Bowhunters are taking record numbers of deer across the whitetail’s range, with crossbows accelerating the long-term increases compound bows triggered a half-century ago.
That surge is most obvious in Midwestern and Northeastern states, where archery seasons are typically longer and warmer, given their early starts each fall. Those traits often appeal to older hunters who take up crossbows to stay afield longer.
But despite more bowhunting activity and higher harvests, bowhunters aren’t consistently reducing or “managing” whitetail numbers. They increasingly hold out for antlered bucks, and stay home after succeeding, resulting in record percentages of bucks in the harvest. The surge in harvests and license sales, in fact, could be peaking.
“Archery kills really jumped about a decade ago as many states opened their archery seasons to crossbows, but that’s kind of plateaued the past five years,” said Kip Adams, conservation director for the National Deer Association. “We’ve seen shifts in the deer harvests, with archery increases moving more of the harvest away from firearms. Most states still rely on their firearms seasons to manage their deer herds, but states like New Jersey and Connecticut are relying heavily on bowhunters.”
The crossbow’s impact increased dramatically this century in the eastern two-thirds of the United States. In 2002, only three states—Ohio, Arkansas, and Wyoming—allowed crossbows during archery season. This fall, 29 states will allow crossbows throughout their archery seasons, including New Jersey and Connecticut, which legalized them in 2009 and 2013, respectively.
In addition, four states allow crossbows for older hunters, Kentucky and New York allow crossbows for part of archery season, and 13 states allow them for physically challenged hunters and/or during their firearms seasons. Only one state, Oregon, still bans crossbows for hunting.
Adams and his NDA colleague Matt Ross compile exhaustive state-by-state annual deer reports that document trends and harvest data in the nation’s white-tailed deer herds. The NDA’s 2022 report shows bowhunters in 2020 took 40% or more of the total deer harvests in seven states, and 30% to 37% of the total in nine states, all in the Northeast and Midwest.
New Jersey bowhunters were No. 1 with 64%, followed by Connecticut, 58%; Massachusetts, 50%; Ohio, 48%; Illinois, 46%; Rhode Island, 44%; Kansas, 40%; Pennsylvania, 37%; Maryland, 35%; Wisconsin, 34%; Michigan, 33%; Vermont, 32%; and Indiana, New York, New Hampshire, West Virginia, 30%.
In effect, bowhunters in 16 of 26 Midwestern and Northeastern states (62%) in the NDA report harvested roughly a third or more of their state’s deer kills in 2020. Overall, bowhunters took 35% of the Northeast’s harvest and 28% of the Midwest’s. For perspective, when Adams and Ross reviewed bowhunting’s impact in 2002, bowhunters delivered 18% of the Northeast’s deer kill and 16% of the Midwest’s. Further, only two states—Illinois, 32% and New Jersey, 33%—pushed bowhunting’s share into the 30s.
Ten years later, in 2012, bowhunters boosted their input to 26% in the Northeast and 23% in the Midwest, but only two states had bow-kills above 40% of their total harvest: New Jersey, 52%, and Connecticut, 40%. Ohio was on its way, however, at 39%.
In contrast, bowhunters accounted for 16% of the Southeast’s deer kill in 2020, an increase from 10% in 2002 and 14% in 2012.
Do crossbows explain bowhunting’s increased contributions to all those deer harvests? No. If it were solely about crossbows, Ohio wouldn’t be the only longtime crossbow-using state where “horizontal bows” deliver a huge chunk of the annual harvest. Ohio legalized crossbows for archery season in 1976, joining Arkansas (1973) and Wyoming (unknown). The next state to do so was Georgia in 2002, and then Alabama, 2004; and Tennessee and Virginia, 2005.
Still, archery’s impact on deer kills in those states remained modest in 2020, ranging from 6% in Wyoming, to 16% in Georgia, 17% in Arkansas, and 20% in Alabama. Ohio’s bowhunters took 96,209 deer during the state’s 2020-21 deer season, or 48% of the 196,988 harvest.
What makes crossbows so dominant in Ohio, but relatively minor in the other original crossbow states? Many factors are at play, but Mike Tonkovich, deer program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, cites two primary drivers: the other states’ long firearms seasons and Ohio’s relatively dense human populations.
“Why use a crossbow in Wyoming or Arkansas when you can just pick up your rifle and go, even during the rut?” Tonkovich told MeatEater. “Those states have long gun seasons, and abundant and convenient access to public lands.”
Ohio’s firearms deer season is 11 days, Wyoming’s 30 days, and Arkansas’ 54 days; while Wyoming ranks seventh in the nation for public lands, Arkansas 21st and Ohio 44th.
