We humans are forever trying to categorize and organize things, I suppose so we can better understand them. People love lists, especially those with relative rankings, and deer hunters are no exception. We pore through harvest data and record books to see where the superlatives lie.
Several years ago, I approached Brian Murphy, chief executive of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), and asked if they ever considered grading each state on its deer-management program. At the time, QDMA was still relatively small, and Murphy was brand new at its helm. He said they had considered the idea, but were afraid folks might take such a ranking the wrong way. This year, however, the group decided to go ahead and do it as part of its 2010 Whitetail Report but was quick to point out the “rating system is meant to commend states that are doing well, rather than point a finger at states ranking lower.” Still, the list is a lot of fun.
To compare the various deer-management programs, QDMA surveyed states for relevant data and ranked the information relative to QDM principles such as balancing the deer herd with the habitat and balancing the adult age structure and sex ratio. Their rating system used four variables:
1. Percentage of a state’s Wildlife Management Units at desired deer population levels;
2. Percentage of 2008 antlered buck harvest that was 1.5 years old;
3. Percentage of 2008 antlered buck harvest that was 3.5 years old or older;
4. And percentage of 2008 total harvest that was antlerless deer.
The first is an index of a state’s deer herd in relation to habitat. Is it in balance? The middle two are indices of the herd’s male age structure, as well as the amount of hunting pressure on yearling bucks. The last is an index of the sex ratio, as well as an additional indication of the herd relative to available habitat. Based on QDM principles, high numbers for variables 1, 3 and 4 and low numbers for variable 2 are desirable.
Because many environmental, social, and cultural variables impact deer management programs, and can vary widely across regions, QDMA compared states on a regional basis and awarded points for each variable — five points for first place, four points for second place, three points for third place, two points for fourth place and one point for fifth place. Then, they totaled the scores and ranked the top five states for each region.
- Rank State Points
1 Kansas 15
2 Missouri 10
3 Indiana 5.5
4 (tie) Nebraska 5
4 (tie) Wisconsin 5
In the Midwest, Kansas was not only tops but finished first in three of four categories (variables 1-3). Missouri was one of only two states nationwide among the top five for every category. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that neither Illinois nor Iowa made the top five, while Indiana ranked third. The Hoosier state just might be the Midwest’s biggest sleeper.
- Rank State Points
1 Vermont 9.5
2 Pennsylvania 7
3 Rhode Island 7
4 Virginia 7
5 Delaware 6.5
Overall, the Northeast may be the most surprising region. Historically, Vermont and Pennsylvania have been national poster children for how not to manage a deer herd. But after making dramatic changes in management philosophies over the past decade — targeted primarily at protecting younger bucks and harvesting more antlerless deer — they now occupy the top two spots in their region.
- Rank State Points
1 Mississippi 13
2 Arkansas 9.3
3 Georgia 8
4 South Carolina 7
5 Louisiana 6.3
Mississippi was first or second in three of four categories, and, for the second consecutive year, had the nation’s highest percentage of 3.5-year-old or older bucks in the harvest. Second place Arkansas was the only state except Missouri to place in the top five for every category.
What The Rankings Mean
This is all good information, but it needs to be kept in proper perspective. First and foremost, these rankings are not based on the relative quality of a state’s deer hunting, but on very specific aspects of its deer-management outcomes. Vermont and Pennsylvania are ranked first and second in the Northeast, but I’ll bet there are plenty of folks there who are willing to sacrifice a much higher percentage of yearling bucks for a moderately higher overall success rate.
A lot of folks are looking for trophy bucks, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. While the percentage of older bucks in the harvest is a good indication of where to look, state, regional and national record books paint a different picture of where the biggest bucks — and the best odds of killing one — occur. Iowa and Illinois are prime examples. Meanwhile, unmanaged lands in Canada’s prairie provinces (not included in the report) are among the most consistent producers of top-end trophies.
Results can also be somewhat misleading. Diminutive Rhode Island ranks third in the Northeast, yet most land in the Ocean State is privately owned and access for hunting is extremely limited. As a result, state biologists actually wield little control over the annual harvest. Mississippi, meanwhile, lacks mandatory deer registration. According to biologist William McKinley, its harvest data comes from DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) cooperators — folks who are actively managing private land under some type of QDM strategy. You would expect them to have high scores.
Despite those caveats, there remains much to be learned from this exercise. If nothing else, it provides a very clear indication where the future of deer management, and deer hunting, lies. More and more states are shifting their management priorities from quantity to quality, and usually at the majority request of the deer-hunting public.