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Team Work -- Developing Successful QDM Cooperatives

By: Brian Murphy, Dean Stewart, Dr. Steve Demarais, & Don Bales, Joe Hamilton, Dr. R. Larry Marchinton, Donald Wood & Dr. Karl Miller

Interest in managing whitetails for improved herd quality and hunting opportunities has increased greatly in recent decades. This interest has led thousands of landowners and hunters to implement deer management programs on the lands they own or hunt. However, the success of many of these programs has been limited due to the small acreage under management. This situation has been magnified by habitat loss, forest fragmentation, and a reduction in average property size. Some small property owners and hunters have simply given up, while others have erected high-fences. Other motivated hunters have elected to form Quality Deer Management Cooperatives. This article is a reduced version of the new QDMA publication, Establishing Successful Quality Deer Management Cooperatives, now available from the QDMA.

What is a Quality Deer Management Cooperative?

A Quality Deer Management Cooperative (QDM Cooperative) is simply a group of property owners and hunters working together to improve the quality of the deer herd and hunting experiences on their collective acreages. Cooperatives vary in size, number of participants, and organizational structure depending on the needs and objectives of members. By forming a cooperative, members gain the management advantages of a larger landowner. Cooperatives are voluntary affiliations and in no way entitle neighboring hunters access to your property or diminish the landowner’s control. They are simply collections of landowners and hunters that establish and abide by agreed deer management guidelines to enable improved management over a larger area.

Benefits of a QDM Cooperative

Deer Herd Benefits

The benefits of a QDM Cooperative to a deer herd are numerous. They enable landowners and hunters with small landholdings to participate in QDM.
Research has shown that the average home range of adult bucks varies from several hundred to a few thousand acres. Home ranges of adult does are slightly smaller. Research also indicates that most young bucks disperse one to several miles from their birth area between the ages of six and 24 months. These findings show several thousand acres are required to contain the normal movements of whitetails. A larger area under management enables a greater percentage of the “neighborhood” deer herd to be encompassed under a single management program.

Does this mean a QDM Cooperative must be several thousand acres to be successful? Not necessarily. Experience from those involved in smaller cooperatives has shown that in some situations positive results can be achieved on less than 1,000 acres. Obviously, the more land under management the better, and any increase in acreage likely will improve management success. Ultimately, QDM Cooperatives can lead to increased deer herd quality, improved hunter satisfaction, and enhanced recreational value of all wildlife resources.

A second benefit of a QDM Cooperative is the opportunity to better manage the density, distribution, and physical characteristics of the local deer herd. It is more difficult on small properties to establish and manipulate deer density, sex ratio, or age structure because many of these deer spend much of their lives on adjacent lands. This makes it nearly impossible to control deer density and improve buck age structure and a leading reason why many QDM programs on small properties fail. By implementing a QDM program across a larger area, it is possible to effectively manage these herd characteristics.
Another benefit of a QDM Cooperative is the ability to pool harvest and observation data. In most cases, the number of deer harvested on small properties is so small and variable that harvest data are of limited value. This forces managers on these properties to make management decisions based on limited information. The pooling of harvest and observation data provides a more complete “picture” of the local deer herd and enables more precise management recommendations to be established.

Hunters may be reluctant to provide harvest and/or observation data because they do not wish to reveal locations of deer sightings or harvests. One way to address this problem is for hunters on each property to collect their harvest and observation data and supply it to a state or private wildlife biologist after the hunting season for analysis. The biologist can then remove any hunter- or property-specific details and compile a generic report for the entire cooperative. Such a report should include the total number of does and bucks harvested by age class, their physical characteristics, and how this information compares to the established goals of the QDM Cooperative.

Hunter Benefits

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of a QDM Cooperative to hunters is the opportunity to hunt a high-quality deer herd containing numerous adult bucks. However, there are many benefits not related to harvesting deer. One of the most important is improved relationships with surrounding landowners and hunters. As groups unite in a common goal, they develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their collective effort. This requires the establishment of honesty and trust — the two most important ingredients in a successful QDM Cooperative. This will not happen overnight and occasional setbacks will occur. Over time, this trust will result in the establishment of lasting friendships and a mutual bond. These relationships will allow the sharing of information and expertise that will improve the hunting for all involved.

