The Challenges for America’s Whitetail Hunters Three major issues threaten the tradition of hunting

 It’s the end of another deer season, which marked my 33rd autumn chasing whitetails. Those three-plus decades have flown by at warp speed. But perhaps even more amazing to me is how rapidly whitetail hunting has changed since I began chasing deer in the 1970s.

 Today’s hunters — even greenhorns with but a few seasons under their belt — seem so far ahead of deer nuts from my generation. Twenty-first century deer hunters know deer behavior and biology far more intimately than most experts of a few decades ago. Hunters refer to themselves as “managers” and can identify deer by age-class, know how to attract whitetails through proper habitat management and food plot plantings, and make informed decisions about which deer to harvest to improve their herd. In addition to this herd knowledge, today’s hunters enjoy improvements in equipment that would boggle the minds of yesteryear’s deer gurus — better guns and bows, scouting cameras, tree stands, camouflage, rangefinders; the list is long and seems to keep growing. Such light-speed progress leads to a natural curiosity about the future. If deer hunting has evolved so rapidly in the last few decades, what changes and challenges lie in the immediate future? Though no one has a crystal ball, I spend a lot of time talking to hunters, biologists, landowners and other folks with a vested interest in whitetail management. Chatting with them has led to a short laundry list of issues that will surely affect how we manage and hunt whitetails in years to come. Here’s a sneak peek.


It’s no secret that whitetails are as abundant now as at any time in recorded history. Indeed, in many areas, deer populations have become so high that they’ve negatively impacted native vegetation and habitat for other wildlife. And of course, overpopulated whitetails cause problems for people, too — crop damage, vehicle collisions and the spread of Lyme disease. Finally, unnaturally dense herds also elevate the risk of disease transfer (CWD and bovine TB, among others) for whitetails themselves. None of this is earth-shattering news, of course. But future hunters — perhaps more so than ever before — will be called upon to keep deer populations in tune with available habitat. Perhaps no one knows this better than Keith Warnke, deer ecologist with the Wisconsin DNR. Though Warnke’s toughest job is dealing with the Badger State’s CWD problem, he sees controlling whitetail numbers — through annual and aggressive antlerless harvests — as Job One across the state. “My chief concern will be, as always, population control,” he said. “Maintaining a responsible number of deer on the landscape has always been the function of hunters, and we can’t let that role slip away. Unfortunately, the challenge will become ever greater as hunter numbers decline and access becomes more difficult. But we need to promote hunters to the world as herd managers, and we need to take that role more seriously in the future than we ever have. We don’t want to look back in 50 years and have society say ‘How could you not manage that deer herd?’” Many states encourage antlerless harvest by offering liberal doe tags and/or holding special seasons, and that trend shows no signs of weakening. In Wisconsin, however, the DNR has taken things a step further, establishing “earna- buck” requirements in management units that fail to meet antlerless harvest goals. While these seasons are never popular, hunters seem to accept them more readily now, and I expect to see more states adopt them when deer populations surge. Indeed, some private deer clubs and individual groups have instituted such guidelines voluntarily, requiring hunters to shoot one (and sometimes more) antlerless deer before hunting for a buck. Though game managers can pass doe tags out like candy, one harsh reality of the modern hunter has become evident; the average sportsman typically doesn’t require much venison and many quit after shooting a deer or two. This makes venison donation programs, such as Hunters Feeding the Hungry, critical to keeping doe harvests high. In addition to giving hunters an “excuse” for shooting more does, these programs provide much-needed meat for local food shelves, as well as giving sportsmen excellent PR. However, most donation programs suffer from inadequate funding and require lots of effort and manpower to start and maintain. This will be an ongoing — but critical — challenge for the future.

