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Deer: Where are we going?

11/14/2007

Editor's note: This is the kickoff to ESPNOutdoors.com's coverage of the 2007-08 deer season. Check back daily for deer-related articles, blogs and more from across the country over the next several months.

As executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association, Brian Murphy is frequently asked to describe the state of the nation's whitetail deer hunting experience.

It's not something he can wrap up in a few words. The issues are complex. They include changing societal beliefs, less access to available hunting land, financial strains on state wildlife agencies, generational differences in management ideals, time constraints, recruitment of younger hunters, women and minorities — and the list goes on.

If it sounds like doom and gloom, Murphy is reassuring in his assessment that it is not; it's more of a puzzle with different pieces which don't fit neatly together to create a perfect result.

"Because I have stayed immersed in deer issues the last 20 years and because I've (been) blessed to have a career in deer jobs, nothing was earth-shattering," Murphy said of his recent research for a speech on the topic. "But it was sobering — and yet encouraging."

QDMA was founded in 1988 and has more than 45,000 members in all 50 states and several foreign countries. That membership includes more than 800 management professionals, from university researchers to private consultants. QDMA has partnerships with numerous state wildlife agencies, timber companies, hunting organizations and outdoors industry manufacturers.

The QDMA often is mistaken as a "trophy management" group seeking only to help hunters land wall-hanger bucks. That flies in the face of the Joe Lunchbucket, a hunter not concerned with antler size, but who only wants an enjoyable hunting experience.

Yet QDMA is there for both the trophy-minded and regular Joes: They provide management help for the guy with a small tract who wants healthier and more numerous deer, or the larger landowner or club seeking fewer numbers of deer but with an older age structure and, for their ideals, large-racked bucks.

Therein lies one of the differences Murphy often sees across the nation, although primarily in the eastern half of the United States more emphasis is placed on whitetails and their habitat. Those whitetail populations have skyrocketed in the last 40 years, and with the increasing numbers are hunters who have evolved from the "don't shoot does" and "a buck's a buck" philosophies of the early days to more emphasis on "let the young bucks walk" idea and habitat management to grow more mature, healthier deer.

Hunters are more aware of what's going on around them and "I think we're seeing a division occur among hunters … with managers versus non-managers," Murphy said. "I'm not saying that's good, but it is a division — and it is getting wider.

"There's an increasing percentage of deer hunters involved in management, whether they call it quality management or something else. They're involved in managing habitat … and the habitat is benefiting from it. They're also becoming invested in the land. A guy may buy 300 acres to shoot a bigger buck, but a few years into it he's putting up bluebird boxes and doing other things, and the killing becomes secondary. The stewardship aspects take priority."

Murphy noted that in Wisconsin, for example, he's seeing more cooperation among landowners with tracts ranging from 7-10 acres to 200 or more. They may be neighbors with different ideas about hunting, but once they begin talking, sharing ideas and sharing equipment, "they start to see a better picture of what they can do together. There's a lot of good out there, and it's changing."

Robert Pitman, owner of White Oak Plantation in Tuskegee, Ala., grew up hunting in the palmetto swamps of central Florida. His family and friends ran dogs, hunted hard and shot "bucks with cigarette butts for antlers" if it ran in front of the hounds. When state officials started offering doe tags or special seasons, "a lot of our tags went unfilled because it was a mortal sin to kill a doe."

Those are among the generational changes hunters are going through. As little as 30 years ago, even with doe seasons offered, hunters were reluctant to kill one. The thought was a doe produced bucks, and killing a doe simply was horrid. The stigma of not being a "true hunter" wasn't something anyone wanted affixed to their name.

That has changed with the population boom and emphasis on population management, along with allowing younger bucks to gain some age. Today's generation of 20-something hunters (and even younger), most likely cut their teeth on a doe or two before taking aim at a buck. Does became "freezer meat" while the education — some mandated by state regulation, some merely by peer pressure — helped further the management ideals.