Management costs also can be reduced through QDM Cooperatives. Typically, it is more cost-effective to purchase lime, fertilizer, food plot seed, and other items in bulk. This will require some coordination, but can result in substantial savings. Another possible benefit is the sharing of equipment and other resources. One member of the QDM Cooperative may have a tractor, dozer, or other piece of equipment to loan, rent, or trade for some other item or service. Other items that could be shared include a refrigerated deer cooler, shooting range, meeting facility, dove field, or even a tracking dog.

Another important benefit of a QDM Cooperative is the ability to better control trespassing and poaching. As groups of hunters from adjoining properties unite to produce quality deer, they will have an increased interest in preventing unauthorized or illegal access. In many cases, trespassers and poachers go unnoticed because area hunters do not know who is authorized to hunt on the adjoining properties.

Establishing a QDM Cooperative

The first step to establishing a QDM cooperative is to identify a potential area. Generally, it is centered around a group of hunters already participating in or interested in establishing a QDM program. Aerial photographs and topographic maps can help determine the layout and distribution of habitat types on properties.

Next, establish the minimum starting size of the cooperative. Generally, 2,000 acres or more are recommended. This may not always be possible, so adjust your goals accordingly. The next step is to identify potential participants. Properties immediately adjacent to the central property are the most important, so concentrate initial efforts there. Sometimes, identifying the landowners and hunters on adjoining properties requires some effort. One of the best ways is to talk with key landowners who have lived in the area for many years. They often know who owns properties in the area. Other good sources include the county tax office, county agricultural extension agent, and regional wildlife biologists. Once all the landowners and hunting groups have been identified, contact each personally and invite them to a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a QDM Cooperative.

Cooperative Membership

Membership in a QDM Cooperative can be formal or informal. In general, the more properties and people involved, the greater the need for a formalized membership process. The membership process should include a simple written agreement signed by each landowner and club representative indicating they will abide by the established guidelines, though they may enact more stringent requirements on their own property.

It is a good idea to establish some formal acknowledgement of cooperative members. Such acknowledgement may include property signs, vehicle decals, and membership cards. All will help identify members and assist with identifying trespassers and poachers.

In most cases, no fee is attached to membership. Possible exceptions include a small contribution to cover costs associated with mailings to association members, signs, decals, awards, or food for the annual meetings. If imposed, fees should be kept as low as possible to cover necessary expenses.

Establishing Deer Management Goals

Once the QDM Cooperative is formed, one of the first steps is to establish realistic deer management goals and objectives. The length of time required to achieve these goals depends on deer herd, habitat quality, and commitment level of participating clubs. Emphasize that changes will not occur overnight and participants should commit for a minimum of three to five years.

Deer management goals should include the minimum size and age of bucks to be harvested as well as the number and age of antlerless deer to be harvested. Both should be based on existing harvest data (where available) and advice from an experienced wildlife biologist.

The starting point for most QDM Cooperatives is the protection of yearling bucks. While many properties use a minimum number of antler points, this can be counterproductive in high-quality habitats. Antler spread, main beam length, gross Boone & Crockett score, or buck quotas are typically better approaches in these areas. With experience, body characteristics also can be used as a basis for harvest.

Where available, QDM Cooperatives should work with existing deer management programs administered by the state wildlife agency such as the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP). These programs often allow greater flexibility for antlerless deer harvest than is available under the normal hunting season and bag limits. This greatly increases the ability to control deer density on the cooperative — a real challenge in many areas. Some DMAPs have minimum acreage requirements, which preclude small landowners from participating. However, most allow the minimum acreage requirement to be met through the formation of a cooperative.

Establishing Habitat Management Goals

Another benefit of a QDM Cooperative is the ability to manage habitat over a larger area. Landowners and hunters on small properties generally focus only on improving the habitat on their property with little knowledge or concern about the habitat composition or quality on adjacent properties. While habitat management practices are restricted to an individual property basis, with some planning and creative management, these practices can be successfully linked with those on adjoining properties. The use of an aerial photograph of the entire cooperative will greatly assist in identifying and linking travel corridors and similar habitat types. It is recommended that a long-term habitat management plan be created for the entire cooperative.

