Quality Deer Management Mythology
Quality Deer Management is just trophy management in disguise, right? Let us set the record straight on this and other myths of QDM.
By Brian Murphy, R. Larry Marchinton and Karl V. Miller
Many hunters who are new to the Quality Deer Management (QDM) concept or those who are simply trying to determine if this approach is appropriate for their situation may be confused by the sometimes conflicting information they hear or read on the subject. QDM represents a departure from tradition, and there are many misconceptions about this relatively new philosophy of deer management. This article addresses some common misconceptions about QDM and provides you with some factual information on which to base your opinion and to discuss the merits of QDM with others.
QDM is Just Trophy Management
Antler size is one measure of the physical quality and maturity of male white-tailed deer. Therefore, a common misconception regarding QDM is that it is simply trophy management in disguise. While both deer management strategies share many broad goals with respect to increasing buck ages, balancing the deer herd with its habitat and maximizing available nutrition, they also differ in many ways. The primary goal of trophy management is to produce fully mature bucks with high-scoring antlers. While this objective may sound attractive, the ingredients required to practice this form of management are not available to most hunters.
First, research indicates that most whitetail bucks produce their largest set of antlers at 4 1/2 to 7 1/2 years of age. To consistently produce bucks of this age requires the protection of large numbers of young and middle-aged bucks. This requires more patience and a greater ability to age and score bucks on the hoof than most hunters possess. Second, research also suggests that maximum antler growth requires higher year-round nutrition than exists naturally in most of the whitetail’s range. While food plots, natural vegetation management, and supplemental feeding can increase available nutrition, unless these practices are conducted on an intensive scale, they generally are insufficient to achieve desired results. The costs of implementing these practices on such a scale are generally prohibitive. Third, unless a property is high-fenced or surrounded by a natural boundary, trophy management usually requires 10,000 or more contiguous acres to allow sufficient numbers of bucks to reach full maturity before harvest. Few hunters have access to such acreage. The bottom line is that although the biological merits of trophy management are sound, this approach is neither desirable nor achievable for most hunters.
QDM, on the other hand, includes a much broader set of goals and objectives than trophy management and also can be achieved by a much greater number of hunters. The primary objective of QDM is to produce healthy, more natural deer populations than those created through traditional management. In short, it’s about balance balancing the deer herd with its habitat, balancing sex ratios and age structures within herds, balancing management objectives with the habitat’s capabilities and landowner desires, and enhancing the ethical and educational level of the hunter.
QDM generally strives to protect 1 1/2- and 2 1/2-year-old bucks and harvest an adequate number of female deer. Under this strategy, most bucks are harvested at 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years of age. Therefore, the return on your investment is far greater than under trophy management because a portion of the bucks on any property often 15 percent or more die annually as a result of factors unrelated to hunting. While QDM requires a focus on improving nutrition, in some areas this can be achieved largely through population reduction through doe harvest. As an added benefit, QDM can be successful on much smaller properties, especially if neighboring hunters are adhering to similar QDM guidelines.
Mandatory Antler Restrictions = QDM
Some state agencies and many landowners and hunters use mandatory antler harvest restrictions to achieve one of the goals of QDM. Antler restrictions, such as a minimum spread or number of points, are designed to protect younger bucks from harvest. They result from hunter desires for higher quality bucks and as well as efforts to manage for herds with more natural sex and age structures. Most restrictions protect at least some of the highly vulnerable yearling bucks but are not designed to produce trophy bucks because greatest antler size is normally reached much later. In general, these efforts can be considered a start toward QDM. Nevertheless, deer management is an evolving art. In some areas the right prescriptions to accomplish the goal of protecting younger bucks have been found, but in others we have not yet determined the best way to make it happen.
The pitfall to some antler restrictions is that they can result in harvesting some young bucks with the best antler development. Such regulations increase buck age structure but leave the bucks with smaller antlers to move up in age class. Whether this is a significant problem is still debated among even the most well-informed deer researchers. Fortunately this question is being studied by some states requiring them, and we may know the answer to this question soon.
More sophisticated forms of antler restrictions which could eliminate the high-grading concern are being tried experimentally. These involve slot limits where primarily the smallest antlered yearlings and the mature bucks are eligible for harvest. The downside to this is the complexity of the regulation from the hunter’s standpoint, but these slot limits appear to be based on good biology.
There are other ways of allowing bucks to live a little longer. One of these is to simply reduce their harvest by having smaller season bag limits, such as one buck per hunter, while allowing liberal harvest of does. Some state have used this to improve buck age structure and herd sex ratio. But, no single harvest prescription will produce quality herds in all areas.
