,” I say.
The Decline and Fall of Public-Land Deer Hunting
Dawn finds me up high, where I can see the gray forest rolling unbroken for miles. The few deer that still live here feed low and climb to bed in mountain laurel thickets near the top. A lot of foresters and wildlife biologists have helped me see the problem that’s as obvious as the stout-trunked trees right in front of me. The trouble is the forest itself, and how we live within it. For a long time now we’ve let the environmental story be told by people who don’t know what deer taste like, by people who act as if we hunters don’t belong here. Because of this, even though sportsmen fund most wildlife conservation in America, we’re too often losing control of our public lands.
The dilemma has become so common that in many regions, hunters are ending up with two totally different experiences: Those who own or lease private land can have pretty good deer hunting; meanwhile, those who go to nearby public lands where wildlife populations have declined with the aging of the habitat often don’t have the same quality of hunting.
Understanding and fixing this problem takes reevaluating our public forests and our role in them. It takes correcting some very wrong popular views. And it then means giving our state and federal land agencies a lesson in public input.
Loss of Cover, and Hunters
Grant Woods, a renowned deer biologist who creates dream properties for deer hunters, is worked up. He says many public lands are becoming inhospitable to wildlife.
“The unnatural idea that public lands shouldn’t be managed by man is creating deserts for many species of wildlife,” says Woods. “Right now preservationists are stopping logging and prescribed burns to create a static utopia. They imagine forests without man. They think anything we humans do is damaging by definition. Their wrongheaded ideas are harming wildlife and plant species.”
In the heyday of public hunting in the U.S.—the middle years of the last century—hunters had a strong voice in forest management. But as habitat has matured, leaving less food and cover for game species, hunters have stopped coming to and advocating for public lands.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, just 36 percent of hunters in the U.S. now hunt public lands. When you consider only whitetail hunters, Brian Murphy, CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association, says it’s only about 15 percent that hunt public lands, and the percentage is even smaller east of the Mississippi, where state forests and wildlife management areas have become uniformly mature.
The public lands Grant Woods hunted while in college in Georgia and South Carolina had plenty of deer and turkeys. “But as forests have aged and become unmanaged, I’ve seen deer and turkey populations decrease significantly. I’ve seen hunters and their dollars stop coming, too.”
He mentions New York’s Adirondack Park, 6.1 million acres on which logging and other management is banned forever. I’ve hunted there, so I say that seeing deer tracks in those woods is exciting. He laughs and agrees. “There were more deer there in 1960 than there are today, as the forest was at that time growing back and providing a lot of browse for deer.”
A Place for Wilderness
Most of the experts I consulted note that wilderness areas—where roads, logging, and other management activities are prohibited—are important for wildlife security and for many types of outdoor recreation. But they argue that uncut forests should be only one component of a diverse ecosystem. These sources, mainly wildlife biologists, note that remedies vary locally. In one area, mosaic logging may be an option. In another, prescribed burning might be a better way to create diverse wildlife habitat.
Woods points to the loss of logging in Vermont’s Green Mountains and throughout much of New England. He explains that public forests are becoming monocultures of aging trees across Pennsylvania, throughout Appalachia, and in the Upper Midwest, where state and federal lands are likely to be left idle rather than actively managed.
“The problems vary,” Woods says, “but the core reason for the loss of wildlife is the same. We’re often not managing for healthy ecosystems.”
There are a few bright spots. Some Southern states do a good job of leasing timber company lands for public-land hunting, and those lands feature timber stands of varying ages. In Missouri, where wildlife conservation is funded in part by a percentage of sales-tax revenue, habitat improvement projects on both public and private land are ongoing. New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife is working with the Ruffed Grouse Society to improve habitat for wildlife and benefit hunters on smaller wildlife management areas.
Most agencies, however, have a hard time finding the funding and authority to make sure there is enough early successional habitat (what hunters often refer to as “cover”). Examples of this include overgrown pastures, thickets, and saplings. If these habitats are not mowed, burned, cut, or disturbed in some fashion, they eventually become forest. If a forest is never thinned, flooded, impacted by insects, or burned, it grows into a mature canopy that prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor. When this happens a lot of wildlife and plant species disappear.
This is the dynamic that’s turned so much of our state and federal lands into relative biological wastelands. According to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, in the 1940s its wildlife management areas were, on average, 80 percent early successional habitat and 20 percent forest. Today, more than 90 percent of the Massachusetts’ WMAs are forested. Many of the public lands in the East and parts of the Midwest and South have undergone this same metamorphosis.
Many game managers are aware of this problem. For example, Dr. James Kroll was recently hired by Wisconsin to develop a deer-management strategy. In the plan, he wrote: “Habitat is a key element in deer management, often having more impact than harvest or predation. Yet, this is the element most often neglected by deer managers and land-owners.”
As habitat ages and game populations plummet, hunters give up. Vermont, for example, has seen hunting participation—and license-generated revenues—fall to historic lows partly because of aging habitat.
Instead of actively managing its public forests, Vermont recommends that property owners manage for wildlife, and the state’s wildlife agency connects landowners with federal agencies that provide funding assistance for habitat improvement. So while private landowners benefit, the folks who can’t afford to buy or lease their own land are stuck hunting areas that have fewer and fewer critters.
QDMA’s Brian Murphy, who is a certified wildlife biologist, grumbles when I ask him about this issue. “I find this frustrating because the science showing how to manage ecosystems for the good of native plants and wildlife is now so advanced, yet so many areas just can’t make it happen. Quality deer management helps the entire ecosystem, even non-game species, yet many environmentalists are opposed to humans hunting or improving habitat.
