I’m a hard-core, wholly-dedicated bowhunter. Outside varmints and predators (which I pursue with rabid obsession), most of my hunting involves bows and arrows. I grew up rifle hunting big game. I reload thousands of rounds of varmint and handgun ammo annually. I’m certainly not opposed to gun hunting, it’s just there are only so many days allotted each fall and I prefer to spend them bowhunting. So, in my admittedly self-serving bowhunting view I prefer the whitetail rut free of firearms. And I live in a state where rifle hunting dominates the rut.
I understand how unrealistic this is, even how elitist it sounds. Enough of my university wildlife-management classes stuck I understand habitat stewardship is seldom so simplistic. I understand there are many more rifle hunters than bowhunters, and fully embrace the idea that everyone receives an opportunity to enjoy our nation’s rich hunting bounty, no matter their weapon choice. I also understand the pressures game-management departments are under; balancing hunter expectations with demands from influential lobbies, such as the farming and insurance industries. So let’s take a deeper look into just a few of the states amidst this discussion.
Considered the top whitetail destination by many, Iowa allows bowhunting only through November, with limited muzzle-loader seasons in October and December-January and two short shotgun seasons in December.
RT: Is the decision to keep forearms out of rut dates a political one, or based on game management objectives?
Andrew Norton, Ph.D. Biometrician, Deer Biologist, Iowa Department of Natural Resources: “There have been three years since 1953 when the shotgun season has occurred before December, and in those years the earliest start was November 19; after most rut activity has died down in Iowa. Although I wasn’t around in 1953, it’s my understanding this decision was made to provide the greatest recreational opportunity for Iowans, as many were grain farmers with limited time to hunt during crop harvest, which ran through much of November. It just so happened this late firearm season functioned as an ideal method to protect a greater [number] of the bucks.”
RT: In your opinion, does the fact white-tailed deer are not hunted with firearms during the rut contribute to Iowa's exceptional trophy quality, or in spite of it?
Norton: “Not hunting (deer) with firearms during the rut has undoubtedly contributed to Iowa’s exceptional trophy quality. However, there are other factors that are equally, if not more likely, contributing to Iowa’s exceptional trophy quality. First, Iowa’s soil is some of the best in the world. This not only results in an abundance of row-crop agriculture, which supplements nutrition, but more importantly provides ideal nutrient quality in natural vegetation that allows deer to maximize antler growth. The second reason for Iowa’s exceptional trophy quality is the relatively low hunting pressure. I would suspect antlered deer harvest rates (i.e., percentage of antlered population harvested) is lower than many of our neighboring states to the north, east, and south. A lower antlered deer harvest rate results in older age-class structure. Because Iowa does not age harvested deer, we have little information about the actual age structure. However, I would suspect we have a relatively old buck age structure, especially in areas with more rugged and forested terrain, and lower human populations such as northeast and southern Iowa.”
RT: Does the practice of keeping guns out of rut dates in Iowa ever cause problems meeting harvest quotas established to keep special interests happy — such as farmers and insurance companies?
Norton: “Fortunately, Iowa deer hunters have generally done an exceptional job of managing the deer population at levels acceptable to much of its stakeholders. In some areas, in the mid-2000’s, we implemented a late season antlerless-only firearms season which assisted in counties where we were having trouble reducing populations. In addition to our county quotas, Iowa has an excellent depredation management program which provides producers the ability to obtain extra deer tags if they’re experiencing damage to their commodity. We also have special deer management zones that are in place to provide additional targeted pressure to bigger properties like state parks and urban/suburban areas that traditionally have served as deer refuges.”
Another premium whitetail destination, Kansas is bowhunting only through most of November, with rifle season occurring late November through mid December, and a muzzle-loader season in mid September.
RT: Is the decision to postpone rifle hunts until after the rut a political or biological one?
Lloyd Fox, PhD, Big Game Program Coordinator, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism: “Holding the firearms hunting season after the peak of rut behavior is something most states simply cannot afford to do. We accomplished it because we traditionally have never had a firearms season during the rut. If we had started hunting deer with firearms during the rut long ago, we never would have been able to switch. We were also able to maintain that season structure because Kansas hunters enjoy one of the highest success rates in the nation (due in no small part to the structure of habitat and road systems in Kansas, which makes deer very vulnerable to gun hunters).
“Had Kansas deer hunters experienced low success rates, there likely would’ve been more demand to hunt during the rut. After 50 years of holding the firearms season after the peak of the rut it is a tradition and any change from that would be opposed by hunters.”
RT: In your opinion, does the fact white-tailed deer are hunted with firearms only after rutting activities have ceased contribute to Kansas’ exceptional trophy quality, or in spite of it?
Fox: “One of the points that is seldom discussed is the dramatic change in archery equipment and hunting methods. In the 1960s archers in Kansas had a meager success rate, amounting to percentiles in the teens. There were few bowhunters and their overall impact on deer populations was minor. Today there are many more bowhunters. They have excellent equipment and the techniques they use make them nearly as successful as hunters using firearms. As a result, any positive population effects resulting from a post-rut firearms season, while allowing archery during that period, have diminished. We can no longer consider the archery season as a minor factor on deer populations.
“The future of deer hunting is changing. CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) currently is not a nationwide concern, and it won't be for many years. However, within the next 50 to 100 years it will be the dominate factor limiting deer populations through much of North America. Factors such as firearms deer hunting during the rut will become trivial.”
Many Minnesota bowhunters believe whitetail hunting would be better if the state did not allow rifle hunting through the heart of the rut.
RT: Is the decision to continue allowing rifle hunting during the whitetail rut a political one, or is it continued for biological reasons?
Adam Murkowski, Big Game Program Leader, Division of Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: “Deer hunting is quite tradition oriented. Traditions are a big part of when people get together and when they hunt. Therefore, attempting to change the current season structure would prove a monumental undertaking.
“A lot of other states have a tradition of allowing deer hunting in November, mostly to facilitate finding and tagging deer. In Minnesota, for instance, our northern regions harbor fewer but often older deer in more difficult big-woods settings. Allowing November hunting puts hunters in the best position to tag deer in those settings.
“Minnesota’s southern agricultural areas, on the other hand, offer easier hunting. Cover is patchy and smaller, which drives improved hunter efficiency. It wouldn’t really matter when deer were hunted down south, hunters would be very effective despite the date. For that reason we have implemented four-point antler restrictions in southeastern units to limit harvest and allow young bucks to put some age on.”
RT: In your opinion, does holding deer hunts during the rut in Minnesota reduce the state’s overall trophy and herd quality?
Murkowski: “Minnesota offers tremendous deer-hunting opportunity. The state produces plenty of nice bucks, especially in the south where soil is better and nutrients abundant. But there are a tremendous amount of nice animals throughout the state.
“Does the rut make white-tailed bucks more vulnerable? No doubt about it. The rut encourages five to 10 times more movement, and the more deer move around the more vulnerable they become. Does this negatively affect trophy quality? In game management there are never any easy answers, never that one thing you can point to and blame positives or negatives on. There’s always a lot more involved.”
RT: How would you respond to Minnesota hunters who say the state’s trophy quality isn’t as good as, say, neighboring Iowa because of rifle hunting during the rut?
Murkowski: “I’ve worked as a big-game biologist in five different states, and if there’s one thing I’ve consistently observed it’s that hunters always think other states are better than their own. They always look for the best in other states and complain that their state is inferior in some way. Minnesota produces a tremendous number of record-book bucks.”
Many other states are a part of this discussion, too, including: Kentucky, Texas, South Carolina and more. Is your state among them? What are your thoughts?