One never knows what will be discussed when a bunch of deer hunters get together. but one thing is certain: if you want a heated debate just bring up the subject of deer management. It is a sure fire starter. Invariably things such as deer biologists have no clue about how many deer need to be harvested; the state is killing too many does; the deer harvest numbers are fake; firearms season is too long; the need for antler restrictions; or that crop damage permits should be done away with are just a few deer management hot button items.
By Charles Alshehimer
For Deer & Deer Hunting
I grew up during the 1950s and ’60s. It was a great time to be young in America, especially for a young man infatuated with white-tailed deer. Back then the whitetail scene was exciting, but nothing like today. In those days I knew of no one who archery hunted, camo clothing was unheard of, rifle hunting was illegal, and our firearm’s season was a short two weeks. Hunters wore Carhart coveralls and took to the woods with bead-sighted shotguns. For the most part conducting organized drives was the strategy used to harvest deer, so hunting pressure was intense. As a result, my area of western New York was a poster child for the slogan, “If it’s brown it’s down,” resulting in any buck older than 11⁄2 years to be rare.
In western New York, where my boyhood farm was located, no land- owners managed the deer that lived on their property. They relied on New York’s conservation depart- ment to handle deer management. Though I was very young at the time, I can still remember the controversy surrounding our area’s first “doe day” in the mid-1950s. Many locals went nuts, feeling the harvest of does would decimate the deer herd. Well, as history shows, that didn’t happen.
As years passed, the baby-boom generation reached hunting age. At the same time whitetail numbers were exploding, setting the stage for deer hunting to take off through- out the whitetail’s range. Vision- ary businessmen such as Fred Bear (Bear Archery), Jim Crumbley (Treebark camo), Bill Jordan (Realtree camo) and Toxey Haas (Mossy Oak camo) sold the hunting public on their ideas. From a management standpoint, magazines such as Deer & Deer Hunting set the wheels in motion for one of the greatest wildlife success stories of our time to take place.
A New Paradigm
Up until the mid-1980s, few hunters and landowners outside of the state of Texas thought of managing deer herds locally, especially when it came to age structure and antlerless harvest. Though many states had gone from a state-wide management program to smaller wildlife management units, such units were, in many cases, too large. As a result, some units wound up having areas with too many or too few deer due to hunting pressure.
In 1989, I travelled to Texas to photograph and hunt whitetails. Part of the trip revolved around me meeting Al Brothers to do a story for Deer & Deer Hunting on his deer management philosophies. For those not familiar with Brothers, he is considered the father of quality deer management and co-author of the classic book on the subject, “Producing Quality Whitetails.” Needless to say, what I saw on the trip and heard from Brothers was life changing, at least as it related to deer management.
When I returned home, Brothers and I stayed in touch and he encouraged me to try and implement qual- ity deer management in my area of western New York. At first I thought it would be a waste of my time. Traditions die hard and the, “If it’s brown it’s down” philosophy was deeply entrenched within hunters in my area. But the more I thought about it the more I thought there was nothing to lose by giving it a shot. So, during the winter of 1990, eight other local landowners and I met to discuss the possibility of coming up with a plan to have better deer, better hunt- ing and better habitat for all wild- life. At that meeting “The Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group” was formed. Though it’s no longer in existence, it started a deer management movement that’s been great for the Northeast.
In 1994, we decidedto have our first Antler Round Up, where we presented our concept of having better deer, better habitat and better hunting to an overflowing audience of more than 600 deer hunters. Word traveled fast and for the next several years our Antler Round Up event drew hundreds of attendees, many from several surrounding states. I can’t say that our group was responsible for quality deer movement taking hold in the Northeast, but what I can say is the topics we presented at the Antler Round Up showed hunters and landowners how they could better manage their deer locally.
Understand that managing whitetails at the local level is not rocket science. Our area is living proof that if you want better bucks (without antler restrictions), better habitat and better hunting it is possible, even in areas where hunting pressure tends to be intense. Simply put, it takes hard work, dedication, education and like-minded philosophies. What follows is a blue- print of how it can be done.
Like Minded Philosophies
I’ve known Neil Dougherty of North Country Whitetails since he was in high school, when I introduced him and his dad to ways they could have better deer on their hunting property. Today, Neil manages hunting properties throughout the Northeast that encompass thousands of acres. When I recently asked him to comment on what it takes to better manage deer locally he said, “For starters, it’s best if you can form some sort of cooperative with local landowners so that yearling buck harvest is kept to a minimum and doe populations kept within the carrying capacity of the area being managed. When this happens amazing things can take place. Unpressured deer will feel comfortable moving about throughout daylight hours and with 21⁄2-year-old-and-older bucks in the area the rut will be more intense, enhancing hunting opportunities.”
Build a Resort
Once locals get on the same page and begin managing their buck and doe populations, an emphasis must be placed on creating great bedding cover. Food will come next but cover is what gives deer a sense of security. For this reason the three other landowners and I who form our loose-knit management program have worked hard to increase our habitat to offer both natural food and cover for our deer. Two ways we’ve done it are through selective timber harvests and tree/shrub plantings. The tree and shrub plantings are laid out in such a fashion to provide cover as well as enhance hunting opportunities.
