Deer hunters in my home state have spent the last couple of months in a bitter and highly divisional debate over antlered deer limits. Tennessee has had a statewide antlered bag limit (the state does not distinguish between sex of deer, rather antlered and antlerless to account for biological anomalies) of 3 deer since 1999. Antlerless (aka “Does)” bag limits are limited on a Unit by Unit basis with the majority of Middle and West Tennessee being Unit “L” with highly liberal bag limits of 3 “does” per day, every day for the entire ~100 day season. Much of the Unit L counties have deer numbers that range from 30-50+ deer per square mile. Some select counties (Unit “A’) are more limited than that, but as you move into Appalachia, deer numbers decline sharply, often to ~15 or less deer per square mile. This dramatic difference is largely due to difference of habitat. Appalachia consists of more continuous tracts of mature timber with significantly less agriculture than the rest of the state.
Our state game agency has maintained that there is no biological reason to reduce the statewide buck limits. It is worth noting that only about 3% of Tennessee deer hunters kill their bag limit of 3 antlered deer in one season. Heck, only about 50% of Tennessee deer hunters are even successful at killing a deer, any deer, during hunting season. With a deer herd of 800,000 to 1,00,000 and hunters killing between 200,000-260,00 deer annually and only 3% of hunters killing 3 antlered deer in a season, in the opinion of some biologists and many hunters, including myself, there is little to nothing to be gained by reducing the bag limits. However, a very vocal minority raised a successful campaign to reduce the bag limits two 2 antlered deer statewide. Seemingly, this bag limit reduction has little impact on the vast majority of Tennessee deer hunters including myself since I seldom have killed more than 1 antlered deer in a hunting season anyway. Living in a part of the state with an abundance of deer, I have the luxury of being highly selective. However, many hunters living in Appalachia do not have this luxury. The reason that I fought this bag limit reduction was because that I felt like in unfairly impacted the Unit B rifle hunter who may be looking to feed his or her family with a couple of deer in the freezer. Since these hunters are not allowed to kill antlerless deer during rifle season, the casual Appalachian “Blue Collar” hunter may very well have had his or her deer hunting opportunities reduced to two deer total at the influence of the deer hunting enthusiasts for whom hunting is a hobby.
My speculation is that average supporter of antlered bag limit reductions was a suburban based “hobbyist” hunter who maintains a small to medium size hunting lease (50-150 acres) in a rural area with an abundance of deer, but this “hobbyist” wishes to see more “big” deer. His line of thinking follows that his neighbors must be killing all of the small antlered deer, therefore few, if any grow to maturity. When faced with the statistic that only 3% of hunters are killing 3 bucks anyway, the hobbyist hunter is quick to speculate that a reduced bag limit will force other hunters to be more selective with the 2nd antlered deer they kill. This effect has yet to be seen, but, regardless, is hardly a biological speculation. If you wanted to make a case for class warfare here, it would be worth noting that Appalachia/Unit B is home to the largest concentration of rural poverty in Tennessee while the vocal minority championing bag limit reductions were largely middle class and suburban.
The state game agency recommended to the game commission that we maintain a bag limit of 3 antlered deer. The commission, who makes the final decisions, came back asking for a proposal of 2 antlered deer. The amount of hunter comments received during the comment period was cited as a reason. In the end, I speculate that a very hasty, unbiological, and politically motivated decision was made about game management. Similar situations have unfolded across the country. For example, the California ban on hunting Mountain Lions was based upon public vote rather than biological function and game management. Unrealistic expectations, hunting shows, the hunting industry at large, disregarded facts, selfishness, political motivations, and armchair biology are all forces at play here.
It is my assertion that there are an abundance private hunting clubs that cater to the trophy hunting hobbyists by maintaining their own unique deer management practices including bag limits that are less than the statewide limits, antler restrictions, age restrictions and other management practices. In other words, the hobbyist deer hunter has ample opportunity (and the luxury) to hunt highly managed lands if he or she desires. The type of hunter that this reduction negatively affects, very well may not have such luxuries. The forces at work here unfairly impacted the casual deer hunter, further propelling the pursuit of big game hunting as a leisure activity of the wealthy and semi wealthy and further undermining the the principles of the North American wildlife model. I did what I could do to fight it and I am disappointed in the outcome.