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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Deer Need Hunters

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, March 13, 2010.)

Deer management, for the sake of the deer,
must provide a future for lawful, regulated hunting.
When we call lions “king of beasts” and wolves “top dog,” we’re talking about predators. But when it comes to the hunting world in America, whitetail deer are the reigning kings and hunters are their top predator. So when hunters prey on deer we’re playing a natural and necessary role in wildlife management. That’s because properly managing deer is the key to managing most other forest species.

Hunters seldom discuss deer management today without bringing up the term “quality deer management.” It’s a term we bandy about, often without definition, and with varied concepts about what it is.

The definition the Quality Deer Management Association uses is as good as any: “Quality Deer Management (QDM) is a management philosophy and practice that unites landowners, hunters, and managers in a common goal of producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social, and legal constraints.”

That’s a broad definition, but it doesn’t mention one particular word people often use when discussing QDM. The word is “genetics” -- a word they use when talking about antler size, even though the average person knows little about genetics, and even less about the relationship between genetics and antlers. And it sidetracks too many discussions.

Management of a free ranging whitetail deer herd has nothing to do with antler genetics. Why not? Because genetics are virtually impossible to control in a free-ranging herd.

The reason? Breeding ecology is complex. Bucks with the most impressive antlers do not necessarily breed the most does. And females also make a contribution to antler genetics. The doe, according to one deer farmer I know, is responsible for 60% of her buck fawn’s genetic antler potential. We cannot identify the does that carry the best genes for antlers in their male fawns, and those mothers may not be the most prolific breeders or the best mothers anyway.

Simply put, management of a free ranging herd can never match up the “best” bucks with the “best” does. So, when managing free ranging whitetails, genetics is off the agenda.

That’s why the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s new draft proposal of the “Management and Biology of White-Tailed Deer 2009-2018” barely mentions genetics, and only to say it’s not relevant to their efforts.

Here’s the statement: “Given… the complexity of the white-tailed deer’s breeding ecology, and high genetic variation, large scale alteration to Pennsylvania’s deer herd’s genetics is unlikely.”

The confusion comes because quality deer management usually results in deer with larger antlers. That’s because a policy of population control allows the habitat to provide adequate nutrition for bucks and does alike, and because a harvest policy that takes the pressure off the younger bucks will allow them to get older. Antler size is a by-product of these policies, not genetics.

We all like big antlers, and even though big antlers are a way to measure some aspects of deer management, they’re not the goal of deer management. Other goals are far more important.

Deer management is often divisive, when it should unite all interested people around the goals of generating healthy habitat that supports healthy deer. In the modern world deer management should produce a socially balanced and biologically sound herd. It must consider human social needs, and address the various conflicts between deer and people. It must foster environmental health, including forest regeneration and the health of other species. And for the sake of the deer, it must provide a future for lawful, regulated hunting.

That’s a whole lot more than antlers.

While wildlife biologists develop deer management plans the deer debate will continue, but the challenge will be to keep hunters the top predator. Without them all wildlife species, not just deer, are in trouble. It’s ironic, but yes, deer need hunters.


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