Set Goals For Quality Deer Management

The key to QDM satisfaction lies in setting realistic goals.

Charlie Killmaster | June 30, 2010

On an average deer club in Georgia, how many bucks like this roam the woods, and how does that number change as deer-management practices change?

For many hunters, quality deer management is the strategy of choice for their hunting experience. However, I’ve seen through my experience as a deer biologist working with many hunt clubs and landowners that many hunters don’t know what kind of results to realistically expect from various deer-management strategies.

To facilitate realistic expectations, we can use a model that, based on specific information from a piece of property, will output a maximum number of bucks potentially produced on an annual basis. The model simulates a five-year period from a buck’s birth to maturity.

As an example to show hunters what they can reasonably expect, let’s follow a group of buck fawns to maturity under different management strategies to see how they affect the end result.

Our study area is a 2-square-mile (1,280 acres) hunt club with a deer density of 25 deer per square mile, reasonable for most areas in the Southeast. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call it Bucktrax Hunt Club. Bucktrax is fortunate enough to already have a balanced sex ratio, productive habitat and a balanced doe age structure. Assuming everything stays status quo for the next five years, buck age structure is our only variable.

Out of the total of 50 deer, 25 are does and 25 are bucks. In good habitat does typically fawn at a rate of 1.5 fawns per doe. For the first year, we start out with 38 fawns (1.5 x 25 = 38). Fawns are typically born at a 50:50 ratio of bucks and does, so that leaves us with 19 buck fawns (38 ÷ 2 = 19).

Now that we’ve determined our buck fawn crop for the first year, let’s run through several management strategies and see how many survive to 5.5 years old. You can follow along using the tables. Table 1 shows the percentage of bucks that survive as they increase in age under the different strategies. Table 2 shows the number of bucks that survive to the next age class on Bucktrax, and Table 3 shows the number of bucks that the members on Bucktrax were able to harvest.

No Hunting

For this scenario, Bucktrax lost the lease and the landowner decided not to allow any hunting for 5 years. In this situation, the 19 buck fawns are only subject to non-hunting mortality rate, which we’ll estimate at 15 percent annually. This includes mortality factors such as deer-vehicle collisions, predation and disease, particularly brain abscess. Using those figures in a formula, we have 11 bucks remaining after three years and eight remaining after five years. Who wouldn’t give their right arm to be the first new group to lease Bucktrax with eight fully mature bucks cruising around? Unless you’re lucky enough to walk into this situation or only plan on hunting once every five years, this probably isn’t a reasonable management scenario.

Sustained Yield

Sustained Yield is a strategy used to maintain deer population density by only balancing the number of deer harvested with the number of deer born. This strategy can be used to increase deer density by shifting hunting pressure from does to bucks. For this scenario, Bucktrax would be considered a “if it’s brown, it’s down” meat club with no specific restraint on killing young bucks.

In this scenario, most of the buck fawns on Bucktrax would be killed in the first couple of years. Using the survival table, only one buck would make it to 4.5 years old and none to 5.5. Although, in the real world, a few really slick bucks can make it through to older age classes, but not near as many as if more were protected from harvest at younger ages.

Protecting Yearlings and Fawns

Many areas practice this strategy by not shooting spikes, but that’s not a blanket protection for all yearling bucks. Many yearling bucks will have forked antlers and in areas with excellent habitat may have 6 or 8 points. If your goal is to produce the highest quality bucks, identifying and protecting those 6- and 8-point yearlings is critical. This is a great example to point out that antler restrictions and quality deer management are not the same thing. Although an antler restriction is a tool used to promote an older age structure, it has limitations. Learning to identify these young deer and base harvest decisions on age rather than antler size is important to a quality deer management program.

Now let’s see how only protecting 1.5-year-old bucks and buck fawns affects the end result on Bucktrax. Again starting with 19 fawns, 16 will make it to the next age class. With 2.5-year-olds being fair game, the number of bucks drops to nine by the next year. By year five, using the same harvest and mortality rates as the other scenarios, Bucktrax is left with one buck out of the original group of buck fawns. I know it seems a little disappointing, but they were able to harvest one buck at 4.5 years old and two at 3.5. For quality management, this is a considerable improvement from Sustained Yield management results.

Protect 2.5 Year Olds and Fawns

Stepping up the game, this time Bucktrax is starting to get serious about setting and achieving goals. We only increased the level of protection by one year, but the strategy has now become considerably more difficult to implement. That skinny, almost feminine look of yearling bucks is gone by 2.5 years old, and separating these bucks from mature bucks requires much more skill. However, the restraint is starting to pay off, because Bucktrax members were able to harvest three bucks at 3.5, two at 4.5, and one at 5.5 years old.

This is the point where results are definitely noticeable. The ability to take six bucks annually off of 1,280 acres ranging from 3.5 to 5.5 years old is a great accomplishment for many clubs or landowners.