"Dramatically, thanks to outdoor writers … people keep hearing enough about does being good to eat and reducing their numbers to help the population," Pitman said, noting that hunters at White Oak Plantation are allowed to kill two does a day, as per Alabama regulations, and one regulation buck during their hunt at the facility.

But Pitman said the hunting experience comes primarily from mentors, from whom he's seen the good and bad during 23 years at White Oak, and from decades before through his own experiences.

"It's not educated-driven, but family-driven," he said. "If dad comes in saying your first deer has to be a buck, the kid's going to be screwed up in the head. If someone comes in telling them they need to take a deer and be proud of it, and to enjoy the experience, then that kid is growing up the right way."

Solutions aren't easy

Murphy grew up running trap lines and venturing outdoors, learning through trial and error about wildlife and hunting. The product of a single-parent family, he's heard the recitations about kids not getting involved for myriad reasons yet eschews them.

Single mothers, he said, often get kids involved in the outdoors because they feel a need to encourage their son or daughter to get involved with something. But families struggle to find time on weekends to do things together because of sports or home activities. Despite a decline of rural population and land to urban sprawl, the interest still is there from kids who want to try their skills with a rifle, bow or fishing rod.

"We're seeing a lot of broad societal changes," he said. "There has been zero erosion in number of kids interested … the support structure is breaking down in the rural areas and almost is non-existent in the urban areas. Those are the barriers — and none of them are easy to overcome.

"More parents are working, and when the weekend rolls around, they're doing housework, have less time to recreate, less time to recreate as a family … and unless the female wants to hunt or participate in the activity, they're less likely to do that. That's one reason women are entering the hunting ranks. The number one reason by a longshot is the familial aspect: That's the main motivating factor."

Yet the recruitment, moving interested young hunters into mature hunters, is declining, not because of the cost or access, Murphy said, but instead for other reasons tougher to reign in.

"Once someone is into hunting, the biggest barriers are work, family, age, health and then cost-access," he said. "About 80 percent of the reasons cited are they're older, they're too busy, they're tired … things we as hunting organizations can't fix."

Murphy offers three suggestions for helping stem that retention loss:

    •  Provide a solid network of mentors, "and I say mentors specifically, because almost all the conservation organizations have youth programs. Most of those are one-day or weekend events … we shoot BB guns, feed them a hot dog, fish a little bit and then pat ourselves on the back because we exposed them to the outdoors. You did, but it's a 'solicit and abandon' approach. You set up the framework and then have no support. We need to set up a mentor program eight steps over the course of a year to build skills and support to enter the hunting community, a true mentor approach that will be vital."

    •  "We need to market hunting better — and that scares a lot of biologists … most agencies don't understand the value of the marketing aspects of hunting. Look at the extreme sports and how they market to kids. It's an environment of capturing the attention of youth — and we've done a poor job of marketing the fun and challenge of hunting." Murphy cited Colorado's approach with $1 on its license fees dedicated to marketing. "Kids must have a burning passion, and then a framework of support."

    •  The third aspect is to secure and provide enough land for hunting and outdoors pursuits, along with flexible hunting seasons, so young hunters and mentors can get into the field. With state agencies under financial constraints, this falls upon private donors, large organizations and partnerships to secure money and to buy or lease land.

Murphy has seen numerous changes over the last 20 years, from the grassroots levels to state agencies changing philosophies, either from the prodding of their constituents or by their own realization. He sees young hunters with the interest and desire who need a helping hand from those who have gone before them.

It will be tough, he said, but the goals are attainable.

"I'm always a glass-half-full guy," Murphy said. "The world's not coming to an end, but we have challenges ahead of us, no doubt."

Alan Clemons has been Outdoors Editor of The Huntsville Times in Huntsville, Ala., since 1994 and is a freelance writer and photographer. A lifelong resident of Alabama, he enjoys hunting, fishing and generally knocking around outdoors looking for bugs, showing his children new things and seeing whatever's out there.