One of the best things about being a wildlife-management consultant is the constant feedback I receive from hunters across the whitetail’s range.
I’m afforded the advantage of knowing almost instantly how deer herds are responding to state regulations and management efforts. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about hunters over the last 20-plus years, it’s that they don’t like being told how they should hunt and manage deer. If you want to change how hunters make management decisions (through trigger-finger management) you must EDUCATE them first and NEVER force-feed them regulations, or they will regurgitate it immediately. Successful state wildlife agencies recognize this.
As a nonprofit education and outreach organization dedicated to whitetail deer management, the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) has arguably educated more hunters than any other organization. Each year since 2009, the QDMA has produced an all-inclusive Whitetail Report on the state of whitetail hunting and management in the lower 48 states and six of the eight Canadian provinces. I’ve always been fascinated by the information and, more importantly, the trends over time. Since state agencies hadn’t crunched 2019-20 hunting season data at the time of publishing, this year’s report included data from the 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 hunting seasons.
I was ecstatic when I read the first line penned by QDMA’s Director of Conservation, Kip Adams. Adams reminds us that “white-tailed deer are the most important game species in North America.” This statement is absolutely spot-on and statistically accurate. Since whitetails are the most commonly pursued game animal, whitetail hunters contribute the largest piece of the pie (think $$$) to wildlife conservation and law enforcement, as well as an almost incomprehensible amount of positive economic impact to so many communities for things such as gasoline, supplies, meals and lodging. This is an important fact that every hunter — and non-hunter — should be aware of.
Whether it takes a higher deer density or higher quality deer herds to trip your trigger, there is something for everyone in the 2020 Whitetail Report. I’ll address some of the major, record-breaking trends here, and you can download the full report for free on QDMA's website.
Harvest by Weapon
As bowhunters, we’ve always known we are the minority when it comes to weapon choice. More whitetails are harvested with a firearm (66 percent) than any other weapon. Archery equipment (including crossbows) accounts for 23 percent of the overall deer harvest, with muzzleloaders coming in at 10 percent.
Interestingly, the number of deer taken with crossbows now exceeds the number taken with vertical bows in 44 percent of the states where such data is available. This is a testament to the growing popularity of crossbows and, perhaps, the increasingly important role they play in deer management.
Buck Age Structure
As a bowhunter who enjoys managing for quality deer herds and increased observations of mature bucks, age structure of bucks in the harvest is of primary interest to me. More specifically, what does the trend look like?
Antler size typically correlates to a buck’s age — the older the buck, the greater the odds of his carrying magazine-cover-worthy headgear. On average, a 3 ½-year-old buck totes antlers that express roughly 75 percent of his potential at maturity. Savvy deer managers track this trend and employ herd- and habitat-management actions that seek to maximize the percentage of 3 ½-year-old and older bucks in the harvest. If this number trends upward, management actions are spot-on. In 2018, the national average for the percentage of antlered bucks harvested in the 3 ½-year-old and older category hit an all-time high of 37 percent — a sure sign of great deer hunting to come.
The other metric that excites me is the declining percentage of yearling bucks (1 ½ years old) in the overall buck harvest. In 2018, the percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest hit an all-time low of 30 percent. In comparison, the national average was 62 percent 29 years ago, and my home state of Pennsylvania once reported 70-80 percent of the harvest as being represented by yearling bucks! Simply put, quality deer management does not exist under that type of yearling buck pressure.
Arkansas took top honors this year with only nine percent of its overall buck harvest coming from yearling bucks, while Wisconsin came in last with 53 percent. Wisconsin also holds the dubious distinction of being the only state over 50 percent.
Michigan, South Carolina and Pennsylvania had the most antlered bucks harvested per square mile at 3.7, 3.6 and 3.3, respectively. That’s a lot!
Looking at states with the greatest increase in antlered buck harvest when comparing the 2018 hunting season to the five-year average, Texas leads with a 37-percent increase. Close behind is Nebraska with a 36-percent increase, while New Jersey rounds out the top three with a 24-percent increase. It seems quantity is up in these states, but a studious data cruncher should isolate his state of interest and identify quality data as well.
It’s important for whitetail hunters to understand that long-term trends are more valuable than observations from only a year or two. Be sure to grab your copy of the 2020 Whitetail Report, absorb everything involving the state(s) you hunt and be prepared to discuss the info at hunting camp this fall. Here’s to another year in the books, and cheers to a safe and successful 2020-21 hunting season. Based on the information in this year’s Whitetail Report, this fall really will be the “good, old days” for bowhunters around the whitetail world. I hope you come to full draw on a wide, tall-tined buck in 2020!