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The Dirty Politics of Deer Management

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The Dirty Politics of Deer Management

One of the seven tenets of the North American Model of Conservation is that wildlife policy should be dictated by science, and hunters are the principal tool biologists use to manage deer. This is what my Wildlife Management 101 professor called the happy triangle: trained biologists, whitetails, and sportsmen.

In the real world, it’s more like a dysfunctional decahedron, with special-interest groups, lobbyists, legislators, governors, biologists, and factions of hunters all pulling in odd directions, often behind closed doors. At the ground level, it’s a messy, sometimes dirty business where money, power, and influence can matter as much as or more than what biologists prescribe, what hunters want, or what’s best for the deer.

Backroom Deer Deals

State agencies are supposed to manage deer herds on behalf of the public. That includes everyone—farmers, insurers, hunters, nonhunters, and even antis. But hunters are unique in this mix. Unlike any other group, we do the actual work—and we pay for it with license fees and excise taxes on equipment. Everyone should have a seat at the table to help bring consensus. But when hunters are left out, there is something fundamentally wrong.

At the same time, legislatures are supposed to hold DNRs accountable for science-based management, which means biologists must have data to justify their proposals. “Things go haywire, however, when the legislature or governor make their own decisions with no scientific data to back them up,” says former New Hampshire deer biologist Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association. “This happens all the time, and it is entirely unjustifiable.”

In short, deer management should be a combination of science—guided by trained biologists and ensured by the legislature—and the will of the public, ironed out through a democratic process in which everyone has a vote and a voice. By all accounts, however, the influence of hardball politics and backroom deals is at an all-time high in deer management. “These days,” says Adams, “politics governs everything.”
The Doe Stops Here

In many states, the person with the most power to influence deer policy has typically never taken a wildlife management course, has perhaps never been hunting, and may even be openly hostile to hunters: the governor. He commonly appoints or approves the head of the wildlife agency or the board of commissioners, which oversees the agency chief. A governor who wants to take charge can usually do so.

In Iowa, hunters have been aggressively slashing doe populations for years at the request of the DNR, which had deemed the herd overpopulated. And unlike sportsmen in some other states, Iowans have done this without a fuss. But now, many hunters say there aren’t enough deer to make hunting worthwhile. They would like the DNR to issue fewer doe permits so they can start seeing more deer.

“As a group, we are rarely reluctant to shoot does,” says Sam Collora, 62, who owns the American Outdoors hunting shop in Mount Pleasant and has hunted the state since boyhood. “Lately, though, it’s become clear that we’ve done too good of a job. Right now we’re treating deer like vermin, and that’s a pretty pathetic view of the resource. So we’d like to see a change.” And the DNR wants to help. With deer populations in 80 percent of the state’s counties at or under goal, the DNR’s desire to reduce doe permits certainly appears reasonable.

And yet the doe-permit quotas have not been significantly reduced.

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