Early deer management pioneers knew herd survival and expansion depended on protecting female deer. This was conveyed to deer hunters, who reaped the benefits of doe protection by seeing more deer — in some cases a lot more deer.
Early managers failed to emphasize that when deer populations rebounded, females would also need to be harvested. Because recovery of habitats and deer numbers took some decades, managers may not have foreseen future deer abundance. Decades of doe sparing lead to robust deer populations, yet many hunters were not conditioned or prepared to cull females. Fearful of returning to the days of rare deer sightings, many embraced doe protection as a method of ensuring future deer abundance. Hunters and managers alike underestimated the extreme resiliency of the white-tailed deer species. As a consequence, deer harvest management proceeded conservatively for too long a period. The result has been deer overabundance throughout much of the eastern U.S.
For the past 30 years, Wildlife Biologist Raymond Winchcombe has been involved with deer management activities at Cary. During this period, a thoughtful management program has evolved. Cary strives to educate hunters about the role that deer play in ecological systems, outlining why habitat protection is important. Hunters learn that doe culling is integral to stabilizing deer populations and that hunting females does not result in fewer opportunities to take a buck, a long-held tradition for most hunters. By teaming up with Cary, hunters help manage deer and protect forested habitats. Since landowners control access to the deer resource, partnering with hunters assists landowners in achieving specific goals such as protecting landscaped areas, gardens, crops or natural habitats.
At Cary, deer are managed through a controlled access hunting program. Our program requires both time and resources, however the conceptual aspects are relevant to smaller informal applications. Each August, a small group of hunters (50-60) with past experience at Cary are invited to hunt for the season. To be invited, hunters must meet a range of criteria including: success in doe harvests, compliance with rules and regulations and a positive attitude regarding the program and its goals. Applicants must apply for an antlerless deer tag through the state licensing system, attend a pre-hunt orientation meeting and pass a shooting proficiency test before an access permit is issued.
At the annual orientation meeting the doe harvest goal and the reason for the hunt, the protection of forested ecosystems, are discussed in detail. Safety issues, the results of previous hunts, statistics on hunter effort and deer harvested, (dressed weights, antler information, deer age) are also discussed. Participants are instructed on the rules governing the hunt and daily check station procedures. The bottom line message is two-fold: 1) never compromise safety and 2) hunters get to participate in a controlled hunting environment with relatively low hunter density in exchange for a commitment to hunting does with the same (or greater) intensity as bucks.
The shooting proficiency test focuses on firearm readiness, assuring that a rested firearm is sighted in and fully functional. Following a successful test, hunters are issued access permits and are prepared to hunt. If all the basic program requirements are met annually, hunters know they will be invited to return for years to come. To date, hunter turnover rates have been very low (avg. <12% annually for first time participants).
The hunter/deer check station is an important feature of the Cary program. Hunters sign in and out of the station daily and biological data is gathered from harvested deer. The station serves as a way to communicate with hunters, messages can be posted on the station's property map alerting hunters to areas that are off limits due to scientific or other fieldwork. Hunter safety is also addressed at the station. Hunters place a pin in the station map, indicating where they will begin their hunt. This allows other hunters to find suitable sites, minimizing overlap. All hunters must be accounted for before Cary closes, ensuring no hunter is ever left behind in the woods. Daily hunter interaction gives me ample opportunity to reinforce program values, expectations and goals. Casual conversations and imparting local knowledge are integral to keeping some hunters focused and motivated and it often pays dividends concerning the doe harvest.
As mentioned, this program has adapted over the years to meet the needs and concerns of Cary. Landowner needs come first, but with careful consideration of the impacts on reaching harvest goals. To garner strong hunter support, Winchcombe believe a real effort must be made to provide a quality hunting experience with minimal interference in how hunters like to hunt. Hunters are not assigned areas or times to hunt. They come and go as they please through the check station procedure. They hunt from the ground or use portable tree stands. There is adequate flexibility within the structured environment, and Cary hunters like it that way.
Focused controlled hunting has work well at Cary. With the current trend of shrinking hunter numbers in general, deer management in the future is going to be even a bigger challenge. Those remaining hunters need to understand and embrace the role they play in deer population management and ecosystem protection. In concert, landowners must also recognize and embrace their role in ecosystem protection. Without adequate access, the hunting option becomes moot. Together, landowners and hunters can work to achieve goals beneficial to both and to society in general by protecting our environments from deer overabundance.