White-tailed Deer Management – Better Bucks, Improved Hunting
Hunters and landowners want better whitetail hunting and know that active deer management is one way to get there, but the first step is often overlooked — the establishment of clear, well-defined goal that includes measureable objectives. Like other wildlife management initiatives, deciding on what is to be accomplished is essential because there is no one deer management program that will work for every landowner. Different goals will require different management techniques.
The only component of many self-proclaimed “deer management programs” is some type of regulated harvest. This may include the removal of inferior bucks or the restricted harvest of does, but often this type of simplified “management” falls short of expected goals. Hunting is the only economically practical method of deer population control, but hunting alone will not do it all. Harvest management, when combined with other, necessary deer management practices, such as surveys, habitat enhancement, and the collection of harvest data, can improved the deer found on a property over a number of years. Annual harvest records provide the data required to assess future management recommendations and are essential in evaluating the success of a program.
Habitat Management for Whitetail Deer
To manage a property for whitetail deer means understanding deer food habits as well as habitat requirements and things that can potentially conflict with these fundamental needs. Land-use practices, for example, may work against management goals. Timber, farming or ranching practices may destroy habitat rather than enhance it. Livestock can be particularly hard on deer plants, habitat. It’s important to be mindful of potential competition for forage between wild and domestic animals, livestock stocking rates, and rotational grazing when managing range lands for deer. When used incorrectly domestic livestock can make things worse for deer, but when manipulated correctly they can actually improve deer habitat.
But managed grazing is but one example of affecting habitat. Other important deer and wildlife management practices include brush control, prescribed burning, soil disturbance and the planting of beneficial native forbs and browse species. A deer’s habitat should furnish the basic necessities, which include proper nutrition, water and cover. The diversity of plants on a property is the key to meeting cover and food requirements. Basic cover needs are low-growing herbaceous vegetation for adequate hiding cover to protect fawns, mid-level brush or escape cover to provide protection from predators and trees and tall shrubs to protect whitetail deer from weather extremes. The habitat must include plants that provide the nutritional requirements of deer.
Deer Management Examples
Case 1: If the objective is to increase the number of whitetail on a property where there are few or no deer, complete protection from all causes of mortality is the most important action a landowner can take. Often times, deer are at low numbers on a property because the habitat found there is not suitable. This may be in the form of water availability, screening or protective cover or food plants. Care should be taken to identify the limiting factor/s and then take management actions to promote the missing links. It would be a good idea to consult a local state or federal wildlife biologist before moving ahead too far and too fast.
Case 2: If the objective is to produce trophy quality bucks, important wildlife management actions are to keep the deer herd in balance with food supplies through adequate harvest of antlerless deer, to protect yearling bucks until they reach an older age when antler development is maximum, and initiate deer habitat improvements that increase available food. These combined actions will provide better nutrition for the deer on the property, allowing bucks to grow older, developing larger body sizes and antlers.
Case 3: Where the objective is to reduce serious damage to agricultural crops or suburban areas, important management actions are to increase removal of antlerless deer and to arrange for increased hunter access to insure that enough whitetail deer are removed/taken annually. For hunting to be an effective tool for population regulation, there must be sufficient hunting pressure and hunter access to reach desired deer harvest levels. Actions in this example may include installing bait stations or planting food plots to attract animals for harvest.
The three examples above are simplified versions of basic deer management programs that are implemented on lands across the US each year. Each has a definite objective and each requires different management actions to achieve desired results. Some deer management objectives, such as crop damage control and trophy buck management, may be compatible at the same time. Key elements of both are to have high doe harvest rates and maintain relatively low deer population levels.
Managing for Deer, Land and People
Important deer management program considerations include deer population regulation, habitat manipulation (enhancement) and people management. In fact, almost all deer management programs contain some aspect of each of these three components. The most difficult component is people management, whether it be in suburban situations or properties where trophy buck management is the goal. In suburban areas, different people have varying attitudes toward deer. Some want more deer, some want fewer deer, some are opposed to deer hunting, and so forth.
On properties that aim to grow mature bucks with big antlers, hunters may have different definitions on what “big” or “mature” means. People management becomes critical to make sure that the goals are well-defined and that hunters are on the same page. As one can imagine, there have been many disagreements on properties managed for whitetail because hunters were either ignorant of wildlife management goals or ill-prepared for the hunt. If you are a landowner, make sure deer management and harvest objectives are clearly stated before hunters head out into the field. If you are a hunter, make sure you are comfortable with scoring deer on the hoof as well as aging deer on the hoof before pulling the trigger.