Written by Ruben Cantu and Greg Simons, Wildlife Biologists | Wildlife Consultants, Inc.
While white-tailed deer management is not rocket science, it is similar to chemistry. If you’ll think back to your high school chemistry class, you spent a lot of time trying to balance equations. For the desired reaction to occur, every element had to be in the correct proportion to every other element.
In deer management, the elements of concern are nutrition, age and genetics. When a manager understands the impact of each of these and strikes a balance between them, the result is robust bucks and a healthy deer herd.
With that said, a deer manager should not start tinkering with any of these individual elements without first establishing a management goal for the property and the herd. This goal will be unique to your operation. Do you want to manage for a maximum number of animals? Do you want to focus your efforts on producing high-quality animals? Do you want to do both? Are you producing these deer for your personal enjoyment or do you intend to create a commercial enterprise? Do you want to manage intensively controlling as many variables as possible or do you want to let Mother Nature play a big role? Do you want to concentrate on wildlife or will you be raising livestock as well? Do you anticipate adding exotics to your operation?
Ask yourself these questions and every one like them that you can think of, and then answer them honestly. Why? Because the answer to these questions will identify your overall management goal which will become the litmus test for every other management decision you make. When faced with a decision, effective deer managers ask themselves: Will this help me reach my ultimate management goal?
To achieve your management goal, it’s important to understand the role that nutrition, age and genetics play in the development of individual animals, and therefore the herd.
When we talk about nutrition, we’re talking about native habitat. While it is possible to supply adequate nutrition from a feed bag, native habitat and, in areas where the climate supports them, food plots put the deer on the highest nutritional plane. Nutrition is the foundation of a quality deer herd because without adequate nutrition an animal can’t express its full genetic potential.
Deer are browsers meaning they prefer browse, the leaves and tender shoots of woody plants, and forbs, which most people identify as weeds. Different plants have different growing seasons and different plants contain different nutrients, so deer benefit from a diverse landscape. Diverse habitat is Mother Nature’s buffet, allowing the animals to pick and choose the foods that meet their nutritional needs at any given time.
High-protein pellets receive a lot of attention. While pelleted feed can contribute to antler growth, it should be used as a supplement, if it’s used at all. In our experience, relying on high protein feed as your primary food source has several built-in pitfalls. First, it can mask deficiencies in your habitat. Second, it can also be very expensive. Third, deer, like people, have food preferences. Deer will eat protein feed, but if given a choice they will select diverse plant sources first. To put it in perspective, if you were given the choice between a buffet of freshly prepared, ever-changing food and a steady diet of high-fiber cereal, which would you choose? In the realm of feed, corn is the equivalent of deer candy. It is an energy source and an effective attractant, but it is nutritionally deficient.
One of the keys to having productive habitat lies in the concept of carrying capacity. Each piece of land can only support a certain number of animals. If the deer population is greater than the carrying capacity, you run the risk of having poorly performing animals and long-term habitat degradation.
Gathering population information through surveys and then developing an on-going harvest plan based on the survey data are the primary tools of herd management. (This is another deer management balancing act and we will cover this in-depth in a later article.)
Many people measure the success of their deer management program in Boone and Crockett inches, but don’t realize that maximum antler development generally occurs when a buck reaches 6 ½ or 7 ½ years old.
In addition to antler development, mature bucks play an important role in the social order of a deer herd and may actually influence the timing of rut. Of course, the older, dominant bucks play a major role in breeding. In the long-term, the quality of a deer herd improves if the biggest and best bucks breed the majority of the does. If all the mature bucks are harvested, then your next generation of fawns will be sired by young and, possibly, inferior bucks.
A recent research study conducted by a team of university wildlife biologists in the western states reached a surprising conclusion. The group analyzed 108 years of data on the size of horns and antlers among 25 trophy categories in North America. They discovered that, over the past century, the size of trophy horns and antlers for most species had declined slightly.
In searching for the cause, the team ruled out several possible causes of the decline, including climate change, habitat alterations and the “sociological effect” of increased hunter interest in submitting trophies to the record books. Instead, the analyses pointed them toward the intensive harvest of males as the most likely explanation for the declines. Intensive harvest lowers the age of the males across the species, allowing fewer animals to reach trophy status prior to harvest.
The bottom line is that a buck will never express his full genetic potential or pass along his DNA if he’s shot as a youngster.
Of the three elements of deer management, genetics is probably the most discussed and the least important. It is definitely the most difficult to control.
All bucks are genetically predisposed to grow a set of antlers with certain antler traits. Some will grow big ones while others will grow small ones, some high, and others wide. But genetic potential can be masked by poor nutrition and youth; therefore, some of the biggest management gains are made by improving habitat and allowing bucks to mature.
Managing genetics within a free-ranging deer herd can be the most difficult and confusing part of a deer management program. Selectively removing “undesirable” bucks through a culling program is the most common way of trying to influence the deer herd’s genetic profile. For a culling program to be successful, a manager must have a very clear goal in mind and be able to implement a very thorough, selective harvest program that takes into account antler characteristics and age.
This is not a proposition to be entered into lightly because it takes an on-going commitment to see results. Each year, the undesirable bucks must be identified and harvested. In addition, does must be harvested aggressively to ensure that the habitat’s carrying capacity is not exceeded.
Many landowners aspire to practice Quality Deer Management. The name has taken on a mystique, but it is simply: “the voluntary use of restraint in the harvesting of young bucks, combined with an appropriate antlerless harvest to maintain a healthy deer population in balance with the habitat.”
As this definition asserts, deer management is not rocket science, but a practical balancing act.