QDMA Articles :
Seven Steps to a Successful Cooperative
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By: Donnie Wood
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 young bucks walk, hoping they will survive and be seen again at 3 1/2 years of age or older. 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 Quality Whitetails, but for new 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 for MeadWestvaco Corp., I work with scores of hunting lease customers each year. I’m also fortunate to manage five QDM Cooperatives totaling 50,000 acres. 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 a portion of this article will highlight the results that can be achieved solely through deer population management on a large-enough land area. However, I’ll begin by highlighting 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 QDMA Regional Director, 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 4 1/2-year-old buck? That’s right — 4 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.
So, we’ve talked about seven rules of successful Cooperatives, but can they really be successful? Let’s examine the case files of one MeadWestvaco Cooperative. This Cooperative — we’ll call it the “Hannahatchee” Cooperative — is not what I would consider the most successful in terms of buck harvest; other Cooperatives have higher relative buck-harvest rates. However, this particular Cooperative has an interesting history.
• When we started the Hannahatchee Cooperative, there were nay-sayers who insisted this Cooperative would not succeed. Some members of some clubs stated their clubs had tried a deer management program before and had not been successful.
• A few years after the Cooperative had been established, the Georgia county in which this Cooperative is located went through the survey process in an attempt to establish countywide QDM regulations, which included an antler restriction and increased doe-harvest opportunities. The survey of hunters did not show enough support for adopting the countywide criteria, so the process was stopped.
• During the survey process, many outspoken critics of QDM were heard. They insisted that this county could not produce any “good” bucks. They contended a lack of agriculture and the “right genetics” to produce quality bucks.
The Hannahatchee Cooperative officially started on a QDM program with the 1998-99 hunting season. Prior to the season, I met with all the clubs to cover very basic aspects of QDM. Additionally, the clubs learned how to collect and record deer harvest and observation data.
Needless to say, the first year proved trying. Many hunters were not experienced with selective buck harvest, and some young bucks were harvested that did not meet the minimum antler criteria. However, we felt it more important to collect accurate data and encouraged clubs to turn in data from all deer harvested. During the first year, the clubs harvested 14 bucks, eight of which were fawns or yearlings harvested by mistake. Six “mature” bucks (2 1/2 years of age or older) were harvested. Four of these were 2 1/2 years old, and two were 3 1/2 years old. No bucks older than 3 1/2 years were harvested. Doe harvest was rather low — long-held opposition to harvesting does still dominated some members’ hunting philosophies.
Prior to the second hunting season, I met with the clubs to review the first year’s results. The data were not something to get excited about, but the clubs were becoming more enthusiastic. During the second year of the Cooperative, buck harvest and doe harvest increased somewhat. Despite the increased buck harvest, there was still a high percentage of young deer in the harvest. Still, I believed the Cooperative was starting to firm up its commitment to the program, and everyone was making improvements.
Prior to the third hunting season (2000-01), I again provided results from the previous year and also provided information on how to better judge the sex and age of live deer in the field. This helped the clubs better differentiate between does and button bucks. The information also covered field-judging bucks. Providing this information would begin to pay off over the coming seasons.
During the third hunting season, the clubs began to see the results of their previous years’ work. Harvest of 2 1/2-year-old bucks exploded from seven bucks during the 1999-00 season to 25 bucks during the 2000-01 season. Harvest of 3 1/2-year-old or older bucks almost doubled from 1999-00 to 2000-01. Additionally, doe harvest substantially increased during the 2000-01 season.
During the annual meeting held prior to the fourth hunting season, clubs were extremely upbeat about the program. During the third year of the program, they finally began seeing noticeable results. Everyone was excited about the prospects for the upcoming season. Would the 2001-02 season be as successful as the 2000-01 season?
When that season was over and I began to analyze the data, I became somewhat concerned. The harvest of 2 1/2-year-old bucks had dropped sharply. However, the harvest of 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks had continued to rise. Why the sudden decline in the harvest of 2 1/2-year-old bucks?
I was pleasantly surprised when I learned the answer at the annual Cooperative meeting. Resoundingly, most clubs stated that they began to pass up many of the 2 1/2-year-old bucks during the 2001-02 season. While these bucks were “legal,” the clubs had begun harvesting enough of the 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks to realize the growth gains that occur when you allow a 2 1/2-year-old buck to grow another year. Indeed, the clubs were hooked on the program and were taking it to new heights.
During the 2002-03 season, the Cooperative continued to set records for buck harvest. The harvest of young, “mistake” bucks was at its lowest level ever (we still expect some harvest of young bucks since first-time hunters have a one-time opportunity to take a buck of their choice), while the harvest of 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks remained very high. Additionally, the harvest of does has remained at a fairly constant, high level.
Has the Cooperative been successful? Consider this: During the first two years under the program, the Cooperative averaged a harvest of nine bucks per year that were 2 1/2 years of age or older. Over the last two years of the program, the Cooperative has averaged harvesting 29 such bucks each year. That’s a three-fold increase.
Furthermore, if you look at bucks that are 3 1/2-years-old or older, the harvest has increased from an average of four bucks per year during the first two years of the program to 22 bucks per year during the last two years. That’s a greater than five-fold increase, and we are talking about good- to great-quality bucks. The Cooperative has had numerous bucks scoring in the 130- to 140-class. We’ve even had a few bucks harvested that gross score over 150.
There is an equally powerful story on the doe side of the herd. Since the program began, yearly doe harvest has practically doubled. In the first year of the program, 41 does were harvested. In the sixth year of the program, 81 does were harvested. Bucks, does and fawns are all exhibiting better body weights as deer condition has improved. We have increased mature buck harvest and total deer harvest during the five years of the program, and the animals are of better quality than when we began.
Not too bad for an area that is devoid of agriculture — currently there is less than 1 percent of the land in food plots. Not bad for an area that supposedly does not have the “right genetics.”
Should the Cooperative expect to increase buck harvest rates? I fully believe we can improve on our current success. Presently, the Hannahatchee Cooperative is averaging one mature buck harvested per 367 acres. However, two other Cooperatives I work with are averaging a mature buck harvested per 300 acres or less. I’m looking forward to seeing the hunting on this property get even better.
The Hannahatchee Cooperative is an excellent example of a QDM Cooperative, as it illustrates what can be done when you start realizing the potential you have instead of concentrating on the limitations. If you are considering improving your deer hunting experiences by beginning a deer management program, take heart. By practicing sound management across a large enough area, you can achieve better hunting experiences!
About the Author: Donnie Wood has a?Master’s degree in Wildlife Management from The University of Georgia and works with MeadWestvaco Corp. as a wildlife biologist. He is a Life Member of QDMA and one of the founders of the Chattahoochee Valley Branch of QDMA.