Deer numbers are getting too high on these productive WMAs, and the LDWF wants your assistance to thin them out.
“Help Wanted” signs are sure to be scarce in the near future if economic forecasts prove true.
But while some may have to stuff cornbread in their buttermilk to make a meal, those who answer the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ call for help could have their cornbread and buttermilk with a heaping side of deer chili.
The LDWF hasn’t hung out “Help Wanted” signs at the gates of the state’s wildlife management areas just yet, but if the recent trickling decline in hunter participation at places like Red River and Three Rivers WMAs continues, they may have to in the near future.
“We need hunters to improve the harvest at our WMAs,” said Louisiana Deer Study Leader Scott Durham. “Right now, we need their help. Getting the proper harvest at these areas is very important to keep the deer populations at or below their carrying capacities, and the only way we’re going to get the proper harvest is to get help from more hunters.”
While Durham can point out to the recent economic downturn, hunters leasing their own properties, the proliferation of hunting clubs and declining hunter recruitment in general as possible factors in the declining hunter participation at Louisiana’s WMAs, he believes the primary contributing factor has more to do with perception than reality.
Durham suggested that the No. 1 reason fewer hunters are hunting the WMAs is that there is the perception that they are too crowded and unsafe. Much in the same frame of mind as the political philosophy that something repeated over and over eventually becomes the truth, hunters have a hard time realizing that their perceptions about hunting WMAs aren’t reality.
“WMAs like Red River and Three Rivers are so large that even where there is a large number of hunters, there is room to spread out,” Durham said. “In fact, we come nowhere close to the hunter-per-acre ratio experienced at many of the leases in the state. I know of many that have one hunter per 50 acres — that’s pretty common.
“When you consider that Red River and Three Rivers WMAs are around 69,000 acres combined, that would equal 1,380 hunters at that same ratio. I’m not saying that everybody can walk 100 yards off the road and be alone, but if you don’t mind working, you can find a good quality hunt with less pressure than that at many of the leases.”
Strangely enough, even through there were around 800 fewer hunters for Louisiana’s two-day managed hunts in 2007 than there were in 2004, the success rates went up. In other words, the hunters who are participating are killing more deer — for now. The longer Louisiana’s WMAs go with declining hunter numbers, the more troubling it’s going to get.
The dangers of going over the carrying capacity for a particular WMA are many, but the primary concern is stress on the habitat. Being keystone herbivores, too many whitetail deer can impact other species by putting too much stress on understory plants. Also, too many deer adversely affect the regeneration of forests by knocking out seedlings.
“We actively manage our forests for the future at Red Rivers and Three Rivers,” Durham said. “We have an active timber harvest and management plan. We do thinnings according to the species that are there, but it’s really important that we grow new trees when we cut old trees. Too many deer are going to push our regeneration down and delay the future forest.”
While the dangers to other animals and the forests is great, there are also some dangers to the deer. Reduced antler development with a higher percentage of spikes as opposed to deer with forked-horned antlers, lower fawning rates, lower productivity, lower body weights and lower fat levels are just the beginning of the adverse affects of too many deer on the whole herd.
Although Durham suggested it might not be the greatest illustration, he used the example of a pasture with a bunch of cows that were not getting enough grass to explain what happens when the number of animals is above the carrying capacity of a particular piece of habitat.
“Those cows are going to start showing their hip bones and ribs,” he said. “Deer are a little more elastic and flexible than cows, but you can get the picture of what happens where there are more animals than what a habitat can support.
“You can also see the same thing with fish in a pond with stunted fish. Once we have a deer herd at an acceptable level, it needs to be cropped off and thinned to maintain the population according to the habitat quality.”
How can more hunters help bring a deer herd back to or below acceptable levels? Simply put, more hunters killing more deer means less stress on the habitat. To get the nice, healthy understories that Durham and his peers want, it means fewer need to be browsing it.
This creates a situation in which the understory plants aren’t struggling to survive because they are being browsed three or four times a day. And the less stress the plants endure, the more fruit and flowers they produce, which also means the more nutritional benefit they provide for deer and other species that feed on the ground like turkey, quail and rabbit.
“The carrying capacity is different at different WMAs,” Durham said. “It’s more on a physiographical level rather than an individual level. Each WMA has a different typography and soil type, and even though we have a lot of experience with what different habitats can carry, we still rely heavily on browse surveys to monitor deer numbers.”
When Durham and his peers see the vegetation getting hit too hard, they know they need a higher harvest, and that’s where more hunters can come in as a tool to crop off the deer productivity and reproduction at the necessary levels.
In a perfect world, Durham would rely on lotteries to control the number of people that the LDWF is putting out there to deer hunt on the WMAs. However, with the amount of hunter participation he sees on Louisiana’s public lands in today’s imperfect world, lotteries just aren’t necessary.
“We want hunters to give public lands like Red River and Three Rivers a try,” Durham said. “Come on out and scout these places. Don’t just show up and drive a 4-wheeler off a trial and climb a tree. Come early and look around.
“We need your help, and we want to serve the public — that’s why we’re here. There may be a place for lotteries in the future if it would create a better and more managed hunt, but at this point, we need more hunters to get the harvest that we need on the WMAs.”
In fact, if you’re a member of a lease or a hunting club, and you’re feeling a little squeezed, you might want to try out some of Louisiana’s public hunting areas. As one hunting-club member recently said on the condition of anonymity, “If you want to kill a really big buck in Louisiana, hunt the public lands.”
His club rules require stands to have a minimum of 300 yards between them. At Louisiana’s WMAs, hunters may go 3,000 yards without seeing the first sign of another hunter.
The perception of crowded lands isn’t the reality. The reality is that the LDWF wants your help to increase their harvest. Are you willing to put in an honest