Sooner or later in their hunting careers, most deer hunters will wound a deer and not recover it. It happens. The causes differ. A rushed shot. Buck fever. A gun with an inadequate caliber. A bullet’s impact or trajectory compromised by a tree limb. Often, particularly with inexperienced hunters, shots at a deer are taken that should not have been. This is called the unethical shot. Losing a wounded deer is not a good feeling, either, as the hunter is haunted by the realization that his mistake has left an animal crippled or to suffer a slow death.
Wildlife biologist and outdoor writer Mark McCollough wrote about this issue in his monthly column for the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He wrote:
How does Maine account for wounding loss in calculating annual deer harvest targets? The Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Deer Management System states that no studies of crippling loss have been done in Maine. The department relies on a 1964 estimate from Chet Banasiak, a former Maine’s deer biologist, that crippling loss represented 15 percent of the kill and poaching was 20 percent of the kill. Given that nationally, studies of wounding loss from archery and firearms are more in line with 50 percent and 25 percent of the legal harvest, respectively, could we be underestimating this source of mortality?
For wildlife biologists, it’s important to know just how many animals are wounded and lost during the hunting season. This is factored into annual calculations for harvest quotas. The higher the wounding and loss rate, the fewer the antlerless deer permits issued for you and me.
McCollough’s column was well-researched and his statistics raise some thoughtful questions. As a deer hunter, what do you think? Is Maine’s index of a 15 percent wounded deer loss high or low? The national data seems to suggest that Maine hunters wound a higher percentage of deer than its current formula indicates. Noteworthy, too, is that bow hunters — if we are to believe the national averages — lose twice as many wounded deer as gun hunters.
There are remedial measures that can markedly reduce the number of unrecovered deer wounded by Maine hunters. There is a learning curve. It is astonishing how many hunters assume that they missed a deer when it bounds away after the shot. In Colorado a few falls ago, I watched a bull elk sneak away from two young men who had fired at it on a logging road not far from where I had been sitting on a game trail. The elk had apparently not been hit, but there was no way the two hunters could have known. Astonishingly, neither of them stepped off the logging road to check the easily discernible tracks for blood or telltale hair! The ethic is to assume that the animal IS hit until you are convinced otherwise. And more hunters need to counsel themselves about avoiding the unethical shot. If you do wound a deer and lose the blood trail, all is not lost. In Maine, now, it is legal to hire a licensed dog handler to find your deer using a trained scent dog.
One of Maine’s licensed trackers is Suzanne Hamilton of Montville. She and her Dachshund, “Buster,” have a remarkably successful record when it comes to helping deer hunters find their wounded deer. At last count, she and her tracking dog had located a dozen wounded deer this fall for hunters. A very savvy and determined tracker, Suzanne willingly travels throughout the state on short notice to fulfill her mission. She does not charge for her tracking services, but will accept donations to cover gas and expenses. Her telephone number is (207) 249-8078.
Of course, as hunters, our ethical obligation is to avoid wounding a deer in the first place. The difference between a clean, ethical kill and wounded unrecovered deer often boils down to a simple case of shooting proficiency. Too many of us wait until the day before the hunt to practice our marksmanship or to sight in that scope.
The bottom line is that, as hunters, we can all do better and must. We owe it to the remarkable animal we hunt, and to the heritage on which we place so much value.
The writer is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He also is a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]