Are Whitetails Doomed?

By writes Brow Tines and Backstrap

Things have been a bit too tame here on Brow Tines and Backstrap.

So I figured I'd get things stirred up good and proper. Here goes.

Whitetail hunting, as we know it, is on the brink of disaster.

Think I'm just looking for a sensational bit of copy to get your attention? I wish that were the case. But it's not. Something is amiss in the whitetail world. Amiss enough that the Quality Deer Management Association is holding an emergency Whitetail Summit next month to discuss it.

The 2013 season was an eye-opener for a lot of deer hunters and managers. True, it's standard procedure for any deer hunter who ended the season with a few unfilled tags to sing the blues. But that's not what is happening here. Some respected deer hunters and managers are all saying the same thing: Something is wrong.

Bill Winke, of MidwestWhitetail.com, wrote a blog entry titled: "The Recipe For Collapse."

Outdoor Life editor Andrew McKean wrote a piece in 2011 that seemed to predict exactly what we are seeing now -- a Deer Depression, and he cited respected authorities such as Dr. Grant Woods. 

It doesn't take much looking on Google to find plenty of results for "Deer Populations Declining" -- and the news results are a collection of stories from across the nation outlining what was a disappointing 2013 season.

Personally, my 2013 season was an odd mix of "great" and "bad" with not much in between.

I killed the best Michigan buck of my life -- a 6.5-year-old that is arguably the biggest fair-chase whitetail ever taken on video in my home state. But aside from that incredible afternoon, the season was a non-event.

I spent 18 days hunting Ohio in November during what should have been the prime of the rut. I saw a total of eight deer.

I hunted Iowa in late December with a muzzleloader. I was hunting near a small patch of standing corn that was drawing deer like bargain shoppers to TJ Maxx. I'd see around 50 deer each evening and roughly 15-20 different bucks. Not a single one of them was over two years of age. I have never seen that in Iowa even when hunting on public land.

Our Rack Report map on Realtree.com showcases some of the biggest bucks taken each year. Last year was no different. We featured plenty of whopper whitetails. But the flow of potential candidates was markedly reduced from years past. Sure, it's anecdotal evidence at best. But it was yet another clue in a season of clues that things aren't what they were.

States like Iowa that are known for consistently producing giant bucks were unusually silent last fall. In fact, we featured only one Rack Report entry from the Hawkeye State in 2013. Talking with guys who live and hunt there, they all said the same thing: The big deer simply aren't there.

The QDMA's Summit will address many of the questions that hunters and deer managers are asking: Are we truly seeing a collapse in the deer population? If so, what are the causes? And, most importantly, is this a temporary situation or a foreshadowing of the future of whitetails in America?

There are all manner of theories about what is going on. Many feel that the current situation is a combination of natural forces and human mismanagement. Diseases such as EHD have hit hard all across the country, including places where it had never been an issue before. Here in Michigan, we were hammered with EHD in 2012. I had never seen a case of the disease here before then. Now, we dread every dry summer day. In states like Missouri, Iowa and Kansas, EHD has decimated populations.

But what about the lack of older bucks? In his blog, Winke claims that with more hunters focusing on "mature" bucks the number of genetically superior 3-year-olds being killed has risen sharply. This has impacted the number of truly mature bucks left in the herd and dramatically impacted the number of really big antlers running around.

Here in Michigan, I haven't seen that type of trend necessarily. But there is an increased focus on "mature" deer. The difference, however, is that a lot of Michigan hunters (and those in states where passing young bucks is a relatively new phenomenon) are not able to accurately identify a truly mature buck.

A lot of 2-year-old bucks sport bigger antlers than most hunters have ever taken. A 3-year-old buck will almost certainly be “wall-hanger” material for most. Currently there is a push being made to implement Antler Point Restrictions on a state-wide basis that would require hunters to target only bucks with a minimum number of points per side (three or four depending on area). The idea is to allow more bucks to reach age two. It's not something I disagree with necessarily. But a 2-year-old buck isn't mature. Nor is a 3-year-old. But the regulations will specifically target only those bucks with the type of antler characteristics common in 2-year-old deer. Michigan will likely never have the same type of concerns that Iowa hunters have. But, if a state like Iowa is seeing an impact from targeting genetically-superior 3-year-olds, it makes me wonder what could happen here in a state with roughly a million licensed deer hunters. 

I don't have any answers. I wouldn't pretend that I do. But I do know this: Something has changed.

The dynamics are shifting. The way hunters hunt has evolved.

Is it good? Is it bad? I don't know.

But the nation's deer populations are different today than they were even a few years ago. And a lot of people that I respect are showing concern.

And that's worth talking about