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Why is the DFW still failing to manage our deer herds correctly?


The deadline to apply for special big game hunting permits was this past Thursday, and a lot of us are obviously already thinking of fall big game seasons, especially deer. After looking through the regulations and submitting my application on line, I was thinking about how utterly terrible our deer hunting was on most public lands in this state.

This is a familiar lament for those of us who’ve seen bigger bucks and better hunting out of state and what the potential can be here in California.

In most Southern California deer hunting zones (outside of those in the desert), the DFW says that about 15 in 100 hunters kills a legal buck. Since the DFW still uses some arcane system that includes unreported bucks the DFW calculates from some meat-locker checks in 1961 and biologists and game wardens sitting in truck cabs musing on how many bucks they recon don’t get reported, the actual harvest is probably more like seven or eight percent, or less. The solid data that they can’t fudge is that 60 to 80 percent of those reported dead deer are yearling bucks, and almost all the rest are two-year olds.

The only exceptions to this dismal harvest and age-class data and in the special Sierra zones where certain criteria are met: The deer live in national parks (where they can’t be hunted) until they migrate out of the high country onto winter range, and the DFW issues only a handful of tags so the hunters who are lucky enough to get drawn get to pick and choose from among hundreds of bucks if they spend a few days glassing.

For a few years in the early to mid-2000s I hunted a place in California where I would glass 25 or 30 different bucks before taking a nice, mature deer each year. I had a tag every year, and the quality of the bucks was getting better each season.

No, it wasn’t some secret spot, I was hunting private land managed for quality deer. Our hunter success rate was an honest 80 to 90 percent. Meanwhile, just on the other side of the fence on U.S. Forest Service property, the public hunting zone had a DFW “estimated” success rate 14 percent (again, probably actually around seven or eight percent).

There are two ways to improve the average age of the bucks in a herd. First, reduce the total number of bucks killed to tiny levels so more bucks of all age classes survive to the following year. This is the DFW way on special-opportunity hunts like those on late-season migrants (where nearly 5,000 hunters will apply for one of the 25 permits). Second, allow hunters to only harvest big, older age class deer. That was the program I was hunting under on the private ground a decade ago. The first year of the program, we did not shoot a “legal” buck under the new quality deer management requirements. By the third season, seven of eight of us on the lease had killed bucks that met the criteria.

The first reduces hunter opportunity, while the second dramatically reduces the harvest for the first couple of years of the program, not the number who participate. Then buck harvest starts to climb again as more of the young bucks survive to become mature deer. As that happens, the number of mature bucks increases. Nevada went to this method years ago. Most of the whitetail deer states in the South and Midwest use a version of this program.

Today in California we manage Southern California's public deer herds for the highest take possible. We issue basically an unlimited number of permits and encourage hunters to shoot the first legal buck he or she sees because it might be the only buck spotted the whole season.

It could and should be different, and least on some of our deer zones.

The problem is that the DFW thinks hunters are stupid and can’t tell the difference between a blocky mature buck and a sleek yearling. We used to have a lot of four-point-buck-or-better late season hunts in California. The DFW canned them all because -- apparently -- hunters were shooting smaller bucks and simply leaving them in the woods {I’m not buying this: show me the data and how it was collected). Besides -- as we all know today -- number of points isn’t the only criteria for determining mature, older age class bucks. A spindly little four-pointer could be a yearling deer (and one whose genetics you want to keep in the herd) and a big, heavy forked-horn might be a six-year-old buck. Simply counting points wasn’t the best way to age deer.

So rather than do something to fix these problems or perceptions, we returned to poor management of the resource. We either issue the maximum number of buck tags or we issue only a handful of tags in zones and hunts that could support far more hunting pressure. We have a few trophy zones no one ever hunts, or we have the rest of the state with deer population skewed to juveniles. We are sacrificing the diversity and quality of our deer herds because we are too lazy to implement a program that will work.

The DFW could manage our public hunting zones just like the private land I used to hunt was being managed -- and it could do it without reducing tag numbers. But it would require that the DFW conduct mandatory training classes for hunters in the new Quality Deer Management zones. This would assure hunters could learn to identify what is defined as a “legal” quality deer. It would also again mandate hunter check stations popping up every weekend and some week days in these zones (like we used to have all over the state during deer seasons, so the DFW could collect real data and show hunters non-compliance wouldn’t be tolerated).

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to harvest local bucks that have some maturity instead of finally settling for a little forked-horn buck because that is all we ever see?

Will the DFW ever try it? Do they even care? Do you care? Those are the questions that need to be answered. The question is not whether or not we can grow more and bigger bucks on public ground. The answer to that question has been proven on identical private ground all over the state. The difference is how you manage the herd and hunters. The DFW chooses to take the road of no resistance.

Please, can we have at least one Quality Deer Management zone in Southern California? Let’s at least try to do something right with deer management for a change.


[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 909-887-3444.]

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