Deer Hunting’s Future is Tough to Predict

Quality Deer Management – Has it helped or hurt our deer populations? These facts show the truth.

While browsing through some old files the other day, I came across a newspaper column I wrote after Wisconsin’s 1997 deer seasons.

The column’s dateline was “Ithaca,” which is in southwestern Wisconsin, and I was reflecting on the previous year’s “earn-a-buck” system. This new regulation required all deer hunters – whether they used bows, rifles or muzzleloaders – to register an antlerless deer before they were allowed to shoot a buck in 1996.

For many hunters, that 1996 deer season provided their first look at the amazing growth potential of white-tailed bucks in farm country, provided they aren’t shot at age 18 months.

As usual, I hunted my uncle’s farm in Richland County several days in 1997, and noticed that the 1996 earn-a-buck regulations spared many bucks, allowing them to reach ages 2-1/2 and 3-1/2. As a result, those bucks grew impressive antlers.

hunter with deer on cart

The percentage of 3.5-year-old and older bucks in the harvest is at record highs across whitetail country.

I didn’t think it was coincidence that I saw the biggest buck in my now 30-plus years of hunting my late uncle’s 200 acres during the 1997 season. I also don’t think it’s coincidence that the 1997 season was the first time we saw mature bucks killed not only on my uncle’s farm, but also the neighbors’ adjoining properties to the north and south.

Hunters who participate in quality deer management efforts – passing up yearling bucks while shooting more female deer – regularly see impressive results year after year. As they say, you don’t have to hunt Wisconsin’s Buffalo County to see mature bucks with broad foreheads, blocky builds and massive antlers. Nearly every farming county in Wisconsin – generally the state’s southern two-thirds – also produce quality whitetails if yearling bucks are spared.

hunter dragging deer out

Bucks like this are more common today because yearling buck harvest rates are at a record-low 33 percent in whitetail country. A good sign that quality deer management is working well.

Even so, 20 years later, I still hesitate to stand on the stump and try to convert the hunting masses to the quality deer management movement. Why? Because this herd-management strategy seems to keep evolving on its own. I’m not sure it needs people like me acting as if we’re the messiahs of enlightened deer management.

After all, as the Quality Deer Management Association noted in its 2016 annual report, yearling buck harvest rates are at a record overall low in whitetail country, 33 percent; and the percentage of 3.5-year-old and older bucks in the harvest is at a record high. For the first time, every state that collects age data reported that most of their buck harvest was at least 2.5 years old. And in 2014 hunters shot more 3.5-year-old and older bucks than yearling bucks for the first time in recorded history.

Attitudes change at each person’s chosen speed. They won’t be turned by force-feeding. Proponents can’t act as if they’ve been blessed by a vision, and then treat those who disagree as pathetic sponges who simply “need educating.”

But maybe all we’re talking about is a change in perspective. Wisconsin’s deer herd changed more rapidly from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s than the beliefs and attitudes of the state’s then-650,000 gun-hunters who pursue them for nine short days in November. Anyone who was 40 or older in 1997 remembered when the statewide gun kill seldom surpassed 100,000. We almost universally shot the first deer with antlers because it was likely the only legal deer we would see.

Well, in most regions in the 1990s, there was no need to be so quick to the trigger, although our time in the woods remained brief – perhaps more brief than ever. Even so, Wisconsin hunters combine to kill more than 300,000 deer routinely each fall, and we’ll likely do so again this fall despite fewer hunters and increasingly wider prevalence of chronic wasting disease – which the state discovered in 2002.

Some people I respect still cringe at talk of quality deer management, and worry it will make deer hunting “a rich man’s activity.” When you see how land values can soar in some areas, it’s hard to dismiss their concerns. However, most of agricultural Wisconsin has been privately owned the past 175 years, so access has long been reserved for the landowners’ friends and family. Further, land prices will likely retreat and stabilize as more regions grow big deer, and long-time deer meccas don’t draw disproportionate attention. And if that doesn’t cause lower land prices, perhaps CWD will.

two hunters dragging deer out

Every state that collects age data on whitetails reported that most of their buck harvest was at least 2.5 years old in 2014.

