Gather a group of hunters who practice Quality Deer Management (QDM) and you’ll discover many similarities. All of us strive to harvest an appropriate number of antlerless deer while not harvesting button bucks. We try to let yearling bucks walk, hoping they will survive and be seen again at older ages. And we’ll talk about food plots until the cows come home.
Unfortunately, many QDM practitioners hunt on small properties. While these hunters are doing everything they can on their hunting property to improve their hunting success, the inability to manage deer harvest practices on a large land area is often the greatest limitation they face. If you find yourself in this situation, I strongly urge you to develop a QDM Cooperative.
QDM Cooperatives have been covered in past issues of QDMA’s Quality Whitetails magazine, but for those who aren’t QDMA members, a Cooperative is a collection of neighboring hunting clubs/landowners who voluntarily agree to practice some level of deer management on the collective properties. For more information on forming cooperatives, I suggest you read QDMA’s educational booklet Developing Successful QDM Cooperatives. It is an excellent publication that provides a step-by-step approach to forming Cooperatives.
As a wildlife biologist, I work with scores of hunting lease customers each year. I’ve been fortunate to manage large QDM Cooperatives. Clubs that lease these lands agree to collect deer-harvest data, deer-observation data, restrict buck harvest based on certain minimum antler criteria, and harvest an appropriate number of does. These Cooperatives have been very successful, and I want to highlight the practices that, in my experience, have resulted in successful Cooperatives.
Know your neighbors and build trust. The first step in developing a Cooperative is to know your neighbors. In a few cases, you may find that your neighbors have no interest whatsoever in QDM. This is good information to know. If you find that you are surrounded by clubs whose philosophy is “any size antler will do” and if your hunting property is relatively small, then you would be better off looking for QDM opportunities elsewhere.
However, much more frequently you will find that many neighboring clubs and landowners share your ideas and goals. Communicating frequently with neighbors and inviting them to your club for meetings or socials is a great way to develop a relationship with them and to begin establishing trust.
Once the Cooperative is up and running, maintain and enhance the relationship among the members. Schedule at least one meeting each year to review the previous year’s results, to discuss issues and opportunities, and to have fun. Include a potluck meal with the meeting — having a meal helps ensure everyone can make the meeting, and it livens up the occasion.
Nothing kills a Cooperative faster than a lack of trust, and a sure way to erode trust is to fudge on your harvest data or to try and cover up “mistake” deer — harvested deer that did not meet the Cooperative guidelines.
Everyone will make a mistake now and again; the best thing to do for the sake of the Cooperative is to be upfront about it and move on.
Involve a biologist. Just because your buddy two states over has been successful in his Cooperative does not mean you should be using the same guidelines for your Cooperative. Contact your local state wildlife agency biologist or accredited consulting biologist and get them involved. A biologist can help identify limiting factors on the Cooperative property, help the Cooperative set realistic goals, and develop the best operating guidelines based on your goals and local conditions.
Additional mention should be given to setting goals. Be realistic about the quality of bucks the Cooperative can produce. Talk to a biologist and determine the quality of bucks that have been harvested in the county in which you hunt in the past five to 10 years. Use this information as a guide when setting expectations for mature buck harvest quality.
Be willing to compromise. When forming the Cooperative guidelines, make sure every hunting group in the Cooperative is involved in the process. Adopt as guidelines only those practices that all Cooperative members are willing to enforce. Maybe the other members of the Cooperative are not as intensive as your club, but that does not mean you cannot manage more intensively on your hunting property.
Remember, the purpose of a Cooperative is to have adjoining clubs cooperate, and a great way to turn other Cooperative members away is by trying to dictate what you think needs to happen on their properties. Be willing to start small. After the Cooperative has had some success, you will notice the Cooperative members will become more intensive in their management efforts.
Collect Data. If you are going to manage deer, then you have to collect data. Without data, a biologist cannot provide you site-specific recommendations. Also, by collecting several years of data, you will be able to chart the Cooperative’s progress — nothing breeds enthusiasm more than seeing deer body weights go up and seeing the harvest of 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks increase.
One golden rule of data collection is to be accurate. Do not guess weights, and do not fudge antler measurements so that the animal is “legal.” Bad data often leads to poor deer management decisions. Take the few extra minutes to be conscientious in your data-collection efforts.
I would also recommend that each club in the Cooperative take photos. Not every hunter will appreciate a graph that shows increasing deer body weights or increased mature buck harvest. However, everyone can appreciate photos of harvested deer.
Infrared-triggered trail-camera photos can also be a helpful tool. At times you will find that the level of enthusiasm may be waning. Having a wall of photographs of harvested deer or trail-camera photos that show quality bucks that are still roaming the woods can help keep people motivated.
Educate, don’t criticize. In most cases, you will have one or two neighboring hunting clubs that do not want to be involved in the Cooperative. Often, these clubs do not understand the advantages of QDM. Do not write these clubs off. Instead, take every opportunity to educate and encourage. Show these clubs your harvest data; show them photos of the quality of deer you are harvesting. More often than not, you’ll make a QDM convert. Conversely, if you criticize their management style, you have sealed the deal. They’ll never come around to your way of thinking, plus they’ll likely move their deer stands closer to your boundary line.
Be Patient. How long does it take to produce a 3 1/2-year-old buck? That’s right — 3 1/2 years. Yet many clubs begin a QDM program and expect a big buck to be behind every tree the next year. When clubs do not see the results they had hoped for in year two, enthusiasm may start to wane.
In fact, I frequently refer to years two through four as the “growing pain” years. Clubs often increase their antlerless harvest, so they often are seeing fewer deer than when they started the program, but they have not yet seen noticeable improvement in mature-buck sightings and harvest. Be patient. Give the program at least five years before you make a decision to change. I’ve never known a Cooperative that did not show marked improvement in mature-buck harvest by the fifth year of management.
Keep it fun. It’s good to be serious about your management programs, but remember the really important things — like sharing quality hunting experiences with your family and friends and enjoying this pursuit, this passion we call hunting. We are on this earth for only a short time, so make the most of it.
Donnie Wood is a QDMA member and a wildlife biologist who works for Plum Creek Timber Co.