KEYS TO THE CASTLE Though a constant complaint of today’s deer hunters is gaining access to hunting property, it’s a safe bet that tomorrow’s whitetailers will face an even tougher job of finding a place to enjoy their sport. This problem is among the most difficult to solve, as it is so broad and multifaceted. In some regions, prime lands are being leased or sold to exclusive clubs or wealthy individuals. In others, once-public areas are being lost, as paper/timber companies sell off parcels to pay their bills. And of course, the desire for many Americans to buy a chunk of land in the country and build their dream home has resulted in even more land being divided up and often closed to hunting. Finally, the continued juggernaut of urban sprawl — a by-product of our booming human population — promises to usurp even more hunting ground and elevate the challenge of hunters to get on the ground to kill deer. Even in a largely rural state like Iowa, the urban deer control is a big concern to DNR biologist Willie Suchy. In a recent conversation, Suchy listed “managing metro deer populations, which we hope to do by keeping as many areas open to hunting as we can,” as one of his primary management concerns for the future. Obviously, there are no easy solutions to this far-reaching and complicated problem, but it has been addressed through some innovative programs. Perhaps chief among them are those that involve state agencies leasing private land and opening it to hunters. Kansas and South Dakota, for example, sport the Walk-In Hunting Area (WIHA) program, while North Dakota sponsors Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS). In Montana, Block Management areas allow deer hunters access to some prime ranch land. These programs are examples of innovative, pro-active approaches to the access issue and should serve as a model for other states in the future. Hunting in metro/suburban areas promises to present some of the steepest access challenges for tomorrow’s deer hunter. However, it’s not an insurmountable one, as has been proven in my home state of Minnesota. In the seven-county area that includes the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, state (and local) hunting groups have combined to form the Metro Bowhunters Resource Base (MBRB). Working with the DNR, the MBRB helps communities struggling with expanding deer herds by setting up special hunts in parks, natural areas and on small parcels of private land. MBRB trains hunters and sets up special hunt rules tailored to meet the community’s needs. It’s a wildly successful model that needs to be emulated in more states right now and well into the future.

RECRUITING WARS Most deer hunters have read about the nationwide sag in hunter numbers. There are simply a smaller percentage of us on the landscape than ever before, and you don’t have to be a sociologist to realize the implications for our sport. Fewer and fewer people live close to nature, which not only reduces the number of people who understand hunting’s role in managing game populations, but also the number of young people who’ll participate in our cherished traditions and keep them alive. Hunter recruitment is, and will continue to be, perhaps our chief hurdle as we look into the future. The most obvious solution to the problem, of course, is to get kids involved. But as legions of well-meaning hunters have discovered, such a task is easier said than done. As Wisconsin biologist Warnke told me, “Most hunters have at least one kid they can take out and recruit to the sport. Unfortunately, catching and keeping their attention isn’t always simple.” Indeed, with the fast-paced lives today’s kids lead, there are many activities vying for their attention. Couple that with the shrinking access issue faced by even veteran hunters, and it’s no wonder that getting kids excited about deer hunting can be a tall challenge. What’s the answer? Youth-only hunts and seasons are certainly a step in the right direction. Many states host special youth hunts in state parks and other areas typically closed to hunting. These areas are perfect for beginning hunters, as deer numbers are typically high and the chances for success greater than in many areas. Other states, like Alabama, Missouri and Iowa, set aside a special time frame when only kids can hunt (often with firearms, and well ahead of the general gun season opener), and I feel these seasons are an outstanding idea.

Not only do the rules typically require each child to have an adult, non-hunting mentor (which helps parents/mentors to teach appropriate skills and bond with the neophyte), but the seasons are held in early fall, when the weather is more enjoyable and deer more relaxed. It doesn’t end there. In taking a more aggressive, proactive stance toward recruiting tomorrow’s sportsmen (and women), some groups are reaching out to kids of even younger ages. The National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) provides training, technical assistance and equipment to schools willing to teach archery skills to their students. With its primary roots in Kentucky, this program has been wildly successful wherever it’s been tried. Though certainly not all these young shooters will become diehard whitetail hunters, many will catch the bug and nearly all will gain an appreciation for the shooting sports. And without a doubt, tomorrow’s deer hunters will need all the understanding they can get. Finally, there’s a growing, nationwide movement to reduce the minimum age at which kids are allowed to hunt. In many states, the minimum hunting age is 12, and in some states, youngsters have to be 14 to be afield. Many hunting advocates and some groups (most notably the National Wild Turkey Federation) have lobbied to reduce these age requirements, arguing that many kids simply aren’t interested in the sport by the time they can legally participate in it. I definitely believe this issue needs to be discussed and explored. Anything that can be done to “catch” youngsters who have an interest in hunting before they “stray” to other sports or activities is of utmost importance.

CONCLUSION Some readers of this magazine might be disappointed that I didn’t delve into any of the myriad deer-specific issues that interest hardcore whitetail hunters. Quality deer management, nutrition, habitat improvements and refined hunting techniques are all topics that serious deer nuts (including me) always enjoy studying. Though these issues are certainly important and fascinating, I feel they’re simply the tip of the iceberg in the world we call deer hunting. Of primary importance to all deer hunters is our ability to look at the big issues that affect our sport — not only how we hunt whitetails on our “back 40,” but on how deer are managed wherever they’re found. If each of us can do our part to address the three issues discussed above, I believe deer hunting, and deer hunters, will be better off. And I’m similarly confident that — just as we have so many times before — America’s whitetail hunters will prove themselves up for the challenge.