“Ohio has 11 million people, and our hunters increasingly want to hunt near home in warmer weather whenever they can,” Tonkovich continued. “Many of our hunters are older guys who don’t want to drive far, and they’d just as soon not hunt in December when we hold our gun season. Plus, they often live near abundant deer. Those factors push lots of people to crossbows, not just in Ohio, but many of the Midwest and Northeast’s big deer states.”
Those factors show up consistently in states where bowhunters claim high percentages of the harvest. Gun seasons average 14 days in the Midwest, 30 days in the Northeast; and 81 days in the Southeast. More specifically, gun season covers seven days in Illinois, nine days in Wisconsin, 12 in Kansas and Massachusetts, 14 in Pennsylvania, 15 in Maryland, 16 in Michigan, and 18 in Connecticut.
Dense human populations factor in for many of those states. Howard Kilpatrick, a biologist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, said the state forbids gunfire within 500 feet of occupied dwellings. “In Greenwich, that means only 13% of the city’s land area could be opened to gun-hunting, but it’s still impossible because that’s mostly parks, golf courses, and water-company land,” he told MeatEater.
Massachusetts, where bowhunters deliver half the deer harvest, has similar challenges. “We aren’t the only state with expanding suburbs, growing deer herds, and fewer places to gun-hunt,” said John McDonald, a wildlife professor at Westfield State University.
Dan Forster, the Archery Trade Association’s vice president and chief conservation officer, worked 30 years as a wildlife biologist and administrator for Georgia’s DNR. “Archery offers more management options in urban and suburban settings, and deer don’t care if the arrow comes from a compound bow or crossbow,” he told MeatEater. “Those areas desperately need deer removed, and bows let you surgically remove them in confined places. Many urban areas aren’t trying to manage deer to long-range population goals. They just want to reduce complaints and car-deer collisions.”
Dan Skinner oversees Illinois’ deer-management program. He said crossbows and compounds are the state’s only deer-management options around Chicago, including all of Cook, DuPage, and Lake counties, and the eastern side of Kane County. Bowhunters also take 60% of the entire deer harvest in Sangamon County, home to Illinois’ state capital, Springfield.
“All those counties have deer populations, but we can’t use firearms in the Chicagoland area, and firearm options are limited in Sangamon County, so we rely heavily on bowhunters,” Skinner told MeatEater. “Bowhunting accounts for 46% of the total statewide harvest, but it’s 100% in northeastern Illinois.”
Skinner said it’s too soon to predict crossbows’ long-term impacts on Illinois’ deer management, given that 2022 marks only the “horizontal bow’s” sixth full year in the archery season. After crossbow usage jumped from 15% of the archery harvest in 2016 to 30% in 2017 (the first year), it increased to 40% in 2018, 45% in 2019, 50% in 2020, and 51.5% in 2021.
“We don’t know what percentage of bowhunters use crossbows, but we do know the percentage of successful bowhunters using them,” Skinner said. “When they register their harvest, they report what they shot it with. We think crossbow usage is still rising, but the increase in 2021 was the smallest since they were legalized.”
C.J. Winand, a Maryland biologist who tracks bowhunting data for Bowhunter Magazine, said crossbows generally become the archery season’s “weapon of choice” within three years of legalization. Winand’s latest report shows crossbows accounted for 50% or more of the archery harvest in 11 states in 2019.
Ohio’s crossbow hunters took a record 71% of the archery total in 2021. Michigan, which legalized crossbows for archery season in 2009, attributed 67% of its archery kill to crossbows in 2019. Others above 50% that year were Pennsylvania, 65%, Delaware, 64%; New Jersey, 63%; Maryland, 56%; Virginia and West Virginia, 53%; Indiana, 52%; and Tennessee, 51%.
Wisconsin’s crossbow hunters delivered 60% of the archery total in 2021.
With that level of interest in crossbows and bowhunting, many states report steadily increasing deer kills before firearms seasons open. According to the 2019 NDA Deer Report, the percentage of deer shot before gun season more than doubled in Kansas (18% to 38%) from 2002 to 2017; and nearly doubled in Massachusetts (23% to 40%), Ohio (23% to 39%), and Wisconsin (15% to 29%).
But Jeff Pritzl, the Wisconsin DNR’s deer program specialist, said “bigger forces” in society unpredictably affect deer-management programs, and some get overlooked in the moment. Whether it’s compound bows overshadowing portable treestands in the 1970s, crossbow fears obscuring the impacts of more baby boomers hunting near home in warm weather, or simply more hunters passing up more shooting opportunities, it’s often hard to find data to confirm what’s going on.
“The trajectory shift to archery equipment began decades ago,” Pritzl told MeatEater. “It didn’t start with crossbows. That shift has long been steady and growing, and it reflects how and when people want to hunt. You might not like those changes, but no one was hiding them. They were always there.”
