Survey Methods for Deer


Why Survey Deer?

There are many reasons to conduct surveys for white-tailed deer, but most involve some type of management implications based on the estimate of the local deer population. Common reasons for conducting surveys for white-tailed deer include determining current herd size, determining harvest guidelines, to correlate numbers with habitat evaluation or even for marketing purposes.

It’s important to understand that a survey and a census are not the same. Surveys are essentially a sample of the population, but the information can be used to estimate and manage the entire population. A census is the addition of the entire population, which is impossible with deer and other wildlife species.

Spotlight Survey and Incidental Survey Methods

There are 4 survey techniques that can be used for deer. The two most common methods, which are often used together on properties, are the spotlight method and the incidental method. The spotlight method is the go-to for estimating deer density is a given area. It takes into account the number of deer seen as well as the area surveyed (visible acres). Spotlight surveys take place at night.

Incidental surveys, however, take place during the day. Using this methods, a standardize or non-standardized route is driven and the sex and age of observed deer are recorded. The spotlight survey can estimate density, but the incidental survey is better for estimating herd parameters and that is why these to survey methods are often used together on a property.


Trail Camera Surveys

Another technique that can be used to estimate deer populations include camera surveys. Motion-triggered trail cameras can be used to collect deer herd data in a number of ways. Many believe the best application for camera data is to estimate herd parameters, such as buck to doe ratio, number of fawns per doe and even antler quality, but cameras can also be used to estimate deer density.

To estimate deer density, cameras must be deployed to capture photos of every buck in the area. This is accomplished by setting cameras in areas for 7-10 days in where bucks are known to congregate, such as around feeding or watering areas. Then, cameras are re-deployed randomly across a property at a about 1 camera per 150 acres with a time delay setting of 5-10 minutes. Finally, the number of bucks observed in the first round of photos can be used with herd parameter data (ie. buck:doe:fawn ratios) from the second round of photos to estimate the deer population.

Aerial Survey Methods

Aerial techniques, which can include helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft, are used to a lesser extent to survey deer. This method is more suited to open country or low shrublands and to where the are of interest is large and making the exercise economical. Aerial surveys take into account the acreage surveyed as well as the number of deer counted. The most common strategy is to fly parallel lines across a property at a set distance, then area can be calculated by the width of the transects as well as total combined length.

Which Survey Method is Right for You?

Determine your goals and objectives before settling on a survey method. The techniques vary quite a bit and all depend on some type of equipment. Most property owners have vehicles to conduct spotlight and incidental surveys, but may still need to purchase spotlights. Of course, not everyone has an army of trail cameras or plane, helicopter or budget to hire one. Determine your objectives, keep costs in mind and plan accordingly.

Also, choose the method that matches your habitat and topography. For example, an aerial survey will not work in a forested area. A camera survey has limited application on vary large acreage, but is well suited to dense habitats on properties 600 acres in size or less. It is also important to realize the limitations of each deer survey technique and understand the importance of using several methods together. Once deer survey methods are nailed down for a property make sure to use the same ones year after year. This will help detect trends in the deer herd from year to year.

Managing for wildlife and habitat