Bigger deer harvests aren’t just about math. It’s about changing tradition.

Traditional white-tailed deer management generally involves the following:

  • Every license buyer can harvest an antlered deer
  • The antlerless deer harvest is regulated by some combination of:
    • the number of licenses issued
    • the number of days of hunting

This approach works fine in Pennsylvania, even today, where we have 660,000 deer hunters (14.8 hunters per sq. mile).  But in Virginia where the number of deer hunters is only 185,000 (4.9 hunters per sq. mile) different strategies were needed – especially in areas like northern Virginia that are highly urbanized where there are 1,724 people per square mile.

Over a 20-year period, beginning in 1991, Virginia implemented a series of changes to increase the antlerless harvest. You’ll have to read our book chapter to see all the changes, but I’ll give you a taste of what they accomplished.

In 1991, hunters could harvest no more than 3 antlered deer per year. In addition, hunters could get 1 bonus deer permit that allowed them to harvest 1 either sex and 1 antlerless only deer. In 1998, the bonus deer permits were antlerless only and unlimited. Even then, they were only harvesting 1.2 antlerless deer for every antlered deer harvested.

Between 1998 and 2008 Virginia created more and longer antlerless deer seasons and doubled the number of antlerless licenses in the basic deer license from 2 to 4.

The big change came in 2008 when they required that hunters harvest an antlerless deer before they could harvest a second antlered deer. With this earn-a-second-buck regulation and unlimited antlerless licenses, by 2013 Virginia was harvesting 2.4 antlerless deer for every antlered deer. This more than doubled the antlerless harvest compared to 1991.

Deer managers know that earn-a-buck regulations are hated by hunters – such a regulation was poorly received in Wisconsin and eliminated. Why? It’s explained in this video [hint: does walk out into fields to feed first]

However, in Virginia it’s an earn-a-second-buck. That means if a hunter harvests an antlerless deer first the next 2 deer can be antlered – or the first deer can be antlered.

Virginia had the same regulations since 2014 and has maintained about 2 antlerless deer per antlered deer harvested. On public lands in Fairfax County, they accomplished removal of 30 deer/sq. mile on 30 square miles. These regulations are a far cry from the traditional approach to deer management. Unfortunately, with declining number of hunters even an 8-month-long deer season and unlimited antlerless harvest – the longest hunting season and most liberal bag limit in North America – may not be enough.

Should we rethink the North American Model of Wildlife Management? Should we commercialize deer meat and other by-products? Deer managers can come up with all sorts of ideas, but it is society’s role to decide what alternatives are acceptable for managing deer.

Like that Magic 8-Ball, I “cannot predict now” what might happen. Maybe “ask again later.”

-Duane Diefenbach

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