At the Buckarama in August, I spent Saturday helping run the Quality Deer Management Association’s (QDMA) booth. This was a priceless opportunity for those of us on the QDMA staff to meet and talk with Georgia deer hunters — not only do we hear from QDMA members about their successful efforts but we get to learn what’s on the minds of members and non-members alike when it comes to Quality Deer Management (QDM). Often, just like this year, I am struck by a common theme whenever I speak to hunters who are not actively practicing QDM. At the Buckarama, I heard many variations on this basic comment:
“We’d like to try QDM, but everybody around us shoots anything that walks.”
While true QDM involves much more than simply protecting young bucks from harvest, increasing the numbers of older-aged bucks in a local population is certainly difficult on small or average-sized properties without the assistance of neighbors. It seems that many Georgia hunters would pursue QDM more seriously if they felt they had this assistance. However, the hunters I talked to assumed their situation was fatal. None of them asked if QDMA had suggestions for what they could do. For them, their neighbors represented an impenetrable barrier for their own QDM hopes — end of story.
The truth is, there is much that you can do to attract the participation and cooperation of neighbors in a multi- property QDM effort. The QDMA refers to these programs as “Cooperatives,” and there are many successful models across Georgia and the nation.
While the focus of this article is QDM, interest in QDM is not a prerequisite for getting to know your neighbors. Forming a management Cooperative with your neighboring landowners is worth exploring regard- less of your management objectives, whether it’s for small game, turkeys, or deer management.
Even though the QDM philosophy has been widespread in the South much longer than it has in the North, QDMA members in the North are much more involved in the creation of successful Cooperatives. This is due to the fact that the average size of a tract of hunting land is much smaller in the North, making cooperation among different hunting groups critical to QDM success. Here in the South, the aver- age tract size seems to be shrinking as traditional landownership is changing and hunters are buying small, affordable tracts of recreational lands. As this continues, the importance of QDM Cooperatives will increase in the South.
Bob White of Athens is an accomplished hunter (he has three Pope & Young bucks in Georgia to his credit, and two in Kansas), and QDMA is fortunate to have him on our team — Bob is our Southeast Regional Director. Bob plays a critical role in QDMA’s educational mission in these states. One of his activities is helping get QDM Cooperatives off to a good start and helping them grow.
“As I travel and talk to hunters about QDM, the most common issue that comes up is neighbors,” said Bob. “Many hunters assume if they let a young buck go and the deer walks across the property line, he gets dropped. In reality, if they would communicate with their neighbors they usually find out their neighbors want the same things they do. There are exceptions, but the majority of hunters out there are seeking to improve the quality of their hunting experiences.”
Forming a successful Cooperative takes planning and preparation, and you will need to spend time simply building a strong foundation before you can expect rewards. But the eventual rewards for everyone involved in a Cooperative are more than worth the effort. Here are some ideas for how to successfully address the question of neighborhood cooperation.
Building the Foundation
Think of your potential QDM Cooperative as a house you are going to build. The details of QDM, including appropriate doe harvests, protecting yearling bucks, habitat improvement, etc., are the framework of the house. Everyone knows you don’t build a house by starting on the frame — you establish the foundation first. In your QDM Cooperative, the foundation includes communication, trust, cooperation, sharing and friendship. However, your offer of friendship and cooperation with your neighbors should not be dependent on them agreeing to practice QDM.
If you look on this mission as going forth to straighten out these misguided neighbors of yours and demand that they accept the harvest guidelines that you follow, you will be doomed to immediate failure. Your first goal is simply to meet and get to know your neighbors, a process that may take some time. But without this foundation of friendship, QDM cooperation will never happen.
Very often, we do not know our neighbors, yet we find ourselves easily developing notions about them — especially negative ones. We hear a few gunshots on opening day and imagine that they are shooting small bucks. Talk around camp allows our perceptions to become worse, and soon we talk about our neighbors as if they are the worst bunch of criminals and renegades ever gathered in one hunting club. Yet, we have never met them! Even more ironic is my suspicion that those evil neighbors are actually sitting in their camp saying, “If only those renegades next door would stop shooting anything that walks, we could do QDM.”
This is why meeting and getting to know our neighbors — and dispelling any false notions about them — is the first step in cooperation.
Keep in mind that a “neighbor” doesn’t necessarily have to be a property that actually borders yours. With buck home ranges known to take on large sizes and unusual shapes, and knowing yearling-buck dispersal pat- terns, the management decisions on a property that is a mile away or more can still influence your success.
Ways to Establish a Connection With Neighbors
How, exactly, do you go about building the foundation for a QDM Cooperative? If you believe that many of the hunter groups and landowners in your neighborhood are ready to try QDM, the next step is an educational and organizational meeting. But let’s assume that you either don’t know what your neighbors think about QDM or you know that they do not practice QDM and seem to be satisfied. If this is the case, you want to lay some ground- work.
One of the best ideas is to hold a pre-season supper at your camp, club or home, or a social gathering on the Friday night before opening day of gun season — when just about every hunting neighbor in the area is likely to be in town, no matter where their home is. Put the word out to as many hunters as you can that are in the neighborhood that they are invited. Use phone, snail mail or email to get the word out. Even if they can’t or won’t attend, make sure your neighbors know they were invited. Have a barbecue, Lowcountry boil, game supper, or whatever type of meal you can afford to host, but foot the bill yourself or divide the cost among your own club members.
In the beginning, this supper or gathering is strictly a social opportunity — a chance to meet and get to know the people who hunt in your area. Since you don’t know how your neighbors feel about QDM, you should probably not even get into the details of forming a QDM Cooperative at the gathering.
