August 4, 2013

Hunting: Deer hunters may profit from experiences elsewhere

By Bob Humphrey

The face of deer hunting is changing, not just in Maine but nationwide. Our deer population and hunting opportunities seem to be going in the opposite direction from the rest of the country, but what's happening elsewhere could provide some solutions for how to turn around our recent declines in both.

At the Quality Deer Management Association's annual convention in Athens, Ga., QDMA's director of education and outreach, Kip Adams, offered some perspective on just how different hunting opportunities are today.

"Just over two decades ago, more than six out of 10 bucks killed (in the U.S.) were only 11/2. Today it's 39 percent," said Adams. That's the lowest proportion of yearling bucks in the harvest ever recorded. A third of all bucks killed in the U.S. are 31/2. In Mississippi, 70 percent are at least that old and 40 percent are mature bucks.

Most other states have seen similar trends. From a management perspective that means buck age ratios are more balanced. From a hunting perspective, it means more older bucks available for harvest. The main reason is quality deer management.

There's still a fair amount of misunderstanding about exactly what QDMA is. First and foremost, QDMA is an education and outreach organization. They are not pushing their agenda. They are merely providing the latest information on deer research and management so sportsmen, biologists and managers can make more informed choices on how to manage their land and the deer on it.

The goal of QDM, according to QDMA, is " producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social and legal constraints."

Achieving this typically involves protecting young bucks and harvesting an adequate number of does.

In so doing, managers can maintain a more balanced age structure and sex ratio within the population, and keep that population in balance with existing habitat conditions and landowner desires. Having more older bucks, and thus a better quality hunting experience, is a fringe benefit rather than a principle objective.

Achieving a more balanced age structure is typically accomplished in one of two ways, either through voluntary restraint or some type of mandatory antler restrictions (MARs). Interest in the MARs is growing as more Maine hunters see the successes of other states, but mandatory restrictions are not universally accepted or recommended.

Maine already has a fairly high ratio of older bucks in their annual deer kill, at least in areas with moderate to low hunting pressure. But it's in the areas of higher hunting pressure that hunters are increasingly in favor of some type of MARs. Passing up younger bucks -- yearlings -- might only gain you one more year, as most Maine bucks would meet antler restrictions by age 21/2. For many hunters, that would be enough. A 21/2-year-old Maine buck will likely sport six to eight points and weigh between 150 and 190 pounds, something most hunters would be thrilled to tie their tag to.

But MARs may not be a good fit for Maine, or parts of Maine. The vast majority of deer hunters across the whitetail's range hunt from a fixed, often elevated position, allowing more time to look over and evaluate their quarry. Many Mainers still practice traditional techniques like tracking, stalking or still-hunting, where shot opportunities are quick and fleeting, requiring a split-second decision. There's little if any time to size up the quarry, count points or estimate age.

Additionally, a fair number of Maine hunters aren't as concerned with age or score. They're just hunting for a deer, which for those who lack an any-deer permit means any buck with three inches or more of antler.

It would be hard to deny any hunter an opportunity to harvest some organic protein in a state like Maine where one chance may be your only chance, particularly with free hunting time at a premium.

What most states have done, and QDMA supports, is implementing MARs only if and when the majority of hunters and landowners support them. That may happen here in time. Meanwhile, proponents can still practice voluntary restraint. Or, as is becoming increasingly more common, landowners can limit access and apply MARs to those to whom they give access.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at:

bhhunt@maine.rr.com

 

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