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For Successful Deer Management, Change is Good

By Jim Crum

DeerChange is a key challenge to successful deer management. The detection of change, the response to change, and the evaluation of change are challenges that all deer managers face.   The question of change with regards to deer management is not if it will happen, but in which direction the change is taking and how big it will be.  

Therefore, the constant in deer management is change .   The response to change in the deer population by hunters and the state wildlife agency will determine the success or failure of deer management.

Change in deer populations is a biological certainty.   Each year the habitat and thus the food supply differ. This in turn affects individual deer, which in turn is reflected in the deer population as a whole.  

Detection of change in a deer population is one of the bigger challenges for deer managers.   Direct counts of individual deer on a given-size property or habitat would seem to be the ideal solution.

Two considerations make direct deer counts an unrealistic solution.   The first is to get an accurate deer count.   You can never count all the deer in a county or even on a farm.   Hi-tech, forward-looking infrared (FLIR), automatically triggered cameras, trapping and marking, and even spot light counts never count every deer and are used only as an estimate or index to the population.   The more accurate the direct count or the higher proportion of the deer population captured on film, tape, or the human eye, the more expensive the count becomes.  

The second consideration is probably the most important.   A direct count of deer does not give reliable indications of the balance between the deer herd and the habitat.

  This deer to habitat relationship is necessary information to maintain a renewable forest, balance the impact of deer on other wildlife, and maintain a healthy, productive deer herd.   Antler beam diameters and weights of yearling bucks have been shown to be good indicators of the deer to habitat relationship.  

Other indicators include the percentage of fawns breeding, the number of abomasal parasites in adult deer and direct assessment of deer food availability and use.  

Changes in the deer to habitat relationship in West Virginia show a consistent trend over the past 40 years.   On statewide and regional scales the average yearling buck antler beam diameter has decreased a millimeter or two.   Average yearling buck weights have decreased in many areas.   The percent of fawn breeding has declined from 20 to 30 percent to 0 to 10 percent, abomasal parasites in adult deer have increased, and sample plots that exclude deer have shown that deer are altering the understory of the forest in much of the state.  

These factors indicate that the number of deer has increased in relation to the habitat and food supply. These indicators show that now there are too many deer in many regions of the state for the habitat.   If   this continues, the deer herd will become less healthy, less productive, the vegetative composition of the forest will become less diverse and other wildlife populations will become less abundant.   Is this change good for West Virginia's wildlife and forests?  

Hunters and state wildlife agencies responsible   for deer management must respond to changes in deer populations. Although deer populations and the natural world have a tendency to change, people   tend to resist change. Hunters and state wildlife personnel must be prepared and willing to adjust their attitudes and approaches to effectively manage deer for the benefit of state citizens and the resource.   An effective and timely response to deer herd change is necessary to meet management needs.

  West Virginia hunters should consider the following changes:

•  Embrace deer regulation changes that allow for a more balanced sex harvest that may initially involve the harvest of more female deer than bucks.

•  Where necessary, reduce deer populations to improve overall herd health and maintain populations at levels compatible with habitat conditions.

•  Avoid   supplemental feeding programs to address poor habitat condition, emphasize habitat management, and recognize how deer impact forests and other wildlife.

•  Develop a year-round awareness of deer and their annual population cycles.

•  Promote better hunter-landowner relationships and support programs that provide access for deer hunting.

State wildlife agencies need to detect change not only in the deer population but also in hunter attitudes and desires. Unlike with deer populations, the direction and amount of change in hunters is not as easy to evaluate in terms of good or bad. This difficulty has slowed the response of state wildlife agencies to change.

The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources must consider the following changes:

•  Provide diverse recreational opportunities and innovative season frameworks for deer hunters that improve the efficiency and effectiveness of maintaining deep populations at desired management objectives.  

•  Increase and diversify the funding base to reflect the varied management responsibilities for this agency.

•  Expand public informational programs relating to deer management.

•  Provide incentives for corporate entities and private landowners to increase deer hunting access to their property.

•  Develop programs designed to recruit and retain deer hunters based upon hunter satisfaction and involvement in the state's deer management program.

•  Increase knowledge of deer and deer populations through controlled experiments of applied research and management programs.

Of the listed synonyms for the word change , innovation and transformation best describe the change needed for successful deer management.   Are West Virginia deer hunters and the DNR willing to change?    The deer herd has!

Jim Crum is a research wildlife biologist stationed in Elkins.