If you thought last year was slim pickings for seeing adult bucks on the land you hunt, you’re probably not going to like what’s in store for this year and beyond. Deer and Deer Hunting Editor Dan Schmidt provides his predictions for Northern whitetail hunters for 2014 and beyond.
As we exit our worst winter in 30-plus years, remember you heard it here first: A lot of deer hunters across the country will be in for some sobering news this fall. And next fall. And most likely the fall after that. Although I’m talking mostly Upper Midwest, North and Northeast here, the effects will push a lot farther south than most folks realize. It’s not so much that this winter will have killed off deer through exposure and starvation — yes, some of that is already being reported — it will be more linked to compounding interest from last year; the overall health of the deer herds in certain regions; and, as stated on this blog a few weeks ago, the glaring weakness in overwinter habitat across much of Northern deer country.
Before diving into this conversation, let’s set one thing straight: A true understanding of deer population dynamics requires a solid understanding of deer densities and real-life — not anecdotal observations of white-tailed deer sex ratios. Those topics require more reading than what this blog is meant for. If you want to really understand these issues, subscribe to Deer & Deer Hunting and consume every printed word we publish from the top wildlife biologists in North America. You can also get that information right now through some of the best books ever published on whitetails.
Also, this conversation is about regional deer populations. Not about specific properties. It’s not gloom-and-doom for everyone — as, of course, it never is or will be — it is about basic trends in deer populations.
Enough prefacing. For the sake of space, let’s remember a key point, and that is post-hunt adult whitetail sex ratios will seldom exceed three does for every antlered buck. That’s an extreme case, mind you, for marginal deer habitats. On the same land, an average pre-hunt sex ratio would be five adult does for every buck.
Again, we’re talking marginal habitat. What’s marginal habitat? Think true northern areas: 42nd latitude-ish and above. Start talking about good-to-prime habitat, and the average sex ratio will shrink considerably. Deer densities will effect it somewhat, but when we’re talking 40th to 42nd latitude regions (ballpark), we’re looking at worst-case pre-hunt sex ratios of three adult does for every antlered buck; and post-hunt ratios much closer to 2-to-1.
We all need to stop believing the “8 to 10 adult does for every antlered buck” claims. That simply does not exist on a region-wide basis for adult deer. In fact, it’s probably biologically impossible. The problem with observational sex ratios is that most of us get caught up with fawn sightings. We drive down the road, see 50 deer in the field and proclaim them all as “does” because there isn’t an antler in the crowd. Impressive sight, no doubt, but what we fail to understand is that mid-level “northern” areas (think 42nd latitude) are typically highly productive areas that boast 30 percent or more fawns in the overall pre-hunt deer population. That’s a ton of deer. We also fail to realize that mass sightings cannot be extrapolated across the landscape as fact. If you see 50 deer in a 40-acre field, chances are there all grouped there for a reason (food source). A healthy deer herd would be less than 35 deer per 640 acres (square mile).
Back to my point. All things being equal, those fawns are nearly split 50/50 male-female. Some small pockets of exceptions, yes, but regional averages still hold true to the near-even split in overall sex ratio. Now for the sobering news. The winter of 2012-2013 was a knockout for fawns in many of the far northern regions. In some regions, 80 percent of the deer that died that winter and following spring were fawns.
This winter was much worse weather-wise, but the deer losses from the fawn segment might only be 50 percent. What this means is that the other 50 percent of deer lost this winter will have been adult deer. And the does that did survive 2012-2013 experienced beyond poor fawn recruitment rates last spring. See where I’m going here? What we’re looking at are the near elimination of three age classes from many deer herds. These effects will be felt by hunters — especially trophy buck hunters — for several seasons to come.
Another fearless prediction: This odd winter, the resulting increases in newborn fawn mortality this spring (mostly from abandonment by poorly nourished mothers) will push these effects much farther south than states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, etc. I believe we will see population effects (albeit not as exaggerated) in places like Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania to name a few. In those places, losses will be more “hidden” and most likely caused by predation; making them much more difficult to quantify.
Poorly nourished does will simply not have the energy, production and means of caring for what will otherwise be healthy newborn fawns. These fawns will be abandoned and, after a day of bawling for their mamas, will be be easy prey for coyotes, bobcats, birds of prey and any of the other critters that make their living off of easy meals.
This is all sobering news, but it’s Mother Nature’s reality. What’s worse is we can’t do a whole lot to fix it for our deer-first wants and desires. We can improve the situation by calling for a comprehensive overhaul of how we manage overwinter habitat in our regions. This isn’t about planting food plots or throwing corn and hay out to starving deer. It’s about serious bipartisanship when it comes to managing state, federal and private lands in deer country.
What can individuals do? A few things:
•Back off on personal doe harvests if your area is one that’s been hard hit by winter’s effects and poor management.
•Manage your property in the best interest of the habitat, not just for deer.
•Refrain from high levels of baiting and feeding in winter time, where legal (feeding can actually counteract well intentions on forest management).
These won’t fix the inherent problem, but they will at least help you at least slightly improve your own situation.
RELATED BLOGS FROM DAN SCHMIDT:
Subscribe to Deer and Deer Hunting to get the most up-to-date, factual information on whitetail management and hunting tactics. The magazine is also now available in many digital formats. Click here to learn more.