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What Kind of Hunter Are You? by Chris Ward
One of the coolest aspects of my job as a professional land manager is to coordinate hunting for ecological purposes on the properties I manage. Many of these properties have not permitted hunting over the past 50 to 75 years, although I am sure that trespass hunting took place and continues to take place. Regardless, it is rewarding to impart sound game management philosophies and ethical hunting to manage both a healthy deer herd and the ecological habitat whenever I get the chance.
My personal reputation and professional affiliations have also allowed me to play a major role in affecting change in the community where I live and work. My earliest program has been used as a model for other towns and I have consulted during the public hearing phases of their approval processes.
Through it all, I have met a lot of hunters. They run the gamut from first time to lifetime hunters, choosey to indiscriminate, cooperative to uncooperative, selfish to unselfish and everything in between. Proving that each of us and our fellow sportsmen hold a very diverse set of ethics and attitudes towards hunting.
However, despite such diversity, hunters are relegated to only two categories for general discussion and debate – meat hunters and trophy hunters. I’d like to challenge all of us to think and talk about hunting beyond these categories because I believe that limiting the discussion does a disservice to our role as stewards.
I would like to expand our thinking to include a third category of hunter to our ranks. I think it is time to introduce the conservation hunter into our discussions. To me the conservation hunter embodies all that is good and beneficial about our sport. While at first glance it could easily be seen as a middle ground between meat hunter and trophy hunter, I think it is more than this because the title comes with both accountability and responsibility.
Accountability and responsibility within the hunting arena fall into four major areas for this discussion: citizenship, one voice, deer population health, and ecological health. Your philosophies, actions, and opinions about each will answer the question…
Citizenship at its simplest is membership to a community. Our community consists of all sportsmen and it is time to show due respect to one another. The practice of stealing treestands and game cameras has to stop. It’s a shame that hunters have to worry whether or not their equipment will be there the next time they come back. Altercations
over hunting grounds also has to stop. You either have permission to be there or you don’t. If you do, share the woods. If not, find another place. It’s that simple.
One voice is about education and sharing the right message. I drafted the following in a recent campaign against Mass Audubon after they voiced opposition to Sunday hunting in Massachusetts. See our blog Common Sense for the Commonwealth for specifics, but in the meantime I encourage you to adopt my Five Point Pitch:
1. Hunting has been proven to be the best available and most economical means of managing deer populations;
2. Hunting generates revenue for each state;
3. Hunting does not compromise one’s ability to enjoy nature;
4. The economic contributions of hunters is significant and particularly benefits rural economies and a matrix of businesses both large and small; and,
5. Hunting is a safe activity.
Ultimately, a unified voice carries more weight with the public and the legislature.
Next, start hunting for a healthy deer population. Wildlife agencies can’t do it alone. In New Jersey and Massachusetts our fish and game agencies are constantly fighting uphill battles against public perception, lack of resources and lack of funding. We need to be more involved in the process and lend our support.
Obviously managing a healthy herd will vary by region and property. In a healthy deer herd there is a balance between antlered to antlerless deer, as well as a healthy age structure within that balance. You need to shoot does in order to maintain that balance.
The number of does and their age structure dictate total deer population. You don’t need a lot of bucks to have a lot of deer. Unmanaged does can grow a population quickly and a common misnomer is that more deer equals better hunting. However, most deer managers will tell you that a better balance equals better hunting. A herd in balance produces a more intense breeding season which offers more opportunities for hunters to see more deer, more deer behavior and especially more bucks on the move during legal shooting hours.
Regardless of what hunter category you ultimately fall into, we all acknowledge shooting a mature buck with a nice rack is where it’s at. Mature bucks are a result of a healthy age structure. By default you will always have young bucks, and as a result shooting young bucks is okay. I would never fault someone for shooting a legal deer. That’s just being a good citizen. However I encourage you to be smart about it. If we aren’t selective at all and don’t let some go, we won’t have many good mature bucks year after year.
There are plenty of opinions and a wealth of resources to learn more about managing for healthy deer herds. Check out the Quality Deer Management Association website. But at its most basic, shoot does in early and late seasons and let them walk during the peak rut. Meanwhile on the properties I manage, I also encourage our hunters to let young bucks with good small racks walk but feel free to smoke that spike if they want to.
Believe it or not, if we practice the first three suggestions, the ecology will take care of itself. However when we don’t, problems can develop. The deer’s relationship with ecology is a complicated topic and many academic papers have droned on with specifics. For the sake of simplicity, it goes something like this: As a deer herd grows, it exerts more and more pressure on the habitat. Browsing, and subsequent overbrowsing when the herd outgrows the carrying capacity of the habitat, leads to the demise of many native plants and the success of invasive plants. As native plants disappear, invasive species take over and the diversity of the forest decreases. As the forest diversity decreases so does its productiveness. Food for all species becomes scarce and plant regeneration is zero except for one or two invasive species which cover every square inch. Eventually even the deer has no use for the monoculture it helped to create. It is a bleak picture, but it’s happening to many of our forests.
Putting it all together, we all win. Healthy deer herds won’t expand beyond the carrying capacity of the land, and our citizenship with a shared voice will open more properties to hunting. The principles of ecology are based on the idea that everything is connected. As hunters, we are an integral part of the system. As conservation hunters, we accept the challenge of accountability and responsibility and do our part to maintain the balance.