By Charles J. Alsheimer

 Before Europeans arrived in North America, natural predators and American Indians managed the whitetail population. By today’s standards, American Indian harvest methods were unscientific. However, unlike early European settlers, who often looked at the dollar value of wildlife, American Indians viewed the whitetail and the rest of the natural world with reverence. They understood the balance of nature, and consequently, they harvested only what they needed.

No one knows how many whitetails inhabited North America when Europeans arrived. Some estimate the deer population was as high as 40 million, though others claim it was less than the current population, which is estimated to be 25 to 35 million. Regardless, whitetails were a prominent part of the North American landscape and a valuable form of sustenance for American Indians. Archeological digs reveal that American Indians killed whitetails in all age classes. Whether this was planned, they were essentially practicing a natural form of quality deer management long before the Pilgrims landed. However, when Europeans gained a commercial foothold, things changed rapidly. After the Revolutionary War, Americans became adventurous. They settled eastern North America and began moving westward. As prime whitetail habitat was cleared for farming and industry, the deer population decreased significantly. With open seasons, no bag limits and demand for venison in cities, market hunting became popular in many parts of the East by the 1800s. As a result, the deer population plummeted, and by the late 19th century, fewer than 500,000 whitetails remained in North America.

Back from the Brink

About 1900, a plea went out from conservation-minded sportsmen, and game seasons were closed throughout the country. Because of the severity of mismanagement, it took decades for whitetails to recover. By the time deer numbers returned to reasonable levels, the skill of deer hunting was nearly forgotten. This lack of knowledge made implementing a deer-management program difficult. However, a more structured style of management — known today as traditional deer management — gradually took hold. Traditional deer management was used to rebuild America’s whitetail herds after the market-hunting era. It’s still practiced today, at least in part, by many state game departments. In a nutshell, traditional management lets hunters kill antlered bucks while protecting portions (in a few cases, all) of the antlerless population. For the most part, antlered bucks killed in traditional management programs are 1-1/2 years old. Currently, it’s still not uncommon for 70 to 90 percent of the deer killed in Northeastern states to be yearlings. One principal goal of traditional management is to provide a huntable resource while keeping deer population within the land’s carrying capacity, with little concern for how many bucks are killed. Traditional management worked well in its early years, but it has created a few problems in the long run. Its biggest shortcomings include its tendency to overstress bucks and its inability to keep herds within the land’s carry capacity. Despite its weaknesses, traditional management became popular because most hunters wanted to see a lot of deer. It delivered in that area throughout the years. In tradition-rich deer hunting states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont, high deer populations provided hunters with the sightings they wanted. Unfortunately, many hunters didn’t realize that traditional deer management was a time bomb, because skyrocketing populations took a heavy toll on natural habitat. In many areas, this damage was irreversible, at least in the short term. Also, because of extensive buck harvests, sex ratios became heavily skewed in favor of does.

Winds of Change

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Texas wildlife biologists Al Brothers and Murphy Ray took a critical look at traditional management. Their concerns dealt with how traditional management protected does while embracing unregulated buck harvests. After several years of formulating a more effective approach to deer management, they published their findings in the book Producing Quality Whitetails, which put quality deer management concepts in print for the first time. The book was a huge success, and it challenged sportsmen to look closely at building a better deer herd. Soon after the book’s release, I purchased a copy. It introduced me to a concept known today as quality deer management, which the Quality Deer Management Association describes this way: “QDM is a management philosophy/practice that unites landowners, hunters and resource managers in a common goal of producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social and legal constraints. “This approach typically involves the protection of young bucks combined with an adequate harvest of female deer to maintain a healthy population in balance with existing habitat conditions and landowner desires. This level of deer management involves the production of quality deer (bucks, does and fawns), quality habitat, quality hunting experiences and quality hunters.” Others were instrumental in spreading the concept Brothers and Ray introduced. In 1977, Texan John Wootters wrote Hunting Trophy Deer. Like Producing Quality Whitetails, Wootters’ work quickly sold out and became a classic. These works set the groundwork for today’s quality deer management movement. In the 1980’s, more folks saw the QDM vision. Ray Scott, founder of Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, caught the vision and launched Whitetail Institute of North America and this publication, Whitetail News. Scott recognized the relationship between antler growth and factors such as age, nutrition and herd dynamics, and was one of the first to encourage using food plots as a nutritional supplement. In October 1988, thanks to the efforts of Joe Hamilton and many other people, the South Carolina Quality Deer Management Association was officially formed. From this group, the Quality Deer Management Association was formed in 1991.

