Most people think of wildlife management agencies as serving the ecosystem, interfering minimally and mainly to preserve wildlife. These agencies do have programs to protect endangered species and to protect habitat in general. But instead of managing wildlife solely for the optimal health of the ecosystem, state wildlife management agencies also manage wildlife for recreation. The agencies have a financial incentive to do so.
Deer as a Resource
To these agencies, deer are a resource, not sentient beings with their own inherent rights. The resource must be conserved, or used wisely, so that there will be plenty of deer for future generations of hunters. As a result, deer management is usually designed to keep the deer population high. For example, the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s mission is:
To conserve, enhance, and restore Arizona’s diverse wildlife resources and habitats through aggressive protection and management programs, and to provide wildlife resources and safe watercraft and off-highway vehicle recreation for the enjoyment, appreciation, and use by present and future generations.
The desire for a high deer population led Pennsylvania and other states to stock deer in the early 20th century.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources states in their annual report: "We rank first in the country for the highest single year deer harvest on record and are number one for deer harvest over the past decade. All of us work hard to keep it that way."
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation takes the “needs” of hunters into account when determining their goals for deer management:
The goal is to balance deer with their habitat, human land uses and recreational interests. Ecological concerns and the needs of landowners, hunters, and other interest groups must be considered.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission also considers the desires of hunters in their deer management strategy:
Managing Pennsylvania's deer herd is an enormous undertaking that frequently includes input from everyone from hunters and naturalists to farmers, foresters and suburbanites. Each has his or her own idea about how many deer we should have. As a general rule, hunters want as many as possible. Still others, particularly people made a living from their land, prefer fewer deer. But history has shown that no one group gets its way entirely.
These are just a few examples of state wildlife management agencies stating that they manage the deer population in a way that increases recreational hunting opportunities for hunters.
Most people find it incredible that their state wildlife management agencies are trying to keep deer populations high when so many residents complain that there are too many deer, but the agencies have financial incentives for pleasing hunters. The agencies depend on sales of hunting licenses for their funding, and hunters like a high deer population. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources states on their website, "The DNR’s Wildlife Division is committed to delivering the best hunting and trapping opportunities that we can afford with the license revenue that hunters and trappers provide to us."
Also, the federal Pittman-Robertson Act gives money from the excise taxes on sales of guns and ammunition to state wildlife agencies to increase wildlife populations. Pittman Robertson funds can also be used for land acquisition, hunter safety education and for the construction and maintenance of target ranges. To be eligible for Pittman-Robertson funds, a state must not divert money from the sales of hunting & fishing licenses outside of the state’s wildlife management agency.
How Do The Agencies Increase the Deer Popuation?
To increase the deer population, sections of forest in state wildlife management areas are clear-cut, to create the "edge habitat" that is preferred by deer. For example, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries recommends for deer management:
Openings in a forested area encourage the production of preferred food plants and may compensate for yearly and seasonal fluctuations in food supplies, like acorns. Natural openings in forests should be maintained. Openings of one to three acres in size should be created, and be strategically located throughout an area to provide diversity and edge.
State wildlife management lands are also sometimes leased to farmers, and the farmers are required to plant deer-preferred crops and leave a certain amount of their crops standing so that the deer will be fed and reproduce more. Sometimes, the state wildlife management agencies will plant "deer mix" themselves, to increase the deer population. For example, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources explains,
Portions of the area are managed under a farm lease program to promote upland wildlife habitat and to demonstrate the potential for producing wildlife on farm lands. Site personnel supplement natural habitats with tree and shrub plantings, native grass seedings, specialty food crop production and succession control.
The Michigan DNR explains their multi-faceted plan to increase the deer population for hunters:
With additional investment, we will create world-class recreational opportunities in
Expanding big game hunting adventures.
• Creating a big game program specific to the Upper Peninsula (UP)
• Using satellite collars on bears to collect scientific information and as a tool for outreach to schools and youth
• Increasing food and cover for deer and other big game on public and private lands by:
- Increasing oak management to replace loss of beech and ash
- Increasing early succession forest habitat
- Increasing the number of openings and food plots
- Controlling invasive plant species that offer poor food and cover for deer and other big game wildlife
• Conserving deer winter yards in northern Michigan on public and private lands
• Increasing private lands assistance to landowners with decreased deer numbers due to habitat degradation or disease, such as epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD)
• Expanding the Deer Habitat Improvement Partnership Initiative
Of course, animal rights activists oppose hunting and oppose wildlife management that artificially increases the deer population. As long as state wildlife agencies are funded through sales of hunting licenses and Pittman-Robertson funds, they will have an incentive to manage deer as a source of recreation and they will continue to be at odds with animal rights activists.