BRAINERD — One day last week, I spent the final two hours of daylight perched high in an ash tree, bow in hand, white-tailed deer on my mind. I was overlooking an expansive willow and alder lowland interspersed with open sedge meadows.
A few days prior Mother Nature had bestowed upon the countryside a fresh covering of wet snow, and it clung to every branch, twig and blade of grass. It was cold -- near zero -- and a moderate north wind didn't help. From my elevated perch, I viewed the impressive landscape through just a slit in my windproof facemask.
Some might call this form of entertainment punishment: the numbing cold, the biting wind, the deep snow. But as I continued my afternoon hunt, it wasn't the weather that was most disturbing to me, but rather the thought of how poorly our deer are managed by the DNR, at least in the opinion of most veteran hunters I know.
A deer herd skewed toward females and immature males is not a healthy herd. Deer biologists have proven that. Most knowledgeable hunters believe our deer herd should be managed to attain more mature bucks and a more natural buck-to-doe ratio, as nature has intended. Whitetails, they believe, did not evolve to become the spectacular animals that they are with an imbalanced herd.
In 1996, I interviewed Jay McAninich, who at the time was a deer research biologist for the Minnesota DNR. He is no longer with the agency. The following is an excerpt from that interview.
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"We have discussed QDM [Quality Deer Management] internally with a number of our managers. We've gone over what is happening in other states, particularly those to the south that have been working with this approach to deer management for some time," McAninch said. "QDM has also been discussed extensively with managers in Michigan and Wisconsin, who basically have just watched the concept evolve on private land."
McAninch said Minnesota will take a different approach.
"There is a lot interest on the part of our managers to see what we can or cannot do in this sort of a venture," McAninch said. "Right now we're at the stages of active discussion of what we would do, where we would do it and how we would offer this opportunity [QDM]. We are well under way in planning a QDM effort in the state."
According to McAninch, the plan probably won't be ready until the fall of 1997 at the earliest.
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What happened to that plan? Fourteen years later, QDM efforts remain in the experimental stages.
According to statistics published by the Quality Deer Management Association in 2008, a whopping 67 percent of the antlered bucks harvested in Minnesota were only 1 1/2 years old, the highest total in the nation. In Kansas, only 17 of every 100 antlered bucks are yearlings.
Much like catch-and-release fishing, QDM may take a while to catch on. Among humans, the need to succeed is great. Some hunters cannot fathom the idea of watching an immature buck pass only to go "deerless" for the season. Unfortunately, peer pressure influences many hunters.
Yet for QDM proponents, passing up young bucks is considered success, as is shooting a doe. Often, those involved with QDM gain satisfaction by other experiences, such as learning deer biology, working with others on habitat programs and improving hunting ethics. A chance at shooting a mature buck often becomes secondary.
QDM, however, should not be looked upon as a higher form of hunting. Many hunters are satisfied just to be outdoors with perhaps an opportunity to shoot a deer, any deer, and no one should be shunned for that. All hunters should remain open-minded to the ethical hunting philosophies of others.
But (this is important) for those who complain about the lack of mature bucks, or for hunters who feel our deer should be managed from a biological standpoint, with the long-term health of the herd and the habitat in mind, perhaps they should push for a QDM plan in Minnesota. In the meantime our DNR experts believe deer management is a "social issue." Deer biology is obviously of less concern.
That cold reality struck me when my afternoon vigil was deerless.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.