Friday, June 16, 2006

MICHIGAN OPINION: Sometimes Aggressive Deer Management Necessary

Bruce Bischoff, Outdoor Columnist for the Record-Eagle (northern LP) writes:

It took exactly one night last week for the deer to discover my dad's tomato seedlings and nip them in the bud.

He didn't have his electric fence up because last year he didn't have any trouble with deer, and because local folklore insisted that there weren't any deer in our area any more after years of liberal doe permits and other DNR mismanagement.

Based on personal observations and conversations with adjoining landowners, I wasn't so sure. And sure enough, after last hunting season, the deer slowly began to come out of the woodwork — not as many, perhaps, as there were 20 years ago, but enough to continue the species.

But another species came out in even more force than whitetails over the winter: hunterrus irateus. Petitions demanding that the DNR do something to build the deer herd back up sprouted in nearly every convenience store. Sportsmen's club meetings got heated. "We want our deer back," was the angry refrain.

It's true that deer populations and harvests have been down in the northern Lower Peninsula for the last couple of years. It's a management campaign that was undertaken for several reasons — to severely cull the herd in the bovine TB-infested areas, to bring the herd more into line with the carrying capacity of the range, and to attempt to modify the extremely lopsided buck-doe ratio of years past. Others might say it was a reaction to political pressure from agricultural interests and auto insurers. Or it might be all of the above.

The DNR's first step to address bovine TB — eliminating baiting — raised a firestorm of protest from hunters and retailers throughout the north, and under heavy political pressure was scaled back to the point of being almost irrelevant.

If there's one thing I've learned from a lifetime of hunting in northern Michigan, it's that pretty much anybody with a blaze orange hat considers himself a game manager of far greater skill and insight than your average professional wildlife biologist. If there's a problem, real or perceived, they have the answer, and they're certain about it. Very certain.

I'll admit I was a bit leery of the changes several years ago, but as they took hold my hunting actually got better. I didn't see as many deer, but I saw more bucks and actually harvested a couple of decent ones. So I hunted patiently and didn't complain.

But apparently a lot of hunters are in a complaining mood now. To address the issue, the DNR is holding meetings with hunters like one scheduled at West Branch this Saturday to outline proposed reductions in doe permits.

Now, I'll admit that doe permits have gotten out of hand at times. Nobody really needs one tag per day.

But I'm not to keen on going back to the days when I would see a dozen or 15 deer every day of the season and never a single set of horns. There were simply so many does available that the bucks didn't need to move around to find them.

There's no question that does need to be managed along with bucks to maintain a healthy herd. The problem is coming to a consensus that everyone can live with.

If it were my choice, the major change I'd make to deer regulations would be the elimination of the second buck license. Hunters who know they only have one shot are going to think twice before taking a small buck. I think a lot of spikes and forks would survive the season and have a chance to grow into decent bucks in the second year.

Or how about a two-tag license, one buck and one doe, where appropriate? Or even a license like a scratch-off lottery ticket, where you might get either a buck tag or a doe tag? Indulge me; I've got a blaze orange hat, too.

For many years I thought of the balance of nature as kind of a finely tuned gyroscope just humming along with no need or intervention or correction from us puny humans. But in recent years I've become convinced that it's a lot more like a teeter-totter, with the weight of species frequently sliding from one end to the other, and we may have to apply a light, judicious hand now and then.

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