Refuge of Quality Deer Management

By: Steve Brandle
michigan buck

This article first appeared in the December ’98 issue of Michigan-Out-of-Doors magazine.

Quality deer management has become a prominent and much-debated topic. In Michigan, the Department of Natural Resources has implemented strategies to reduce the number of deer and increase the quantity and quality of bucks in the population.

An amazing example of what could be accomplished exists now. The Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, near Saginaw, has practiced quality deer management for the last seven years. Hunting controls the whitetail herd, but the program was initiated to keep the animals in balance with the available habitat. The exceptional deer hunting available in the refuge is only a desirable result; it was not the ultimate goal of the U.S. Department of Interior.

The 9,000-acre refuge was established in 1953 to aid migrating waterfowl by restoring, enhancing, and protecting a unique wetland area. When the Migratory Bird Conservation Act and the action of Michigan’s then-Conservation Commission authorized the refuge, a valuable jewel was preserved for all of us. From the late 1800’s until it was protected, habitat was being lost to lumbering, coal mining, and farming.

The refuge herd is now one of Michigan’s most intensively managed deer populations that can be hunted by the public. This wasn’t always the case. From the 1960’s through the late ‘80’s, the numbers of deer in the refuge fluctuated sharply up and down.

At the peaks, the premium habitat in and around the refuge allowed the deer to reproduce to destructive numbers. At times, it was common to see 80 to 100 deer in a single field. When the population decreased for various reasons, it would bottom out in five or six years with a 50% or greater reduction from peak levels.

Before the 1990’s, a limited number of archery and shotgun permits were issued to hunt deer at the refuge. The success rate rose or fell in rhythm with the population size and natural occurrences, such as weather conditions and flooding. But, there never was a long-range set of goals for the herd.

In 1990 (as the population was peaking again), Jim Dastyck became the wildlife biologist at the Shiawassee federal refuge. He quickly realized that deer numbers needed to be reduced to a more acceptable level and stabilized. The thriving herd had reached a precarious density of 120 to 140 deer per square mile. Dastyck found many adverse signs of crowding, such as light body weight and even some antlerless bucks.

The population was growing, but the biologist realized the buck-to-doe ratio unnaturally favored does (a natural ratio is almost 1:1). The imbalance was affecting the breeding patterns of the deer. Some does were not bred during the fall rut because the reduced buck population couldn’t service them all. The does would come into season repeatedly until bred. This occurred continuously, and spotted fawns would be seen throughout the year.

Shiawassee could support only a certain number of deer without an additional problem. The private property surrounding the refuge is almost entirely agricultural, and deer would raid the farmer’s fields when the herd exceeded what the refuge’s food sources could support. The frustrated farmers finally grew tired of feeding the expanding herd and asked for help.

If the herd wasn’t reduced, the farmers would loose a substantial portion of their harvest. Worse yet, the deer would eventually over-browse and seriously harm the existing habitat in the refuge. The decision was made to harvest more deer.

As a deer hunter himself, Dastyck set up the hunting program to increase the number of hunters without sacrificing the quality of the hunt experience. Instead of flooding the refuge with a large number of people all at once, he developed a set of hunts spread over all of the different seasons with permits issued by lottery.

swamp buckDastyck’s 1991 deer harvesting plan called for a complete menu of hunts. He added a muzzle loader season and expanded archery and shotgun sessions to allow more people an opportunity to hunt the bloated herd. The permits issued also reflected the long-term plan to increase the buck population. A percentage of the hunt tags allowed the taking of either sex, with the majority of them good for antlerless deer only.

Last fall, 823 hunters secured permits to hunt deer at the refuge. Just under 30% were successful. Usually, the success rate is higher for hunts permitting firearms and a bit lower for archery-only sessions. The number of permit applications is generally higher (and the odds of drawing therefore lower) for the firearm hunts. Last year, 181 people who drew to receive permits never bothered to pick them up and hunt. (In the seven years, Dastyck has yet to pull a permit to hunt the fruits of his labor.)

Two very unique deer hunts that he started in 1991, were a youth-only and a non-ambulatory-only hunt. Both of these have proved to be popular with these special groups of hunters looking for a quality outdoor experience geared just for them. Those two hunts continue today.

My oldest son, Peter, and I participated in the youth hunt a couple of years ago. The youth is the hunter; a supervising parent or adult guardian acts as the unarmed “outfitter.” Peter took his first deer.

The two days of guiding him taught me more about being a father than I can express here. The experience has led me to practice this method occasionally with both of my sons as we hunt and fish together. I truly hope it makes a difference for them, I guess I’ll find out when they take their own kids or maybe the old man someday, and leave their gear behind.

