REPRINTED with Permission of Jennifer Chambers The Detroit News

Hunting group aims to reshape deer herds
Jennifer Chambers / The Detroit News

UBLY — To Randy Rutkowski and some of his neighbors in the Thumb, the excitement of deer hunting season was waning.

Year after year they would see plenty of deer: does mostly, and a few smallish bucks. What they really wanted was a better chance to harvest a bigger-antlered, mature buck.

That’s when the concept of Quality Deer Management began to take root. It has been eight years since Rutkowski and Co. got involved with the Quality Deer Management Association, and the results, he says, are impressive.

“Some of my own family members said this would never work, but they’re starting to see the bigger deer we’re taking, and they start to become believers,” he said.

But Quality Deer Management isn’t just about shooting big-racked deer to hang on the wall. Proponents say it’s about shaping a deer herd that’s not only more enjoyable to hunt, but also smaller and less likely to cause the crop damage and car-deer collisions that plague Michigan. And some hunters say Michigan is ignoring an opportunity to create that type of herd.

“I think they’re more interested in selling more licenses,” Rutkowski said.

Some 350,000 hunters are expected in the woods for Michigan’s archery deer season, which opened Monday and runs through Jan. 1, with a 16-day break for firearms season Nov. 15-30.

An estimated 735,000 hunters will buy at least one Michigan deer license this year. They’ll go after a herd of 1.6 million deer that some biologists say has too many females, which keeps the numbers artificially high — and thus more destructive — and prevents the deer from engaging in many of the behaviors found in a normal herd.
Learning to manage herds

The Quality Deer Management Association’s mission is to change herds like Michigan’s. The QDMA is a nonprofit wildlife conservation group that teaches hunters, landowners and state agencies its method of managing herds. Its voluntary practices began in Texas in the mid-1970s and spread to other Southern states.

More recently, QDM techniques have become policy in northern states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and those states have reported high hunter satisfaction. Michigan has 4,000 QDMA members, but so far efforts to bring the philosophy to Michigan have been spotty at best.

“The state is doing very little on this. They want the average guy to go out and see 30 deer,” said Bob DuCharme of Coldwater, the Great Lakes regional director for the QDMA. “Most of us have never seen what a quality deer herd is like. They don’t know what we can accomplish in a two-year period if they just let the young bucks walk. They are going to get to the next level, a larger body size. And the more mature bucks will breed the does.”

QDM preaches four main elements to produce a better herd:

• Shooting does. A normal deer herd has about three does per buck. In some parts of Michigan, it’s estimated that there are as many as 20 does per buck. Many Michigan hunters were raised to believe that shooting does is somehow inferior to shooting a buck, but research shows that virtually every adult doe gets pregnant each year. That means a high doe population translates into a high fawn population the following spring, which keeps the herd artificially large.

• Providing food and places for deer to hide. Deer prefer to use thick brush and undergrowth to mask their movements. Good nutrition makes healthy animals and bigger-racked bucks.

• Not shooting younger, smaller bucks so they can grow larger. That’s a tough one, Rutkowski said. “It’s kind of difficult because a lot of guys my age were brought up that if you see a pair of horns, it’s pretty much down. But the only way (the deer) get to the next age bracket is to let them pass.”

• Counting the deer. Herd monitoring helps Rutkowski’s co-op keep tabs on how many bucks and does are in the herd so they’ll know what adjustments are needed in the next hunting season.
State declines regulation

Rodney Clute, a big game specialist for the Michigan DNR , said the department agrees with some aspects of QDM policy, such as encouraging the harvesting of does, but it doesn’t want to regulate it.

“QDM wants to limit the number of male fawns taken. QDM wants to have an older age structure in the male population. We have no objection to that but we don’t want regulations in place to achieve that,” Clute said. The current philosophy is to manage the herd to have as many deer as the habitat can sustain.

The DNR in recent years has tried to create about a dozen QDM areas that have resulted in mixed reviews by hunters and property owners.

“We surveyed land owners and hunters in these areas,” Clute said. “In three areas they supported a buck harvest where a deer had to have three or more points on one antler to be legal. In other areas the survey came back without support.”

Only one QDM area continues to operate in Michigan, near the Michigan-Wisconsin border in the Upper Peninsula.

Deer biologist John Ozoga said balancing out Michigan’s herd — by decreasing the number of does, increasing the number of bucks and letting the males mature — would allow the animals to engage in normal deer behaviors.

“Among the bucks, there would be more contesting of dominance. Superior bucks would do the breeding,” Ozoga, a retired biologist for Michigan’s DNR wildlife research. “You have to control the numbers and shape of these populations socially and let them do their thing.”

For nonhunters, there are advantages to thinning the herd, Ozoga says: fewer car-deer collisions, less crop damage and fewer cases of property damage from the animals.

In 2006 the Natural Resources Commission, which sets wildlife policy in Michigan, adopted a two-year moratorium on any new QDM regulations, which lasts until April. Commissioner Mary C. Brown said it is up to the hunters, land owners and residents of an area to say what kind of restrictions they want on deer hunting.

“There are a lot of different philosophies and it’s a divisive issue,” Brown said. “We set policy based on biology as best as we can. There is no right or wrong that you take only big males.”
Convincing the nonbelievers

Programs in place in Pennsylvania and Texas called “Earn a Buck,” where hunters are required to take a doe before harvesting a buck, have met with a cool reception in Michigan.

“In some areas it might be worthwhile. It takes a lot of DNR staff to work this program. They would need to verify the doe was taken. Is that the best use of state dollars right now?” Brown asked.

After eight years, Rutkowski’s group is finally beginning to sway some neighbors who were nonbelievers.

“They said this will never work, and then all of a sudden they started seeing more and more bucks that were bigger, and they got interested,” said Rutkowski. “Some guys won’t commit to saying it, but then there have been some that harvest their first buck and the only reason they did is because of what we’re doing. Some of it takes years for it to happen.”