These truly are the good old days for serious whitetail hunters. Never before have we seen the quantity and quality of big bucks that now exist. New state records are almost an annual event, and the number of record-book entries has soared in recent years. Much of that can be attributed to an initiative called Quality Deer Management (QDM), though that isn't necessarily the prime objective.
David Fuhr, developer of the Hunter's Specialties Vita-Rack 26 mineral supplement, took this mature, 170-class buck in October 2009 while hunting on his Missouri farm, which is managed using QDM principles.
What QDM Is -- And Isn't
Despite an active educational program by the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), there's still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding QDM. Many folks believe QDM is just about growing bigger antlers. Indeed, protecting younger bucks is a major component. But the objective is to produce older bucks, and the fact they may sport bigger antlers just happens to be a very positive side effect. Just as important in the QDM paradigm is harvesting an adequate number of does and improving the overall health of every deer in the herd.
Pennsylvania provides a good example. By the mid-1990s, deer densities in many parts of the state had increased to the point where forest habitat was ravaged and crop damage was out of control. Even anti-hunting groups admitted the herd needed to be thinned. Accomplishing that would require radical -- and very unpopular -- changes to deer seasons. The Pennsylvania Game Commission had to convince hunters a significant herd reduction was not only necessary, but in their best, long-term interests.
The notion of significant herd reduction was very poorly received until the PGC revealed a silver lining. In addition to reducing deer numbers, they also wanted a better age structure in the herd. They felt the best way to accomplish that was by imposing mandatory antler-point restrictions, reducing the number of younger bucks in the kill. Hunters would have to get used to seeing, and killing, fewer deer. In time, however, they could expect to see more branch-antlered bucks, including some legitimate trophy specimens. And they have.
A Question Of Balance
QDM is really about balance. One goal, as exemplified by Pennsylvania's management plan, is balancing deer herds with existing habitat conditions. Most hunters are familiar with the concept of carrying capacity -- how many deer the habitat can support. Too many deer stress, then degrade, the habitat, ultimately lowering carrying capacity. The cycle continues until something -- usually the deer herd -- crashes. The solution is removing enough deer, which is most efficiently and effectively done by killing does.
Another solution is to increase carrying capacity by improving habitat quality. To most people, that means food plots. That's certainly one way; but it's not the only way. At its 2009 convention, the QDMA sponsored a think tank session on enhancing natural habitat for deer (and other wildlife), a topic we'll cover in a future column.
QDM also means balancing deer management with landowner and land user desires. Some landowners prefer quantity over quality. They want to see and kill a lot of deer and aren't necessarily concerned with how big they are. Some states even manage for that objective. It is possible to maintain unnaturally high buck populations and annual buck kills. But it requires that you kill a significant percentage of your bucks each year, most of which will be yearlings. It also stresses the habitat and the deer herd and results in highly skewed age and sex ratios (with fewer, younger bucks and plentiful, older does).
QDM seeks to balance the deer herd. By protecting young bucks, you get more older (trophy) bucks. You also get a more balanced age structure. Research has proven this results in less stress on yearling bucks and an earlier, more defined rut. Consequently, fewer fawns are born outside optimal times the following spring.
Another overriding goal of QDM is to produce a quality hunting experience. Let's face it -- most of us want to kill a big buck. QDM increases your odds of seeing and killing mature deer. Just knowing that can increase your sense of excitement and satisfaction, to say nothing of actually dropping a wall-hanger.
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If you own or lease land, try to recruit sportsmen from adjacent properties to form a cooperative that adheres to QDM principles.
In addition to quality deer and quality deer hunting, QDM produces quality deer hunters. Killing a big buck is a thrill, but knowing you played an active role in providing the proper nutrition and allowing that buck to reach the age when it could realize it's full genetic potential is even more rewarding. By being actively involved in the process, QDM participants make an important transition from hunter to hunter-manager.
I believe QDM is the future of deer management and deer hunting. As civilization continues encroaching on the whitetail's habitat (and vice versa), hunters (especially bowhunters) will increasingly be called upon to alleviate deer problems. And as society becomes more urbanized, hunting will come under greater scrutiny. State wildlife agencies will no longer be allowed to simply grow deer so hunters can kill them. In order to use recreational hunting as a management tool, biologists will have to demonstrate that hunting benefits the deer population as much as, if not more than, the hunters. QDM provides that blueprint.
For more information, visit the Quality Deer Management Association website at www.qdma.com.