The non-ambulatory hunts for wheelchair users are an unequaled success. The refuge positions temporary blinds in likely spots for these participants to use if needed. A list of local volunteers is available to the hunters if they have no one to act as their non-hunting helper. Last year, the two sessions for the non-ambulatory hunt were November 15-16 and 17-18. The dates are the same this year.

Hunting is one of the best uses of a surplus living resource and provides a healthy outdoor activity to thousands of people every year. At Shiawassee, hunters also can now choose their favorite style of taking deer.

michigan buckThe refuge is located in Michigan’s shotgun zone for firearm deer hunting, and no center-fire rifles or handguns are allowed. Other hunt rules are basically the same as the state’s except that use of bait and buckshot are prohibited and gun hunters must wear a minimum of 400 square inches (2.78 square feet) of solid hunter orange. Archery and muzzleloader hunts are popular and the dates fall within the state’s seasons.

Today, after seven years of proper herd management, an above-average quality experience is available for those lucky enough to draw a permit. Harvesting the excess deer at Shiawassee not only has brought their numbers down; it’s given the refuge a way to adjust the herd’s sex ratio back to more natural figures, estimated now at 1 buck to 1.5 does.

Dastyck’s top goals are to preserve the refuge’s environment and try to keep all of the birds and animals in balance with the available habitat. Again, fine deer hunting is not the reason; it’s only an easily copied result.

An annual census determines the maximum deer harvest. Only about 30 to 40 percent of the permits issued each year are valid to take either sex, which helps to preserve the main core of bucks. This allows some to reach maturity and grow trophy racks.

Lower deer densities and habitat preservation have erased most of the adverse effects seen before 1991. Does frequently produce multiple fawns that are bigger and healthier than before the controlled hunts. With the population stabilized, a yearly harvest quota reflects the number of excess animals.

Lower deer densities and habitat preservation have erased most of the adverse effects seen before 1991. Does frequently produce multiple fawns that are bigger and healthier than before the controlled hunts. With the population stabilized, a yearly harvest quota reflects the number of excess animals.

Deer population densities are usually expressed as numbers of deer per square mile. Biologists can inspect a particular piece of land and determine an optimal number of deer that the habitat can carry without threatening its existing food and cover resources. At Shiawassee, the target density is approximately 30 deer per square mile, and the figure is now estimated to be 30 to 35. That is a bit higher than the average density of 20 to 25 per square mile that would be ideal for a typical Lower Peninsula location, but the refuge is not typical wild habitat.

Often referred to as the Shiawassee Flats, or locally, simply as “The Flats,” the area includes not only the federally managed refuge but also the adjoining Shiawassee State Game Area and some private lands.

The land was once the flat bottom of a large glacial lake. Until the late 1800’s, when lumbering took place, the land was mostly an untouched, swampy area in the 6,606 square-mile Saginaw Valley drainage basin. Five rivers, two creeks, and many small tributaries all converge in or near the refuge to form the head-waters of the Saginaw River, which empties into Saginaw Bay.

In the early 1900’s, farmers started to drain some of the land to grow crops. By 1953, when the refuge was established, a complicated system of pumps, tiles ditches, and dikes was already in place to allow much of the fertile ground to be drained well enough to grow crops.

This vast drainage control system is one of the wildlife habitat management tools that make Shiawassee unique. Some of the once-swampy ground is now dry enough to produce large open grasslands for grazing and cover. Nearby farmers sharecrop the totally drained fields within the refuge, growing winter wheat, barley, corn and soybeans.

A percentage of the harvest goes to the farmer and the balance of the crop is left in the fields to help feed the various types of wildlife in the refuge through the winter. This supplemental food source is also used in the summer as deer and other wildlife graze on the young plants. The farmers may use no pesticides and only milder, less-toxic herbicides. Along with the good natural forage found in the hardwood forests, the crops grown here raise the land’s carrying capacity for wildlife, especially for deer.

You should not assume that hunting deer at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge is a sure thing. Access to scout the entire area is limited to only two days each year. I’ve lived near the refuge almost all of my life, and still haven’t seen all of it.

Some people feel that the odds are too heavily in favor of the deer at Shiawassee. Common complaints are that permits are too hard to come by, scouting access is limited, and not enough buck tags are issued. Dastyck admits all that is true. He also adds that most hunters (his definition being the purest form of the word) are more than willing to accept the restrictions if they feel they’re receiving something in return.

Much of the refuge is river-bottom habitat with wet marshy areas. These spots are merciless to an unprepared soul wandering aimlessly through eight-foot cattails and knee-deep muck. But, when the deer are being hunted, take a guess where they head.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience hunting The Flats a couple of times. I have returned with more than fresh venison each time. My efforts there have been rewarded with a better-than-average chance at a mature buck, fewer hunters afield, and one precious memory of a bald eagle flying free through a golden October morning. Trust me; it’s worth it.

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