A key component when it comes to habitat creation, be it timber harvest or tree plantings, is to make the property’s prime bedding area a sanctuary for deer, meaning an area where no human activity takes place. The only time we go into our farm’s sanctuary is to follow a wounded deer (it’s happened only three times during the past 20 years), right after the season has ended to check for deer that might have come onto our property and died, and in March to look for shed antlers. The rest of the year the sanctuary area is off limits. This management component has greatly improved our daytime deer movement.
You Need the Best Food Possible
He who has the food, has the deer. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you have local cooperation and cover you are on your way to a great deer management program. However, to hold deer on a property you need the best food possible. Every deer walking needs roughly 11⁄2 tons of good-quality food a year to survive. So, to make a local management program thrive, a property needs great year-round food sources. If you don’t have great food, whitetails will move to other properties that do have it.
Our farm is blessed to have great hardwoods with the primary tree species being red oak, so many years (2014 in particular) our acorn crop is incredible. But deer need more than a diet of seasonal carbohydrates. With this in mind we work hard to offer the best possible food plots deer can feed in from spring green-up to late winter.
Know the Deer Population
It is impossible to know a local deer herd’s exact population. However, with a little work and the help of technology you can come close. Dougherty relies on trail cameras and late summer surveillance to get a good deer census on properties he manages. He does not place cameras on feed piles (where legal) because it can skew the numbers. Rather, he places one camera every 50 to 80 acres on scrapes, heavily used trails and food plots. Natural habitat and grazing pressure will let you know if you have too many deer. If you have heavy browse lines and can see more than 50 to 60 yards in the woods during summer months it’s a good indication you need to harvest more deer.
In many ways an area’s ability to produce fawns is a key to the future. If predators (coyotes, bears, wolves) are present, having more than 1.5 fawns for every mature doe is nearly impossible. Dougherty has found that over the years the better areas produce about one fawn for every adult doe. And if the levels drops below .6 fawns for every adult doe there is probably an impact from predators. The best way to project the future is to keep track of the number of mature does and fawns sighted, starting in late August through hunting season.
Having a good antlered-buck-to- adult-doe ratio can be tough because hunters historically want to see a lot of deer when they hunt. So, getting the ratio where it should be is often difficult. The well-managed ranches I’ve hunted and photographed on in Texas had ratios of nearly one-to-one. Frankly, this will not work in most areas of the country because of what hunters want to see. Realistically, an adult-doe- to-antlered-buck ratio north of 2 to 1 can be enough to keep the deer thriving and the hunters happy.
The way to get a handle on ratios is by visual scouting great food sources during late August and with trail cameras. Don’t rely heavily on ratios during the rut because they can be skewed when bucks are on the fly and does are hunkered down, fearing for their lives.
When our Steuben County Quality Whitetail Group was formed we thought we’d be able to hunt 51⁄2-year- old 140 to 150 B&C bucks within a few short years. It didn’t happen. Why? Because no matter how hard you try getting bucks to 4-plus years of age is extremely difficult (short of antler restrictions). Simply put, even though most bucks’ core home ranges are relatively small, they all seem to take a walk when the rut kicks in. And when this happens many wander onto properties that are not managed for older deer and get killed.
So, the philosophy many in our area (and nationwide) have embraced is what I call The Percentage Principle. Every landowner operates a little differently but most try to have seasoned hunters hunt only the top 10 or 20 percent of the bucks that inhabit their area. This principle works better than putting a limit on the number of inches a buck must have because not every region of the country can grow 140- to 150+-inch antlers.
And one more thing: Never limit what a first time hunter can kill. Doing so will kill a young or first- time hunter’s desire to hunt deer.
In spite of what some say, a good management program must address doe harvest because the key to a great program is having a balanced herd that doesn’t degrade the habitat. The number of does to be harvested depends on the census. In some areas it might mean harvesting as many as 30-plus does per square mile, while in others it could be 10 or fewer. Keep- ing good census figures offers the best opportunity to get it right.
Biology says that the doe harvest should be done during early season, prior to the rut. Well, yes, biologically this is the best way. But realistically a pre-rut harvest means killing does during archery season, which is extremely difficult and has the potential of disrupting buck and doe activity while tracking, often into prime bedding areas.
Personally, my son and I wait until the third week of our rifle season, or right after we may have harvested the bucks we are targeting to do our doe harvest. We also set up our harvest points on food sources where we can drop the doe in her tracks and retrieve her without disturbing the area.
Deer management has come a long way since I began hunting nearly a half century ago, and in my mind for the better. When deer hunters and land managers come together at the local level to produce better habitat, more balanced deer herds, better sex ratios and better hunting opportunities for both deer and man benefit. So, as I peer into the future, I’m encouraged by what I see happening at the grass roots level. What managing deer locally has brought to the table is far better than how deer were managed when I first began my pursuit of the whitetail.
– Charles Alsheimer is a deer behavior expert from western New York.
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