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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Quality Deer Management -- It's About Habitat

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., July 22, 2006.)
Wherever mature bucks with bigger antlers
exist in a healthy deer herd, it's primarily
because they were not harvested when they
were adolescents. Bigger antlers are a
byproduct of QDM practices, not the goal.
Ducks Unlimited (1937) was an early conservation success. Along came Trout Unlimited (1959), and the National Wild Turkey Federation (1973). Throughout the twentieth century sportsmen were taking the initiative to make sure ducks would always have marshes along their flyways, trout streams would always have good water quality, and wild turkeys would always have the habitat they need to thrive. Hunters and non-hunters can be thankful that those farsighted conservationists were devoted to these specific species.

Back then, few sportsmen thought anyone would need to step up to the plate (other than the dinner plate) for deer. We had plenty of woods for deer to live in, and they seemed to be doing fine. In fact, whitetails had recovered from scarcity and had become very plentiful without any special focus on preserving or enhancing deer habitat. The deer population had rallied so well that by the 1980's we had so many deer in some places that they threatened the destruction of their own habitat. But now, partly because of that threat, the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) has entered the scene, becoming a national organization in 1990.

All conservation organizations invest time and money to benefit the species they serve, and rely on science to determine how and where these resources are best spent. And science says that the primary threat to any species is not regulated hunting. It's not even poaching. It's the loss or degradation of habitat.

As with Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and similar organizations, the QDMA is foremost about habitat. But compared to these other conservation organizations, the QDMA is a fledgling group, and many people have yet to see the need for an organization devoted to an animal so prolific that we can't stop it from slamming into our cars.

Deer hunting has become controversial even among deer hunters, and many of them do not understand what the words "quality deer management" mean. Lots of people think quality deer management (QDM) is about antlers. Big ones. It's not surprising people would think that, but it's not true.

I recently attended the annual convention of the QDMA in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and I learned a few things. First, the goal of quality deer management is not to produce bigger antlers. It's to provide the best habitat possible for whitetail deer.

Deer have an enormous ability to harm their own habitat. Simply put, they can eat themselves out of house and home. And when they do, they put the habitat of other species at risk, too. For that reason, quality deer management is a broadly conceived program that pursues a number of goals.

Quality deer management seeks to enhance habitat so that deer will not harm it for themselves and other species. It advocates removing enough does to keep the population from exceeding the maximum for the habitat and to keep the sex ratio of the herd in balance. QDM protects immature bucks from harvest in order to achieve a balanced age range. And it ensures that the food deer need in every season is available in order to prevent undernourishment and the stresses of disease and competition for food.

Quality deer management is not genetic selection. It is not merely feeding deer. It is not hunting in high fenced areas. It is not even antler restrictions, although some workable method must be used to permit bucks to survive to maturity.

Many people confuse quality deer management with trophy deer management. Trophy deer management differs dramatically from QDM. Trophy management focuses on high scoring antlers, but whitetails don't achieve maximum antler growth until their body size reaches full maturity – normally at 4½ or 5½ years of age. Producing bucks of this age class benefits few deer hunters, and is not the goal of quality deer managers.

Yes, under quality deer management, healthy bucks in a healthy deer herd living in healthy habitat will produce bigger antlers. But that's not primarily because they have access to food plots, and not because inferior bucks are eliminated from the herd. Wherever mature bucks with bigger antlers exist in a healthy deer herd, it's primarily because they were not harvested when they were adolescents. Bigger antlers are a byproduct of QDM practices, not the goal.

On the hunter side, QDM is an effort to make every deer hunter an educated deer hunter, schooled not only in hunting strategies, but also in what deer mean to the long term, broader picture of the environment they share. That's why the slogan of the QDMA is "The future of deer hunting." The website of the Quality Deer Management Association, www.QDMA.org, provides lots of information on proper deer habitat management.


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