Maintaining the Cooperative

Once a QDM Cooperative is established, the challenge is to keep it intact and moving in a positive direction. This is not always easy. The key is to keep it enjoyable and to keep members informed and involved. The annual meetings outlined earlier will help, but interest may begin to wane over time. Involve property representatives in the decision-making process to build ownership in and commitment to the program. Implement competitions, incentives, and awards for following rules and achieving goals.

Possible examples include quality buck and doe contests, prizes for first and oldest deer, and most improved property. Other awards might include the property with the fewest number of button bucks or undersized bucks harvested or awards for individuals that have made significant contributions to the cooperative.

Typical ways of keeping members informed include distribution of annual harvest reports or a periodic newsletter. These can be simple or elaborate documents depending on the needs of the cooperative and the time and abilities of the person(s) willing to coordinate such efforts. Finally, be patient. Expect mistakes and obstacles and always work as a team.

Accepting New Members

Hopefully, as the cooperative becomes successful, additional landowners and hunting clubs will wish to join. This is great, but also deserves a few cautions. While it varies in each situation, it is possible for the cooperative to become so large that it becomes unwieldy and inefficient. Also, new members may wish to exert more influence or direction than existing members are comfortable with. All of these issues can be overcome, but require some careful consideration in advance. Before accepting a new member, existing members should review their current policies and make these clear to prospective members. Doing this will help avoid conflicts.

Dealing with Uncooperative Neighbors

Almost without exception, a non-member group within or adjacent to the boundaries of the cooperative will create problems for existing members. These properties may range from those not hunted to those allowing the harvest of deer of any sex or age. Both situations can present real problems.

Unhunted properties can be both a blessing and a curse. They are great places for bucks to seek refuge during the hunting season, which enables more to survive, but reduces the number immediately available for harvest by cooperative members. Large, unhunted properties can make it difficult to harvest enough antlerless deer to maintain proper herd density. Many property owners that do not allow hunting either do not understand the need to control their deer herds or may have had unpleasant experiences with hunters in the past. With a careful and respectful approach, many of these landowners can be convinced to allow hunting, or at least be supportive of the goals of the cooperative.

Uncooperative neighbors that do not follow the deer harvest guidelines also can limit management success. Some neighbors can be influenced over time to join. In other cases, a new landowner or hunting club may be necessary for positive change to occur.

Occasionally, landowners are unaware of the activities of the hunters on their property. Convincing these landowners of the benefits of the cooperative often can result in cooperation from existing hunters. Several years of success may be required to convince these hunters of the merits of the cooperative. Regardless, never give up hope and keep these landowners and non-member groups informed of the activities and successes of the cooperative. Nothing will do more to encourage their participation in the future than to make it clear that they are “missing out” on the benefits of membership. It also is a good idea to encourage these landowners and hunters to attend QDM seminars or to join the Quality Deer Management Association. Once they gain a better understanding of QDM, they will be more likely to join the cooperative in the future. If all else fails, recognize that some losses to neighboring properties will occur and manage accordingly.

One proven strategy to increase the number of older bucks is to establish sanctuaries or areas that are not hunted. These areas provide a safe haven for bucks during the season and help reduce losses. Where possible, sanctuaries should be 50 acres or larger and contain thick vegetation. Also, habitat management efforts should be directed away from cooperative boundaries to reduce losses to uncooperative neighbors.

Why Cooperatives Fail

While several factors can result in failure of a QDM Cooperative, most can be avoided with advance recognition and planning. A common reason for failure occurs when goals and expectations exceed local limitations of deer herd or habitat. Organizers should ensure that members’ expectations are realistic and achievable. Failure also is possible when members fail to allow adequate time for significant population changes to occur.

A common example is when members do not allow enough time to recruit bucks into older age classes. Cooperatives may also fail due to the inability of members to harvest mature bucks or refrain from harvesting immature bucks. Judging antler size and age “on the hoof” is a skill that requires time and experience. Mature bucks are more wary and often have different activity patterns than young bucks. Finally, cooperatives can fail if participants do not establish trust and work together effectively.