Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Will Habitat Loss Hurt Heartland Deer Hunting?

By Shawn Perich

The Governor of South Dakota recently held a summit to discuss why the state’s pheasant population has plummeted, causing thousands of big-spending, nonresident pheasant hunters to stay home. The state’s famed pheasant hunt is the most recent outdoor domino to tumble as habitat–and the wildlife it supports–disappears across the agricultural regions of the Midwest.

Iowa, a top pheasant hunting destination as recently as a decade ago, has become the poster child for farmland habitat decimation. High commodity prices prompted Iowa farmers to pull out of the less-lucrative CRP set-aside program and to plow up every available acre to plant more corn. As nesting grass and winter cover disappeared, so did the pheasants. Now there are so few birds even resident hunters are staying home.

South Dakota’s landscape diversity and drier climate may spare it from becoming another Iowa, but you only need to look to its neighbor to the north for a glimpse at what the future may hold. North Dakota wildlife experts are telling hunters the good old days are over. Habitat losses from reduced CRP acreage, more intensive agriculture and oil development have already led to declines in game populations. It is possible future North Dakota deer harvests may be 50 percent less than what they were 10 years ago.

Wait a minute. Deer? Weren’t we talking about pheasants? Well, funny thing, but deer need habitat, too. North Dakota’s landscape, especially in the intensively farmed east, can’t support the numbers of deer it once did. In terms of future deer abundance, hunters are simply out of luck.

The decline of deer hunting across the Corn Belt appears to be lost in the present debate over the importance of farmland conservation, yet it has the potential to deal a hard blow to hunting. Across the agricultural Midwest, whitetail numbers began increasing during the 1980s, around the same time the Conservation Reserve Program was incorporated into the federal Farm Bill. CRP is not the sole cause for the proliferation of farm country whitetails, but it is a significant one.

Heartland whitetail hunting has since become the backbone of the deer hunting industry. The Heartland deer hunter popularized muzzle-loader hunting, high-performance shotguns and slugs, and a plethora of products ranging from calls and scents to decoys and ground blinds. Due to the abundance of food and productivity of the landscape, the Heartland hunter has enjoyed not only an abundance of deer, but also the nation’s best trophy whitetail hunting. In the mind’s eye of many American whitetail hunters, the Heartland is the epitome of deer hunting.

So what will happen to hunting if deer, like pheasants, decline due to habitat losses? At the very least, average hunters–the orange army that occupies every Heartland state during the general firearm season–will have fewer hunting opportunities. Some may decide to stay home. In the Heartland, deer license dollars are a primary funding source for state game departments. Losing license sales may cause already stretched wildlife agencies to raise fees for the remaining hunters. Eventually they may downsize because they can’t afford to continue existing programs. Lower deer numbers will also toss cold water on efforts to recruit new hunters.

Fewer hunters means reduced sales of everything from tree stands to bottles of doe pee. Due to the Heartland’s outsized influence on whitetail hunting, a loss of hunters there may even have a negative effect on the development of new hunting products. On the land, hunters who can afford to do so will lease or purchase the best remaining farmland deer habitat. Hunters who cannot afford to do so will be shut out.

Considering the sheer numbers of Heartland deer hunters and what they stand to lose, you’d think the conservation community would embrace them as allies in the battle to address farmland habitat issues in the pending Farm Bill. With the worthy efforts of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association duly noted, deer hunters are largely disorganized at a regional or national level. They simply don’t have a unified voice on conservation issues.

You may argue that until now, they haven’t needed one. The 90s and early 2000s were marked by record deer harvests in Heartland states. Managing deer abundance was the primary conservation issue and it had an easy solution–simply issue more harvest tags. Those days are behind us. Now, in many places, the battle is retaining enough farmland habitat to support viable wildlife pollutions. It’s past time for beleaguered wildlife agencies and conservation organizations to enlist the orange army they have long ignored.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. While wildlife agencies work with their deer hunter constituency on some issues, (often while simultaneously quarreling with them on another front), conservation organizations rarely do more than pay lip service to the rank-and-file deer hunter. Now, with a conservation crisis looming in the Heartland, this previous inattention means the organizations don’t have a means to effectively reach out to legions of deer hunters.

Deer hunting will survive, even in the Heartland, due more to the ability of whitetails to thrive in woodlots, creek bottoms and suburban developments than due to Congress’ ability to craft effective farmland conservation policies. What we don’t know is if the good old days of Heartland deer hunting will continue or, as is apparently the case in North Dakota, they are already fading in the rear-view mirror. Considering the stakes, you’d think someone would at least tell the orange army what is going on.

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