Severe winters play key role in deer mortality

I read with interest the recent Mining Journal op-eds by Richard P. Smith and George Lindquist debating Upper Peninsula buck harvest regulations.

While I have a great deal of respect for both writers, I challenge some of their conclusions.

More importantly, I can’t understand why they’re wrangling over such trivial matters that have nothing to do with declining U.P. deer numbers.

In recent years, deer abundance here has plummeted (now approaching 1970s levels) due to severe, prolonged winters, poor quality deer wintering habitat and excessive winter related deer mortality, not because of faulty hunting regulations.

The Smith-Lindquist debate revolves around the question of shooting small-antlered yearling bucks on the combination buck license.

Smith contends that many yearling bucks passed up during deer season die anyway during severe winters. Lindquist argues that passing up yearling bucks improves the buck age structure – a major premise of Quality Deer Management. In my view, neither provide a truly accurate assessment.

During a six-year study, I found that fawns and aged does comprised about 60 percent of the overwinter deer loses due to malnutrition and predation.

Although about 21 percent of the bucks wintering in my study area were yearlings, I found only one yearling buck among 124 dead deer identified to sex and age. Interestingly, two of nine dead bucks were at least 10 years of age.

Likewise, Lindquist should recognize, under current hunting regulations, most yearling bucks saved from harvest are literally trained to the bait pile and shot the next year (when 2-years-old).

This is not Quality Deer Management, because the proportion of truly mature bucks in the population does not increase.

We are facing another whitetail-killer winter – now two in a row. Ironically, deer starvation during winter is merely the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

The real deer loss will come when thousands of stunted, weak newborn fawns die soon after birth, because their mothers were severely malnourished during late stages of pregnancy.

It’s my guess that around 60 to 70 percent (possibly even more) of the 2014 U.P. fawn crop will die soon after birth, just as occurred in 2013. This loss, coupled with two consecutive winters of heavy deer loss from starvation, will negatively impact three deer age classes and lead to several years of very poor deer hunting.

Considering the present dismal status of food and cover resources available to wintering whitetails, the U.P. deer herd will undoubtedly continue it’s “boom and bust” pattern; deer numbers will go up (somewhat) following mild winters only to crash after a severe one.

But in the future, the lows will lower and so will the highs. The amount of suitable deer wintering habitat in the U.P. is shrinking and so is the deer herd. Obviously, we can’t do much about the weather, but much can be done to improve the carrying capacity of winter range for deer – an absolute necessity if we hope to curb the downward trend in deer numbers.

Currently, there are no comprehensive forest management plans for whitetails wintering in this northern region. Granted, this is complicated stuff.

It’s an administrative nightmare, requiring long-term planning and a high degree of cooperation among state, federal and private agencies – a daunting, but not insurmountable, task.

There are those within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources who understand the needs of wintering whitetails and know how to fix the associated problems deer in this northern climate now face.

Unfortunately, until important people in high places give this subject higher priority, don’t expect a sudden improvement in the U.P. deer hunting experience.

Meanwhile, remember the early 1970s, when less that 15 percent of the firearm hunters in the U.P. took home a buck. That’s what we can look forward to. In fact, buck hunting success in a few DMUs has already dipped that low.

Some of us have been singing this same sad song for decades, to no avail. I probably shouldn’t say it, but “I told you so” more than 40 years ago.

Editor’s note: John Ozoga is a retired Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who lives in Munising. He worked at the DNR’s Cusino Research Station in Shingleton for more than 30 years, studying whitetail deer in a 1-square-mile enclosure. He has been extensively published in scientific journals and outdoor magazines and wrote a four-book series entitled, “Seasons of the Whitetail” that offers an in-depth look at the life history of whitetail deer in each season of the year.