The Noble Foundation Agricultural Research Team is investigating the effects of hunter density on male white-tailed deer movements in southern Oklahoma. This is a collaborative study with Dr. Steve Demarais and graduate student Andy Little from Mississippi State University to further understanding of the impacts that hunter density and hunting pressure have on male white-tailed deer behavior, movement patterns and survivability. Information obtained from this research will assist deer management operations to better manage deer populations through improved harvest strategies and hunter management. While fulfilling the goals of research and wildlife management is often difficult due to uncontrollable variables, this study has enabled us to document an element that can be a major hurdle to successful deer management - poaching.
All of us who manage or pursue white-tailed deer realize there are some individuals (I won't honor them with the title of "hunters") who will kill deer by any means necessary. These individuals will shoot deer out of season, shoot from public roadways, use nighttime spotlighting, trespass, etc. Nothing seems to be off limits, and they think they are above the law - that game laws are for everyone else to follow. We have always been aware that poaching was a potential problem for successful deer management. This study now documents the potential severity of the problem.
In late winter/early spring 2008-2009, the Noble Foundation radio-collared 57 adult white-tailed bucks for our "buck movement project" on a research area in southern Oklahoma. Unfortunately, between 2008 and 2010, poachers illegally killed eight of these animals. Of even greater disappointment to true hunters and sportsmen, one of the poached bucks was a Boone and Crockett 170+-inch animal. If we assume the poachers did not select for or against the collared deer, this indicates poachers could shoot an average of 14 percent of the standing crop of antlered bucks each year. This is alarming and hampers the efforts of managers attempting to improve deer herd population parameters.
So what's the solution? This is not easy to answer. State game wardens do their best; however, they are severely undermanned to combat the problem. With only 113 game wardens to enforce regulations in 77 Oklahoma counties, chances of catching a poacher in the act are slim. We were able to make a case on one of the deer poached in 2008 due to luck and the diligence of our local game warden, but that is only one out of eight. The best way to combat poaching is through landowner and hunter vigilance.
Don't be complacent. Poachers are thieves, stealing from you, me and every law-abiding sportsman or wildlife conservationist. The game violations they commit are not because of accident or ignorance. These violators make conscious decisions to break the law and have no respect for you or the game. Be aware of what is going on around you. If someone is suspiciously cruising back roads, get a vehicle description and tag number, and report it to your local warden. The game warden may not be able to respond to every call, but if he receives several calls about suspicious activity in the same area or involving the same vehicle, then he will investigate. Additionally, be a concerned citizen and contact your local courts and district attorneys, encouraging them to enforce the current laws with maximum penalty. A slap on the wrist accomplishes little as a deterrent and frustrates a diligent game warden.
Levels of poaching similar to that we experienced in our study can negate management efforts and are cause for concern. Minimizing poaching will require the collective efforts of land owners, sportsmen, concerned citizens and law enforcement officials.