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For better or for worse, deer management in Arkansas is changing.

That message was clear Wednesday when members of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's deer management team briefed the members of the commission on its new deer management strategic plan.

The plan is a document that chronicles the agency's success in managing deer. However, the team left no doubt that chronic wasting disease is now the primary driver. The AGFC is trying to manage a disease. All of the traditional elements of deer management are subordinate.

Ramifications for deer hunting and for deer hunters are profound. Members of the commission's deer management team have long said that the longer a deer lives, the greater its potential for depositing chronic wasting disease prions on the landscape. This is especially true for bucks, which cover greater distances than does, especially during the rutting season. A large number of mature bucks is a health risk.

To mitigate potential for spreading disease, the AGFC's deer managers prefer a young buck population. The destination is not negotiable. The deer biologists said if hunters don't kill off mature bucks, chronic wasting disease will do it instead.

Commission Chairman Ken Reeves of Harrison cited the experience of some friends in Boone County who hunt deer on 1,200 acres of outstanding habitat where deer were once abundant, but are not anymore. Eight bucks were killed on the property this season. All eight tested positive for chronic wasting disease.

Pat Fitts, AGFC director, said, "I'm sorry, but if that happens to me, I'm probably done [deer hunting]."

I asked this question: If we manage deer in a manner that discriminates against the mature bucks that hunters enjoy hunting, and if the public is afraid to eat venison, what happens to deer hunting? Will hunting cease to be an effective tool to managing deer?

Of course, the answers to those questions are unknown, but common sense indicates a negative trend.

I also asked what number of deer is ideal and sustainable in the CWD age. A prominent deer researcher told me several months ago that 500,000 -- Arkansas's herd size in the mid 1980s -- would be better than present. That would be a reduction of nearly 70%.

That's not only a zone-by-zone equation, but a sub-zone equation. Ralph Meeker, the AGFC's deer project coordinator, said it could even be club by club in high-density deer zones.

Which zones, or portions of zones, will be willing to make the biggest sacrifices?

The solutions are not promising for hunting, and the strategic plan does not address these questions.

Despite acknowledging that older deer need to be culled, the deer team was reluctant to suggest or recommend abolishing the 3-point rule. That is ironic because when the commission adopted the 3-point rule in 1997, the wildlife management staff strongly opposed it. The commission insisted on it.

In the 21 years since, deer hunters have conditioned themselves to allowing young bucks to mature. That philosophy is now encoded in the deer hunter's DNA. If the 3-point rule were rescinded, a high percentage of hunters would continue self-managing for older age bucks. It would also allow hunters to cull mature bucks that show no potential of growing a legal 3-point antler.

Jennifer Ballard, the AGFC's veterinarian, said youth hunters may kill mature bucks with fewer than three points. That's true, but you can't dial up an individual buck to appear when a youth is present. Cruddy antlers don't make a buck any less wary or wily. Plus, what hunter will deny a child a doe or a spike buck -- especially if it will be his or her first deer -- on a speculative chance at a mature 1x2 buck?

If killing mature bucks is advantageous and if hunters are willing and even eager to kill mature bucks with substandard antlers, isn't it advantageous to enable them to do so?

Ballard said there is evidence of some deer showing resistance to chronic wasting disease, and that in some localities, CWD-resistant genotypes might be ascendent. That might be good or not good, Ballard said, adding that "Mother Nature" might have selected against CWD-resistant animals in the past for a reason, and that selecting in favor of those animals now might stage unforeseen problems.

The draft of the plan and a public comment survey are online at agfc.com/en/hunting/big-game/deer/2019-strategic-deer-management-plan/. The AGFC will accept comments until Jan. 20. The deer management team will submit the final draft to the Commission on Feb. 20.

Sports on 12/22/2019

Print Headline: CWD matter tops strategic deer plan

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