By Shawn Perich
Minnesota’s decline in deer abundance over the past decade mirrors a wider trend occurring across much of the whitetail’s range in the U.S. Brian Murphy, CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association, says his organization recently looked at 2003-2013 state deer harvest data from across the country and found annual harvests declined in the East, Southeast and Midwest.
“This is the first decade since the restocking of deer occurred where deer numbers didn’t grow, but declined,” says Murphy, who is based in Georgia. “In some areas we’ve seen declines of 20-40 percent.”
He points out Minnesota’s harvest is down 40 percent since 2003, Wisconsin’s 23 percent and Iowa’s a whopping 49 percent. It must be noted that some declines or portions thereof were intentional, because a decade ago many states, including Minnesota, experienced record deer harvests as they as they sought to reduce burgeoning deer populations. But other factors, such as disease, severe winters and predators, are at play. While circumstances vary from region to region and state to state, Murphy says it is safe to say deer numbers are lower than they were a decade ago.
For decades, whitetail numbers grew exponentially across much of the U.S. as populations expanded in places where deer had previously been scarce or nonexistent. Predators were often absent in the new deer range and disease was not serious factor. Populations were controlled, such as they were, by hunting. By the early 2000s, whitetails were so abundant across most of their range that ecologists, foresters and others raised concerns that over-browsing was destroying native plants and even entire forest ecosystems.
“We needed to slow the population growth rate,” says Murphy of the early 2000s. “It was not good for deer or for our forests.”
To do so, wildlife managers liberalized deer bag limits with an emphasis on killing more antlerless deer. Annual harvests climbed for a few years and then began to drop as deer numbers decreased. What concerns Murphy and many others is the decline doesn’t seem to have bottomed out. This appears to be the result of largely unforeseen circumstances.
“Across the deer range, a sequence of events occurred,” says Murphy.
In the southeastern U.S., for instance, coyotes expanded their range and abundance, moving into areas where they previously didn’t exist. Studies have found coyote predation in some places has cut whitetail fawn recruitment in half. Black bears have become more abundant in the East and are preying upon fawns, too. Wolf populations in the Lake States also reached record abundance during the last decade.
Outbreaks of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), also referred to as blue tongue disease, have devastated some deer herds. Spread by biting midges, EHD has marched northward by several hundred miles during the last decade, exposing whitetail populations previously naive to the disease. The last outbreak in 2012 included southern Michigan, where mortality rates reached 70 percent in some areas. The 2012 outbreak devastated deer as far west as Kansas and the Milk River region of Montana. Murphy says new strains of the disease appear to be more fatal to deer.
Beyond the present northern reach of EHD, winter takes its toll. Minnesota and other states suffered through the Polar Vortex last winter, the second in a row to deliver deep snows. Wildlife managers are responding to the subsequent winter losses with announcements that northern Minnesota and Wisconsin hunters will see bucks-only bag limits in November, thus protecting does from hunter harvest so the herds can rebuild.
Whether Minnesota or other states have reacted quickly enough to broader declines in deer numbers is perhaps a matter of debate. It is fair to say state wildlife agencies are aware hunters are dissatisfied with present deer numbers. Murphy says he’s hearing from more concerned hunters than he has at any time in his career.
For hunters, the declines in whitetail populations will mean lower harvests in the foreseeable future, not only for the obvious reason that there are fewer deer, but also because harvests of antlerless deer must be reduced or even eliminated to provide breeding stock for a population recovery. Murphy says last year Georgia reduced antlerless hunting opportunities by 25 days in an effort to restore deer numbers. Whether or not wildlife managers decide to restrict antlerless harvests, Murphy says hunters may do so on their own, especially on private property.
The downturn in the nation’s whitetail herds has not escaped the notice of the hunting industry, because deer hunting has become a big business. Last march, QDMA held the first-ever whitetail summit in Missouri. What became apparent during the course of the event was the need for deer hunters to speak with a unified voice.
“The summit was a wakeup call,” Murphy says. “We’ve been taking whitetails for granted until now.”
A move is afoot to create a national unified voice for all deer hunters that will focus on big picture issues. Initially, gathering everyone under one tent may be a challenge, because the deer hunting community is divided into smaller, sometimes disparate groups ranging from hunters and outfitters managing private property for trophy potential to public land hunters who are just happy to kill a deer. Tossed into the mix are public and private land managers, gun hunters, bow hunters, muzzleloader hunters, suburbanites, ecologists and other special interests, not all of whom agree on the best way forward for whitetail management.
At the summit it was clear that deer hunting’s movers and shakers believe the time is right to form a national group along the lines of Trout Unlimited or the National Wild Turkey Federation. Murphy says efforts to do so are underway. The new organization will be unveiled at QDMA’s national convention in Athens, Georgia later this month.