“Here at QDMA, we offer technical assistance to anyone who wants to improve their deer herds and habitats, whether on public or private lands,” says Murphy, “but not enough of what we’ve learned and taught is utilized on public lands. As a result, though hunters are the ones paying most of the bills for management of our public lands, they’re often funding a diminishing return. That’s unfortunate, because without the public-land hunter, hunting will fade away as an American pastime for the average Joe. I think that’s exactly what the preservationists have in mind when they resist thinning trees, controlled burns, and so on.”
Though the quality of a deer hunt can’t be measured by the antler sizes of bucks alone, it’s a useful indicator. Over the past decade, the Boone and Crockett Club has been asking those who submit trophies to note if the animal was killed on public or private land. Since asking this question, the club has found that 90 percent of whitetails submitted were killed on private property.
Blind to the Problem
Wildlife managers are trying to solve this problem, however they often become too focused on managing one occupant of the landscape—the deer—and not the entire ecosystem. They then come up with solutions to control deer herds, but neglect the fact that the entire forest is in need of management.
In some cases, wildlife managers direct deer management efforts—increasing the harvest of antlerless deer and hiring sharpshooters to remove overpopulations of whitetails are two popular options—to public land, simply because it’s politically more expedient than working with multiple—and potentially resistant—private landowners to address overpopulations of whitetails.
Another part of the problem stems from old-school thinking. Foresters have historically been taught to grow trees, not cut them. A century ago, America’s forests were in tough shape. A 1907 national census of forestlands conducted by the USDA found that 40 to 70 percent of the forest in the Midwest and East were gone.
Things began to change in the 20th century, as conservationists pointed out that the forests needed to be saved. Between 1910 and 1959, an estimated 43.8 million acres of farmland reverted to forest. Through the 1960s and 1970s, more than one million acres of open lands were returned to forest every year, according to Jim Sterba’s 2012 book, Nature Wars. Hunters in the East know this, as they’re used to hunting in woods crisscrossed with crumbling stone walls—walls that were once the borders of fields.
Wildlife and hunters benefited from these growing forests into the late 20th century, but now many of the forests are maturing. The result has been a crash in the carrying capacity of the lands and decreasing diversity of the flora and fauna.
Starting a Discussion
The solution to winning back public lands that aren’t properly managed is first to understand the problem. Next, sportsmen have to lobby state and federal land agencies to use smart logging and other practices to help native wildlife and plant species. We also have to do all we can to get the word out to the general public that managed forests are healthy forests. Many state and federal land managers want to do more, but well-funded “environmental watchdog” groups often tie up proposed timber cuts with litigation and/or endless challenges to rules and procedures.
That November morning in the Catskills, a young buck came by me with his nose to the ground, looking for a doe in estrus. The buck was there and then faded away into the sea of trees. I watched that deer and saw hope. The area has a point restriction, an idea that has swept through many state game departments mostly in the last decade. If this once-unthinkable change could happen so swiftly, then maybe we can change the popular view of what constitutes a healthy forest, too. Maybe then the public-land hunter—the average guy or gal who can’t afford to buy their own property—will come back with the game.
Land-Management Success Stories
The condition of America’s aging forests can seem unsolvable. How on earth can we return our public lands to the sort of wildlife havens that we see on neighboring private land? Luckily, we have some examples to guide us.
• Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area is located in Kentucky and Tennessee between Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. The 170,000-acre area is primarily devoted to “enhancing wildlife habitat,” and is actively managed with prescribed burning and selective logging.
• The Pennsylvania Game Commission manages State Game Land 223 in the southwestern region of the state for wildlife diversity. The 7,200 acres feature overgrown farm fields and old apple orchards.
• Chaparral WMA in south Texas is managed from “an ecosystem management approach,” meaning the Texas Game Commission works to maintain a diversity of plants and wildlife.
• In Oklahoma, the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant has huge bucks and diverse, actively managed habitat. To hunt here, you must draw a tag and use traditional archery equipment (mcaapcontrolledhunts.com).
• The B.F. Grant WMA is owned by the University of Georgia, which leases it to the state for wildlife management and public hunting. The WMA has about 14,000 acres and is known as being well-managed habitat that produces some good bucks.
A Wisconsin Deer Hunter’s Decision
Tom Grall has been hunting public lands in northern Wisconsin for 27 years. A dozen years ago, he finally saved enough to buy 40 acres in central Wisconsin. He hunts both areas with his family.
“Over the decades, I’ve seen the deer population on the public lands I hunt drop,” says Grall. “Last season, I didn’t even see a deer during a week spent on public land in northern Wisconsin.”
He attributes the change to several factors. He says wolves have eaten a lot of deer, and that logging companies mostly replant with pines, which provide cover but not food. He also says the state’s now-repealed “earn-a-buck” rule caused too many does to be killed on public lands. Nevertheless, he loves hunting in the big woods and managing his back 40. He plans to keep doing both.
Forests cover 16.8 million acres (48 percent) of Wisconsin and support the largest forest-products industry in the U.S., with an annual value of $17 billion. But about 75 percent of the deer harvested in the state come from private lands.
Dr. James Kroll, Wisconsin’s “deer czar,” notes that federal forest policy has a dramatic impact on the Badger State’s deer herd. “Until there are policy changes, the solution to developing sustainable forests and deer habitat in this region will have to involve active management of privately and publicly owned (state, county, etc.) lands interspersed with or adjacent to the National Forests.”