A couple years back, there was a bit of a stir when some knucklehead decided to start a virtual, online hunting program. From the comfort of their own living rooms, virtual "hunters" could not only view feeding stations but control, aim and fire a weapon at any real, live animals that happened to wander into view. Fortunately, the whole thing was squelched, but for a short time it provided a frightening glimpse of one possible future for hunting.
For better or worse, the future of bowhunting is very uncertain. About the only thing we can be sure of is that change will come, though we can make some educated guesses as to what those changes might be.
There is convincing evidence that the great whitetail boom we've experienced over the last couple decades may be over. According to the Quality Deer Management Association's 2011 Whitetail Report, antlered buck harvests (in 2009) were down 3 percent in the Midwest, 7 percent in the Northeast and 8 percent in the Southeast. Antlerless harvests were also down in all regions but the Southeast, and down 45 percent in the West.
At the 2012 Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting, several researchers presented some very sobering statistics on the impact coyotes are having on deer populations in Georgia, Alabama, North and South Carolina and Virginia. Fawn recruitment rates are way down, in a region of the country where winter is not a factor. Though less research has been done elsewhere, we know coyote populations are as strong or stronger in northern states, and we can presume their impact is even greater.
Several researchers suggested coyotes are here to stay, and hunters may have to get used to decreasing bag limits to compensate for the additional deer mortality associated with coyotes.
Deer need a place to live; and we need a place to hunt. Meanwhile, sprawl continues to eat away at both. Development and agri-business are gobbling up wildlife habitat, and one of the principle reasons cited for declining hunter numbers is lack of access to quality hunting land.
There can be a positive side to this, if you're a bowhunter. The first thing to go in developed areas is gun hunting. But whitetails are extremely adaptable, and can learn to live among humans. If development continues, eventually even bowhunters are pushed out. But if development ceases or slows, it sometimes creates increased opportunities. Urban or suburban hunting zones are one example. Ohio has Urban Deer Units in several of the larger metropolitan areas where bowhunters may take up to six antlerless deer that do not count towards the annual bag limits in regular zones, and hunting season runs into early February.
Controlled hunts are another example, often implemented on a more localized basis. The novelty of deer in the neighborhood fades fast when they start eating the shrubs, colliding with vehicles and transmitting Lyme disease. After non-lethal controls fail, communities ultimately relent to the only effective means of getting the job done — bowhunters.
The trade-off is you may have to get used to hunting under unconventional circumstances and with added restrictions. In some instances, bowhunters are required to hunt from elevated stands — sometimes specific stands — and are not allowed to field dress deer. They may even be required to bring their deer to check stations where biologists record specific data from every deer.
Quality Deer Management (QDM) proponents once proclaimed QDM as the future of deer management and deer hunting. That future is rapidly becoming the present. Seeing the positive results of proper deer-herd management — not the least of which is more older bucks — more landowners, hunt clubs and state wildlife agencies are jumping on the bandwagon.
One facet of QDM is antler restrictions (ARs), designed to protect younger age classes and allow more bucks to mature. According to the Quality Deer Management Association, 22 states implemented some form of ARs in 2011. Of those, eight had statewide restrictions.
Another more important aspect of QDM is balancing deer numbers with available habitat. The downside of all those deer we've been enjoying over the last couple decades is that many areas have or had too many deer. Where sprawl and predation aren't getting the job done, we may see liberal bag limits continue in the short term, followed by more conservative limits over the long run.
Development isn't the only thing swallowing up accessible hunting land. Increasingly, private land managers are realizing that in order to more effectively manage deer on the land they own or lease, they need to control not only the deer, but access to those deer. This can be a positive or a negative, depending on which side of the fence you're on.
Bowhunting will change over the next decade or two. Deer numbers may decline, though to what extent is unknown. Competition among various factions of the hunting community, and between hunters and four-legged predators, will increase. Quality hunting opportunities will become harder to come by.
The role of the bowhunter is changing from that of a mere consumer to land and wildlife manager. Those who don't change with the times may lose out. Those willing to adapt will benefit. That may mean joining or forming a hunt club to lease land, buying your own little whitetail haven or making yourself available to landowners and wildlife managers plagued with over-abundant deer.