In 1970, for example, Wisconsin’s 101,573 bowhunters using recurves and longbows accounted for 8.2% of the state’s 79,364 combined firearms/archery deer harvest. As compound bows and portable treestands exploded in popularity alongside a booming deer herd during the 1970s, Wisconsin bowhunters delivered 13% of the state’s 160,578 total harvest in 1980. Their impact reached 26% of 368,314 in 2012 (two years before crossbows were legalized for archery season), 34% of 338,839 in 2020, and 32% of 308,429 in 2021.
Meanwhile, fewer observers noticed Wisconsin’s bowhunters losing interest in antlerless deer. Antlered bucks made up 27% of Wisconsin’s archery kill in 1970, but jumped to 43% in 1980, 53% in 1990, and 57% in 1995. Bowhunting’s buck kill then fluctuated from 46% to 50% from 2000 to 2010 when “earn-a-buck” rules and other incentives increased antlerless harvests.
Bowhunters responded to those efforts with a record 116,010 kills in 2007, and three other Top 5 harvests in 2004, 2006, and 2008 averaging 105,592 kills. Those bow harvests occurred six years before Wisconsin legalized crossbows. The only other top-5 year, 2020, ranks third all-time and occurred during COVID-19 restrictions when archers (including crossbows) killed 113,567 deer.
What changed the past decade? Bowing to outraged hunters, Wisconsin’s Legislature outlawed earn-a-buck in 2011, which required every license holder to shoot a doe or fawn before filling their gun and archery buck tags. Since then, the 2020 “COVID-19 season” is the only time bowhunters exceeded 100,000 kills.
But after earn-a-buck died, Wisconsin’s buck kill resumed rising, hitting 54% of the archery harvest in 2018, 55% in 2019, 58% in 2020, and 61% in 2021. Interestingly, Wisconsin’s buck-kill percentages are virtually identical for crossbows and compounds.
Michigan’s buck kill during recent archery seasons nearly replicated Wisconsin’s, hitting 61% of the bowhunting harvest in 2017 and 2018, and 62% in 2019. Winand’s data shows 12 other states with bowhunting buck-kill percentages above 50% in 2019: South Dakota, 71%; Arkansas, 67%; Massachusetts, 66%, Iowa and North Dakota, 64%; New York, 62%; Nebraska, 60%; Louisiana and West Virginia, 59%; Kansas, 54%; Pennsylvania, 53%; and Tennessee, 51%.
Tonkovich said those numbers are disappointing for herd management, but not unique to bowhunters. During Ohio’s 2021 seasons, the total deer kill was 196,988, of which 45% were bucks. The buck totals included males with or without antlers, and those with sublegal (less than 3 inches) antlers. “We ended our seasons with antlerless deer making up the lowest percentage of the harvest (54.8%) since 1999, when it was 54%,” Tonkovich said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve seen numbers like these.”
At this point, he can’t explain the shift. “There was a time when lots more hunters found satisfaction in shooting antlerless deer, or at least were interested,” he said. “The trend now is more deer, fewer hunters, and fewer hunters wanting to shoot does. It’s become more like a cafeteria, where hunters are in a shorter line, but have a lot more pies to choose from. They used to worry that if they waited too long to shoot a doe, they’d go home empty-handed. Now they see enough bucks that they’ll just wait until they see a buck they want.”
That change was recent. Tonkovich said Ohio boosted its antlerless kills 31% in designated zones from about 2007 to 2013 by selling a reduced-price ($9 cheaper) license that included an early-season antlerless tag that expired before gun season. The Ohio DNR sold about 138,000 of those tags annually, but sales plunged to 12,000 when Ohio tried the program again in 2020. He said hunters had simply lost interest in shooting that second deer.
“That permit turned things around for us a decade ago, but when we tried to ‘get the band back together’ a couple of years ago, the interest wasn’t there,” Tonkovich said.
Adams said most states’ long-time reliance on gun-hunters to “take up the slack” on antlerless goals is being tested. Changing attitudes, declining hunter numbers, and more urbanized landscapes are increasing the urgency to engage more bowhunters in the effort.
Pritzl recognizes those challenges. “Bowhunting’s trend away from antlerless harvests in Wisconsin is unmistakable and concerning,” he said. “Can gun-hunters make up for it? Most hunters only shoot one deer each year. If they shoot a buck with a bow, they’re often done for the year. They might go hunting with friends, but they’re not motivated to shoot a second or third deer.
“We’re encouraging bowhunters to shoot an antlerless deer opening weekend. We’d like them to step up their game, and not pass those early-season opportunities. We tell them if you can’t use the deer yourself, donate it. Make it more than recreation. Be part of the overall deer-management program.”
Feature image via Captured Creative.