Beyond a barbecue, some other things you can do to foster a positive relationship with your neighbors include inviting them to share in events like dove shoots. If you have a walk-in cooler or deer-cleaning facility, invite your neighbors to use it if they don’t have their own.
When you reach out to your hunting neighbors, do not expect 100 percent success. In the end, we must all realize that each of us hunts for different reasons and finds pleasure and reward in different aspects of deer hunting. We must respect our neighbors who choose to hunt differently even after our best efforts to share the benefits of QDM with them have failed. But if you are successful in your efforts with just one or a few of the different neighbor groups, you have made major strides for improved deer management in your area. Continue to treat those who choose not to participate with friendliness and respect; continue to invite them to meetings and gatherings; let them know that their decision to not participate will not affect your willingness to be a good neighbor. They may come around later.
Leading by Example
Let’s assume you’ve met your neighbors, had several groups of them over for a social event, and it becomes clear that some or many of them are lukewarm on the idea of QDM. Rather than get angry or cut off communication, the best thing to do is go on with your efforts to improve your habitat and do your best to manage the local deer population. With some neighbors, you may have better luck attracting their attention by letting them see you doing your own thing than by trying to beat down their door with your own ideas about deer management. This is called “leading by example.”
Leading by example requires you to keep communication lines open. For example, ask your neighbors to pull and save jawbones from their harvested deer to contribute to your data about the local deer population. You aren’t asking them to change the way they hunt but simply to collect jawbones and write down whether they came from a buck or doe. Purchase a jawbone extractor to give to them, and show them how to use it. You can drop by to pick the jawbones up later, and if the neighbors express an interest, you can let them know later what ages you estimated. This is likely to elicit inter- est and questions, which can open the door to a discussion of your program.
Another way to do this is to offer to share manpower and equipment for camp work days — for example, if your neighbors will come over and help you on your food plot workday, then you will bring your tractor, disk harrows, or other equipment to their property to help them install their food plots. On your property, the neighbors will participate in planting food plots or conducting other habitat improvements. They will see your efforts and wonder how they are paying off for you. Questions will be asked, and knowledge will be shared. Then you will go to their property and assist the neighbors in the same work — you may even help them establish their first-ever food plots. Most likely, you will be planting the seeds of QDM in addition to planting a food plot. In fact, food plots are often a very addictive first step into QDM for many hunters— their connection to the land and the wildlife is enhanced, and these hunters find themselves drawn deeper into deer management.
All of this has happened without you once suggesting directly that the neighbors change the way they hunt.
Some hunters say they shot a buck because they knew that if they passed him, someone else would shoot him. Not only is this a very poor reason to pull the trigger on any deer, it’s not the attitude of a leader. Your attitude is contagious — for better or worse — so make sure you spread a positive out- look on QDM.
Forming The Cooperative
Now, either you know you have a group of neighbors who are interested in QDM, or you have laid the ground- work over time and feel like it’s time to move on to forming a Cooperative. The next step is the first, formal meeting of hunters and landowners.
“At this first meeting, you want as many of the local hunters to attend as possible,” said Bob. “I’m working with a Cooperative near Thomson right now, and they contacted all their neighbors and then asked them to contact all of their neighbors in turn. It snowballed from there, and we had right at 30 people at the initial meeting.”
The main goal of the first meeting is to answer questions, address concerns, and seek an initial set of goals that are realistic and acceptable to the entire group. A crucial element in this meeting is the participation of a local biologist or other wildlife management or QDM expert. This person can explain how QDM works and what it will take to make a successful Cooperative.
“It’s very important to involve an area biologist who understands the local deer herd and can set out some realistic guidelines to start with,” said Bob. “Be realistic about what your initial goals are, and set realistic guide- lines in terms of what would be considered a quality deer. If you set the benchmark higher than what your habitat can realistically produce so that people aren’t having fun and enjoying it, you’re doomed.”
This process will involve compromise, because some members of the Cooperative may be ready for more advanced QDM than others. Remember that QDM is not an all-or- nothing proposition. A reasonable start- ing point when it comes to buck harvest management is passing 1 1/2-year- old (yearling) bucks, and a program can adjust its goals upward as participating hunters are ready for the next level of achievement.
According to Bob, one of the common questions at Cooperative formation meetings is this one: “If I participate in a Cooperative, does that allow other people to hunt on my property without my permission?” The answer is no, of course.
Having an expert on hand will help with other, more specific questions that come up regarding QDM. Where can you find this expert? Your regional WRD wildlife biologist, your local Cooperative Extension agent and local, professional wildlife consultants are all likely to be able and willing to talk to small groups about QDM or certain aspects of QDM, such as foods plots. Also, there are now seven active Branches of QDMA in Georgia, plus a Georgia State Chapter. These Branches of QDMA often conduct educational events and seminars, and Branch officers themselves may be able to talk to your group about the benefits of QDM and forming Cooperatives. To contact your closest Branch, visit <www.QDMA.com> or email QDMA Regional Director Bob White at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
There are many more aspects of a successful QDM program, including cooperative food-plot production and data collection. Annual post-season gatherings should be held to share harvest successes and data and make adjustments to the program if necessary. This is the next phase of managing a QDM Cooperative — an entire article in itself. There is more information on managing a Cooperative in an educational booklet called Developing Successful QDM Cooperatives that is available for $2.50 at the QMDA web- site www.QDMA.com.
If you feel your neighbors are the major limiting factor in practicing QDM, reach out to them. Get to know them. Establish communication and trust. Expose them to your QDM effort without preaching or pushing. You may find that they are just as ready as you are to take their deer hunting to the next level. If not, you may find that with time, with the establishment of neighborly communication and indirect exposure to your program, they’ll be ready to join in soon.