Keep in mind that the model includes some bucks that may never be harvested, and these numbers represent the bucks where a reasonable opportunity for harvest exists. Anyone who has ever used a trail camera knows a few bucks never seem to be caught out in daylight hours. In most areas, but depending on cover, all the hunters on a property should collectively have the opportunity to harvest roughly 30 percent of the standing crop of bucks annually (assuming that most hunt during the rut). Your harvest management strategy is what dictates the age at which that 30 percent will be taken.

Protect 3.5 Year Olds and Fawns

Some may consider that this strategy becomes more like work than recreation. The self-discipline and skill required of all the hunters on an area may be akin to the highest levels of martial arts training. Separating 3.5-year-old bucks from 4.5-year-olds is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible in some cases. However, separating 3.5-year-olds from bucks 5.5 and older can be done with rigorous study of trail-camera photos and well-rounded knowledge of age-identifying features.

Under this strategy, you will likely let many 4.5-year-olds walk to be on the safe side. To further compound the issues of this difficult strategy, buck mortality from disease can increase at older age classes from brain abscess. Brain abscess is caused by bacteria invading the skull cavity that originates from skin infections. Due to the normal behavior of mature bucks, such as increased fighting and creating more rubs than younger bucks, the opportunity for skin infections around the base of antlers is compounded. I’ve heard of buck mortality rates up to 35 percent in some areas as a result of brain abscess.

Now let’s see the results on Bucktrax after all the members went through a self-inflicted deer-management boot camp. They were able to harvest three of the original 19 buck fawns at 4.5 and two at 5.5 years old. As you can see, the total number of bucks harvested went down from the other strategies, but the bucks they took were at or near maximum antler growth. Probably the most sobering fact is that, even under such a strict management strategy, only 17 percent of the original buck-fawn crop survived to 5.5 years old. Additionally, some of those bucks may never be seen during shooting hours.

Now that we’ve covered age, what about antler growth? Contrary to what some may think, not all bucks will score 170 inches or better at 5.5 years old. In fact, most southeastern deer won’t even come close to the magic 170 inches by the time they reach peak antler growth. Most antler-scoring systems are designed to identify truly exceptional specimens of a group of animals, not average mature deer. What many don’t see on hunting shows filmed on intensively managed trophy properties is how many average bucks they generate before producing a truly monstrous whitetail. In some respects, it’s really a numbers game that they play. For instance, say the odds of producing a buck with 170 inches or more is 1 in 1,000 bucks. Using Bucktrax as an example where it produces 19 buck fawns per year, only one buck of that caliber would be produced every 53 years (1,000÷19=52.6). Remember that Bucktrax has a density of 25 deer per square mile.

Through intensive and unbelievably expensive supplemental feeding programs, some ranches may hold in excess of 100 deer per square mile, which in many instances is above an ecologically sustainable level. Theoretically, if they produce four times as many fawns as Bucktrax (19×4=76), they reduce the time between 170-inch bucks to once every 13 years (1000÷76=13.2). After you factor in several years of unnatural genetic modification, they can reduce that time to one trophy every year or two.

However, many areas using these practices left wildlife management years ago and now practice the equivalent of animal husbandry. I’ve never encountered any livestock that I would feel proud hanging a shoulder-mount of in my living room.

To better understand what an average southeastern deer might be like, using a formula developed by Dr. Bronson Strickland at Mississippi State University, a rough Boone and Crockett score was estimated from basic antler measurements routinely collected across Georgia. For each county, beam length, basal circumference, spread and number of points was averaged for 3.5-year-old bucks across a 5-year period.

Using the formula, the average score of those bucks was determined as well as what they would have scored at 5.5 years old. The average maximum score at maturity for the top-20 counties ranged from 100 to 150 inches. What this means is that very few areas are capable of producing average high-scoring deer. That’s not to say that a large portion of the counties in Georgia aren’t capable of producing 170-inch deer, just some can produce them more frequently than others. If you look across the entire state, an average deer at maturity would probably score between 100 and 120.

Look back to where we discussed how many bucks would survive to maturity under various management strategies. When you combine the percentage of bucks that survive to maturity with the percentage that are above average, the chances of harvesting an exceptional trophy buck on a place like Bucktrax are severely reduced.

Don’t get discouraged! I sincerely hope this information helps you determine and set realistic expectations for a deer-management program. Hunters are more likely to stick to a management program when they set achievable goals. In my experience, many disappointed hunters give up because expectations were unreasonable or too high. Setting and achieving realistic goals can really enhance your hunting experience, and the fruits of your labor become more evident.

Monitoring the deer population through data collection on your area is absolutely critical to setting appropriate goals and being able to identify results of management actions. Unfortunately, in my experience, too many hunting clubs do not collect data necessary to monitor and manage their deer herds. It’s always a good idea to consult a biologist to help you set up a monitoring program. This is the first step in determining what you can reasonably harvest.

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