Of course, the perfect solution would be for hunters to accurately estimate the age of bucks in the field and then only harvest those that have reached maturity, irrespective of antler size. This would negate the need for antler restrictions and lead to improved management success. Although some hunters have learned to do this, it is not likely to be possible for the average hunter in the foreseeable future. Few herds have enough mature bucks in them to give hunters experience in judging age. But who knows what the hunter of tomorrow will be like Who could have guessed 15 years ago that deer hunters throughout our land would be counting points or judging spread before harvesting a buck? The fact is wildlife biologists, managers and hunters are on a steep learning curve but are headed in the right direction.
QDM is not Needed in Highly Agricultural Areas
While most deer management professionals throughout North America agree that QDM is biologically appropriate for many whitetail herds, some contend that QDM is not needed in highly agricultural regions like those common in the Midwest and north central United States. They acknowledge that QDM is appropriate for overpopulated herds on poor-quality sites that are characterized by skewed adult sex ratios, protracted breeding and fawning seasons, and poor antler and body development by age class. However, they argue that these characteristics are largely void in highly agricultural areas. They assert that herds are generally within the biological carrying capacity of the habitat and exhibit fairly concise breeding and fawning periods. They also argue that because their herds exhibit high fawn recruitment rates despite intense harvest pressure, pre-season adult sex ratios are generally better than three does per buck. They further point out that their average body weights and antler measurements by age class are well above average.
In light of all of the above information, is QDM really necessary in highly agricultural areas? The short answer is yes, but this requires some further explanation. We agree that there is not a biological crisis existing in most herds in these areas. However, the broad generalizations regarding population levels, sex ratios, breeding dates and herd health parameters don?t tell the full story. There are numerous examples in these areas where does have been underharvested and bucks have been chronically overharvested. Even in agricultural areas, this combination can produce undesirable herd characteristics like those observed in areas of lower habitat quality.
While it also is true that pre-season adult sex ratios in many of these areas are within acceptable limits from a QDM perspective, what is lacking is buck age structure. In some areas, more than 70 percent of all bucks harvested are yearlings, and less than 5 percent survive to their third birthday. Traditional buck harvest programs prevent these herds from ever exhibiting an older, more natural buck age structure like that provided by QDM.
Another consideration is the growing support for QDM by northern landowners and hunters in the Midwest and north central United States. The vast majority of hunter-attitude surveys conducted in these areas in recent years have revealed a strong and growing level of support for QDM.
Many hunters and biologists believe the greatest argument for QDM regardless of location is simply that it is the right way to manage deer herds. They believe that QDM produces the most natural sex ratios and age structures of available management strategies while providing the widest range of benefits to deer herds, deer habitats, deer hunters and society as a whole.
QDM Reduces Hunter Opportunity
Another common misconception is that QDM reduces hunter opportunity, especially for the young, inexperienced, and physically challenged. Critics contend that buck harvest restrictions, whether through mandatory or voluntary means, place unnecessary limitations on hunters. However, there is a critical distinction between hunter opportunity and hunter harvest. Hunter opportunity is the chance to hunt, while hunter harvest relates specifically to the taking of deer. If there are no older bucks in the herd, a hunter cannot realistically hunt one, except in his or her dreams. As such, they are deprived of the opportunity to hunt or harvest an adult buck. We contend that most hunters desire and should be entitled to hunt for a quality buck, though the actual taking of such an animal must not be assured.
Do antler restrictions typically result in reduced buck harvests? In most cases yes, especially during the first few years of a QDM program. However, even during this period, total deer harvest generally increases due to the increased harvest of antlerless deer. Even under the most stringent buck harvest guidelines, hunter opportunity typically increases because some bucks are off limits. Hunters desiring to harvest a quality buck must be more selective and hunt more often. When factors such as time spent outside of the hunting season on habitat management practices, camera surveys, shed-antler hunting and other common QDM practices are considered, total hunter recreational use of a deer herd often increases substantially.
In addition, unless prevented by state regulation, QDM does not prevent individual hunting groups from making exceptions for inexperienced or physically challenged hunters. Many QDM groups make such allowances, though cautiously and with the overall impact to the herd in mind.
The take-home message is that QDM in no way limits either hunter opportunity or hunter harvest it just changes the way hunters view and enjoy these activities. Stories of bucks observed and passed become just as important as those of older bucks harvested. A growing number of hunters across North America believe the collective benefits of QDM provide a more enjoyable and rewarding hunting experience than that provided by traditional management.
About the Authors: Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist with more than 15 years of experience in managing white-tailed deer, and he is the executive director of QDMA. Dr. Larry Marchinton is a professor emeritus with The University of Georgia, where he taught wildlife biology and management for 30 years. He is recognized internationally as a pioneer in deer behavior and Quality Deer Management. Dr. Karl Miller is a professor of wildlife ecology and management at The University of Georgia. His research focuses on the physiology, habitat requirements and management of white-tailed deer and on the impact of forest management practices on deer and other wildlife species. All three authors are Charter Life Members of QDMA.
Originally posted 2009-12-25 14:52:34. Republished by Blog Post Promoter