Game Cameras: The Best Yardstick for Deer Demographics

It’s something deer hunters/managers ponder every year: How many deer are on my property?

Maybe they had a poor hunt- ing season and a lot of deer survived. Or a harsh winter had a negative impact on the population. Sure, it’s possible to sit on a big agricultural field during a summer evening and count deer filing out. But that’s not a true representation of deer inhabiting the property.

Game cameras provide great data and insights on deer populations and behavior.

Game cameras provide great data and insights on deer populations and behavior.

Deer numbers can be estimated using helicopter and spotlight surveys, but for landowners who want to do it themselves one method reigns supreme for most properties. A trail camera survey is a relatively noninvasive method of measuring herd demographics such as density, age structure, fawn recruitment and buck-to-doe ratios.

Setup is relatively easy and based on property size. Evenly distribute cameras at one per 100 or 200 acres, representing the habitat types appropriately. For example, if 50 percent of your property is in hardwoods and 50 percent in fields, then one-half of your cameras should be in hardwoods and the other half in fields. This will ensure you are accurately sampling the property. Typically, shelled corn is used to bait sites, but check local guidelines and regulations.

TIME AND PLACE
A trail camera survey’s accuracy depends on placement as well as time engaged. Time is represented in two ways: the time of the year and the length of time the cameras are out. A survey is typically run either during late summer to early fall, or immediately after the hunting season in the winter.

Most choose the summer/fall because it provides a great view of the deer herd and bucks on a property entering the hunting season. In other words, if you have way too many does, you can get to work early in the season harvesting some of them.

Once you put out your game cameras, learning more about the wildlife on your property can help you become a smarter, better hunter.

Once you put out your game cameras, learning more about the wildlife on your property can help you become a smarter, better hunter.

However, sometimes it’s best to know which deer made it through the hunting season, and that’s best accomplished with a post-season winter survey. If so, the survey needs to be completed prior to bucks drop- ping antlers in order to identify unique bucks in the herd.

The length of time cameras are out surveying is important, too. The longer the camera is out the better the chance of capturing images of deer on the property. When food is more abundant, such as during late summer/early fall, a longer survey period will be needed, such as 14 days. When food is scarce, and bait is more attractive, a shorter survey time is needed to capture a large percentage of the deer herd, such as 10 days.

The longest part of the survey process is the analysis of the images. We all love to sit down and look through trail camera pictures, but rarely do we look at them in the fine detail that is necessary for a trail camera survey. This includes the ability to identify unique bucks and also calculate buck-to-doe ratios and fawn recruitment.

A trail camera survey might not be for everyone, and those looking to have one done on their property (yet don’t have the time) can hire a professional biologist. But for anyone looking for an ultimate “Deer DIY Survey,” check out a more detailed guide to trail camera surveys by Mississippi State’s Deer Lab at www.msucares.com/pubs/publications/p2788.pdf.

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