Birth of a Dream

When the 1990s arrived, most deer hunters and landowners in the Northeast viewed the quality deer management movement as nothing more than a concept that could only work in Texas and a handful of Southern states, primarily because of the Northeast’s hunting culture. For the most part, when it came to deer hunting, the decades-old philosophy in the Northeast was, “If it’s brown, it’s down.” As entrenched as this mindset was, things were about to change. In 1989, while in Texas to hunt and photograph, I had the pleasure of spending time with Brothers. During our time together, he explained the benefits of quality habitat, a quality deer herd and quality antlers. Needless to say, I received quite an education. On the plane trip home, my mind raced with what I had seen and heard. After returning to New York, Brothers called to ask my thoughts on what I had seen in Texas. It wasn’t the last time I would hear from him. After spending most of my life in western New York, the Texas approach to deer management was an eye-opener. Although I had dreamed for years of a time when quality-racked bucks would be common near my home, such thoughts seemed far-fetched. The predominant hunting philosophy at the time in the Northeast was to shoot any legal buck. Consequently, 1½-year-olds comprised more than 80 percent of New York’s annual buck harvest. During Winter 1989, I decided to see if Brother’s idea could make a difference on our 200-acre farm. During the next four years, I pretty much went at it alone, planting food plots, not killing yearling bucks and increasing our doe harvest. During this time, I became aware of several local landowners who were doing the same thing, with all of us seeing positive results, although none of us had more than 250 acres. In hopes of taking things to the next level, I contacted seven local landowners after Christmas 1993 to set up a meeting to test the QDM waters. In January 1994, we met in the Howard, New York, town library to kick around ideas about how our immediate area could have better deer. All but one was a serious deer hunter, and all were passionate about having better deer. To see if there was interest in quality deer management, we scheduled an event for March 1994, giving it the title The Steuben County Antler Roundup. Not knowing what to expect, we presented our ideas to a packed auditorium of more than 600 hunters and landowners at Avoca Central School. The response was exciting. So, coming off the interest generated, the group elected officers and formed the Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group in Summer 1994. Little did we know the best was yet to come. Keep in mind, there was no internet in 1994. Still, word spread fast about what a bunch of landowners were talking about and practicing in rural western New York. The Antler Roundup became a yearly event, with attendees coming from as far away as Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont and various parts of Pennsylvania. From our event, we heard of QDM groups being formed in Pennsylvania, with most becoming Quality Deer Management chapters.

Why it’s Working

It’s safe to say that had the media not fueled the movement, it would have taken longer for interest in quality deer management to gain a foothold in the Northeast, because traditions die hard here. When you’ve lived all your life in an area where the deer hunting philosophy has been, “If it’s brown it’s down,” you have serious reservations about any chance of having older bucks to hunt. So, the magazine you’re holding deserves much of the credit for showing Northeastern hunters and landowners the way forward. Taking Whitetail News’ lead, other magazines, such as Deer and Deer Hunting, began publishing article after article on the benefits of quality deer management and what it takes to have better soil, habitat, better quality deer and to have better deer hunting. One of the critical things stressed in those early writings was that total cooperation among landowners is not necessary for success. As one of the first to write about quality deer management, I relied heavily on what I came to call the checkerboard concept. Certainly, it’s ideal to have a huge block of land managed solely for quality whitetails. However, that’s wishful thinking in the Northeast, where small parcels of property are common. Not every landowner is interested in quality deer, so assembling a sizeable tract of land for QDM is next to impossible. There will always be gaps in the QDM landscape, so our area (and many other Northeast locations) looks like a checkerboard on the map. Some properties subscribe to QDM, but others don’t. For example, of the 10 landowners that border our farm, only three practice QDM. Despite that, antler quality and age structure have improved — just as Brothers said they would. The accompanying photo shows some of the bucks I’ve harvested on our farm since I implemented a management program. This photo is an example of what is taking place throughout the Northeast.

Encouraging Progress

It’s encouraging to see how well QDM has worked on our farm. My only regret is that I didn’t start sooner. When I think of the beautiful yearling bucks I killed early in my career, I wonder what might have been if they had matured. Others who’ve been involved with the Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group share this feeling. Currently, more than 2,000 acres in my immediate area are managed for quality deer, and Steuben County has more than 30,000 acres. With each year, more interest is generated. The journey has been interesting yet sometimes slower than many would like. However, the crown jewel is that the program is working. And if QDM can work in the Northeast, it can work anywhere in North America.