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NOT SO SHARP?

In 1994, Dr. Harry Jacobson and I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to present a plenary paper to the 3rd International Congress on the Biology of Deer.

Our paper, "The Whitetailed Deer: The Most Managed and Mismanaged species," shocked many of our fellow professionals. We noted that whitetail populations were basically out of control, resulting in habitat deterioration and significant impacts on the species' biology. We also predicted increases in diseases as a consequence. Our final recommendation was:

"We propose that sport hunting is the most efficient and viable means of controlling deer populations; however, management should control population sex and age ratios as well as numbers. Significant increases in antlerless harvest (to >50 percent of total) is needed in most states. Reduced buck harvest is required to obtain mature age class bucks and allow deer populations to function as they had evolved prior to man's exploitation."

Twenty-four years later, whitetail populations have declined by an estimated 18.8 percent, and diseases such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) and chronic wasting disease (CWD) now impact management strategies in almost every U.S. state in which whitetails reside. This has led to a new awakening among professional biologists and government agencies in regard to managing the most popular game animal in North America.

One of the many attempts to control deer populations and disease has been utilization of professional "sharpshooters" to reduce populations and "control" disease. However, does sharpshooting really serve the purposes of deer management?

The word "sharpshooter" conjures up visions of highly skilled individuals who target specific individuals for removal, whether in warfare or game management. Yet there is considerable confusion about sharpshooting, starting with the origin of the name itself.

The most commonly held belief is the word was derived from the buffalo hunters, who commonly used the Sharps rifle to kill large numbers of bison. In reality, this explanation for the original use of the name is incorrect. An excellent discussion on the original use was presented by World Wide Words (worldwidewordsorg). They point out the original use of the term dates back to the Napoleonic Wars. The term may be British.

The Sharps rifle came to market in 1850, but the term "sharp shooter" was in use in Britain at least as early as 1801. The 95th Rifle Regiment was characterized by experts with a specialization in sharpshooting. Yet the term may be even older, dating back to 1781 and the use by Germans of the term "Scharfschutze" (sniper). Whatever the source, the term clearly relates to someone who's extremely proficient with a rifle.

When deer biologists finally admitted that some populations were out of control, it was initially blamed on hunters' unwillingness to harvest does. However, it was biologists who, in an effort to restore whitetails, had long discouraged shooting of females. Emphasis was on antlered harvest, rather than managing the population. My grandfather had no reservations about shooting a doe! Meat was meat, and a buck only represented more of it.

By the 1950s, however, we'd created a whole generation of hunters who spurned the idea of killing does. Deer populations were increasing, and so was the annual harvest. Each year game agencies published press releases, bragging on another "record harvest." We professionals can't lay all the blame for out-of-control herds at the feet of hunters.

By the turn of the 21st century, two new challenges had emerged: bovine tuberculosis (BTb) and chronic wasting disease (CWD). As both were considered diseases influenced by the density of animals, the logical approach to "eradication" of the problem would be reduction in deer numbers. One of the ways to do this was to use sharpshooting. But how effective is this approach?

My first experience with the concept was with a private deer herd that contracted BTb in the 1990s near Millersburg, Michigan. The property was about 2,000 acres and high-fenced. We later learned by DNA analysis that the captive deer had contracted the disease from interactions with free-ranging deer, possibly through the fence. We dutifully reported the presence of a positive animal to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of Agriculture. Although BTb had been found in the mid-'70s in the vicinity, little thought about BTb infecting deer had been given. As it was a captive whitetail herd, the logical approach would be total depopulation.

We met in Reno, Nevada, as a convenient meeting place, since the annual Safari Club International was meeting there. Representatives from the two agencies and the Wildlife Services Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the property owner and myself attended the meeting. We all agreed that the population had to be eliminated, but it was the manner that created the greatest discord.

I asked how they proposed to do it, and one official smiled and said, "Our sharpshooters will easily handle it!"

I responded that while the guys were great shots, these were still wild, alert animals living in a densely forested habitat. The general thought was that the herd could be killed off in about six months. To that I laughed!

We ended with an agreement that Wildlife Services had six months to do the job, after which we'd handle it in a different way.

After the allotted time, sharpshooters had removed a mere handful of the resident herd. The sharpshooters, being government employees, had to travel each week from their headquarters to the ranch, then back again at week's end.

In addition, the cull turned out to be much harder than the crew had thought. Deer that could be shot from the roads were culled, but most avoided death. We then stepped in and used more aggressive means and completed the job. So you can see why I have a significant bias against the use of sharpshooting to control deer herds.

When CWD showed up in 2002 near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, it created a panic among deer biologists, agencies and academics. The "eradication plan" called for employing sharpshooters, in addition to a confusing array of seasons and bag limits for recreational hunters to follow. The plan was to depopulate deer from a 287-square-mile area.

During the 2004-5 deer season, recreational hunters removed 27,032 deer from the zone; sharpshooters killed 1,383 and trapped 102. The cost for sharpshooting averaged $478 per deer. I estimated conservatively that it cost almost $1 million to remove 1,485 deer.

In '06 a Wisconsin legislative audit concluded the effort had been "ineffective" and that it should be reevaluated. (It's interesting to note that by 2012, hunters had removed some 172,000 deer from the area, considerably more than the original estimated population!)

In my review of all available information on sharpshooting whitetails, the only positive results I can find concern small populations in urban areas, parks and airport properties. To find a case in which sharpshooting might have been successful in controlling a disease, we must go back to 1924-25, where foot-and-mouth (FAM)

disease was found in Western cattle herds that had mule deer living among them. To help control the disease, the decision was made to eradicate the mule deer.

An article in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases by Weaver et al. (2013) wrote: "More than 22,000 mule deer were culled in an effort to prevent the spread of possible FMD. About 10 percent of the culled deer exhibited lesions that were believed to be FMD; however, no laboratory testing was conducted (Keane, 1927). Retrospectively, it is now recognized that the lesions found in deer may have been due to infection with epizootic hemorrhagic disease."

The bottom line is that our recommendation to the 3rd International Congress on the Biology of Deer that sport hunting is the best way to control deer populations seems to have held true. I assert that true management--population control, habitat management and education--is the best way to manage deer herds, even when CWD is present.

BY DR. JAMES C. KROLL
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Title Annotation:DR. DEER
Author:Kroll, James C.
Publication:North American Whitetail
Date:Jun 1, 2018
Words:1320
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