Deer Management – Deer Hunting and Harvests
Proper deer harvest plays a big role in an effective deer management program. Areas with higher deer densities have lower fawn crops, more major die-offs, smaller body weights, and poorer quality antlers. These symptoms are a result of abused rangeland, where white-tailed deer (and often exotic deer and domestic livestock) have eaten all available forbs and browse. Such areas have poor plant diversity and in some cases are dominated by nuisance plant species. If this is the case, the whole system, including your white-tailed deer herd, is suffering. But what if you are short on deer? And how many deer should you harvest?
Hunting season for whitetail is always in the fall, and it’s not an accident. Fall hunting allows the removal of excess animals from the landscape prior to winter. When it comes to the deer carrying capacity, winter is the biggest limiting factor. Because of the harsh time of year, proper deer harvest is essential for the deer herd on your property, their habitat, and your overall deer management program.
In most situations, harvesting around 20 to 30 percent of the antlerless deer off a property each year will usually maintain good nutritional conditions, assuming the habitat is not overgrazed by cattle or some other form of domestic livestock. On well-managed habitat, a healthy white-tailed doe harvest should produce conditions for good fawn survival, good body size, and good antler developement. To make sure you are harvested at the proper rate, the best bet is to conduct a deer survey in late-summer of each year. Without deer survey data, you may as well just shoot into the dark.
With accurate information on deer herd size, the buck to doe ratio, and fawn survival and with considerations for rainfall, habitat conditions, and hunting on neighboring property, the deer manager could then prescribe the percentage of the herd that should be harvested to optimize management objectives. Situations such as this where all pertinent information is availalbe are, of course, very rare in deer management. However, it is your job to collect as much data as possible so that you can manage the herd on your property as effectively as possible.
Let’s say your goal is to produce “quality” whitetail bucks. Well then, the total buck harvest should be restricted to 20% or less of the estimated buck population. This limited harvest lower hunter success rates, but will allow a significant portion of the buck population to reach maturity and increase the proportion of bucks in the population. This strategy has only limited success on smaller tracts of land where hunting pressure on surrounding lands is moderate to heavy. If you have a smaller property, then it will probably be recommended that you harvest at a slightly higher harvest rate unless you can form a wildlife management cooperative with your surrounding neighbors.
For smaller properties, or those that simply want a healthy deer herd, a slightly higher buck harvest rate can be justified. In short, remove 27% to 33% of the estimated buck population annually. Not only will this harvest rate allow for a generally acceptable level of hunter success, but it will also restrict pressure on bucks–and allow the remainder of the buck population to reach an older age classes.