In 1997 I wrote: “I’m confident quality deer management will become rural Wisconsin’s standard practice before long. After all, its virtues are easily explained and understood, and its results aren’t long in coming. A Wisconsin yearling buck passed in 1997 can reach wall-mounting size for some people by 1998, and record-book proportions by 1999 and 2000.”

I also noted the fun factor of big deer: “When big bucks roam a region, more people talk excitedly about deer. They take more photos, shoot more videotape, and share and compare more notes when visiting their neighbors.”

I closed by writing: “Like it or not, quality deer management is an unstoppable force. Maybe it’s not spreading as fast as its proponents would like, but it will eventually dominate as high deer numbers slowly change opportunistic attitudes.”

Well, I no longer know if QDM remains an unstoppable force. If CWD remains on its current course in Wisconsin, an increasing number of bucks will die of the disease before they get a chance to grow their 3.5- and 4.5-year-old racks. Some parts of southern Wisconsin report 40 percent of adult bucks now carry CWD. Most die within two years once they contract it.

What lies ahead? I no longer make such predictions. I only long for the days when our chief concern was getting more hunters to consider the benefits of a QDM program. Things sure were simpler just 20 years ago.

Patrick Durkin

Patrick Durkin

President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
Patrick Durkin


  1. Illinois Guy says:

    I bought ground in Pike County Illinois 26 years ago. I watched neighbors lease ground out and the lease guys by the end of their week shot anything. The last groups through were lucky to shoot a spike. Within 2 years there were no bucks over 120″. QDM might have been helpful but unless you take the$$$$$$$$ out of the equation ,it is the dream of 500 acre guys. I bought because I saw the lease thing coming. I enjoy the habitat work and the family hunting. I enjoy eating venison. So those things are important to me.Big racks ,not so much.Good luck to Wisconsin. Don’t let it get like Illinois .

    • David Abbott says:

      Can’t disagree with u more Illionois Guy. I hunt a small track of ground in the heart of Missouri where hunting pressure is unreal high and our neighbors routinely shoot the first buck they see and we are seeing the biggest crop of mature bucks every year. The more deer under 3.5 we pass in a season we see amazing return the next year. It means eating some tags occasionally but if u like venison, does taste better than bucks. And I have successfully harvested a buck over 130″ the last 3 years (also over 4 years of age). If u limit unnecessary pressure on your farm and show patience u will see the return. Do we loose deer 2.5 and 3.5 years of age every year to our neighbors? Most definitely! Our neighbors shot 11 bucks last year but we still have 8 deer over 4 years old for the hit list this year so far. Thats with EHD and CWD claiming some lives. Shoot more does and eat some tags if u want to see better deer walk your property. That being said I respect any hunters beliefs on hunting. Everyone doesnt have to see hunting in the same light. Its about the size of the experience not the size of the deer all the time.
      Good luck

  2. deer or pig says:

    Wisconsin sportsman most be the most loving and patient and neighborly folks in the world. They have acquired a fatal deer disease that is affecting more bucks than does in the wild. Either way some estimates put the percentage of Wisconsin’s wild deer with CWD has high as 9 percent. The acquisition of disease was brought on by mismanagement and crony capitalism and often outright criminal behavior. Historically Wisconsin has had some of the shortest seasons yet lots of public lands and now the author lamenting the uncertainty of the deer hunting heritage of Wisconsin feels maligned for seeking to do what sportsman have done for more than 100 years: Attempt to find more value and enjoyment in the hunting experience. Yes Pat , the world is upside down. And the taxpayer and deer hunter of Wisconsin has been dealt a “dirty hand” and indeed the future is uncertain. But one thing is for sure: if the deer pen operators continue to take from the taxpayer (get bailed out) and get rewarded for propagating disease as well as subjecting a wild animal (a public trust resource) to the same fate as livestock, then Wisconsin’s hunting heritage is over. QDMA or not to QDMA? a mute question given the sell out of public trust resources to “farm” and market principles and the continued ignorance of what is really going on in Madison.
    Recently Arkansas and Texas have joined the ranks of the upside down world. CWD is a real threat and no individual or corporate interest should be allowed to “profit” from captivity of public trust resources. Good luck neighbor, but can you keep the CWD in your state. I think my QDMA plans will work better without the added fatal diseases.


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