Quality Deer Management

As an enthusiastic hunter, I know well what it can mean to see and harvest a quality white-tailed buck. Being intimate with Lady Luck is often the determining factor, but hard work and sheer persistence are needed to consistently take good bucks.

Quality Deer Management (QDM) is a philosophy and a set of goals about deer herd management, about hunting, and about hunters. There are a number of questions to address in QDM. What is and how do we get an appropriate female harvest? In many situations we can’t seem to harvest enough does. And yes, in some cases we are harvesting too many. Such as in Morgan County. Another critical question is how to restrict buck harvest. Should we devise some way to have a restricted, but random antlered deer harvest? Or should we conserve younger bucks by antler restrictions such as a minimum inside spread, number of antler points, or can we judge age from body characteristics?

I am concerned about the rapidly increasing use of point restrictions. Keith McCaffery of the Wisconsin DNR here is quoted from a recent letter he wrote on deer management: "Antler point or total point restrictions seem to be counter to some of the ‘socio-bio’ and ‘genetic’ concerns otherwise expressed (rightly or wrongly) as reasons for QDM. These antler rules focus mortality on the very animals that QDM seems to seek to preserve. I don’t understand this seeming paradox." I agree. From a biological perspective, point restrictions probably can work okay in some low quality habitats. In good quality habitats, however, even if 6- or 8-point minimums protect most yearlings initially, they won’t for long. As the population is reduced and/or habitat quality improves, a significant portion of the yearling bucks should begin to have 6, 8, or even 10 points. In spite of the debates ad infinitum in previous years, I am convinced that in many if not most areas of the Southeast these bucks are more likely to grow larger antlers than their smaller yearling counterparts that are being protected from harvest.

I harvested a buck on our property that weighted 98 pounds and had a nice-young 8 point basket rack. The deer was 1.5 years old. Should this deer have been harvested? I so no, even though I was the one to pull the trigger.

Why should we concern ourselves with maintaining a natural social balance in a managed deer herd? Because, to survive as long as they have, deer long ago developed social rules or mechanisms that would keep deer herds and their individual members fit and competitive. However, when harvest regulations allow hunters to deplete certain social classes (with deer, this is usually most or all bucks 1.5 years old or older) in an unscientific, haphazard manner, the herd's social mechanisms can become stressed. This is exactly the fix we are in today. We can only guess at how many whitetails inhabited North American before the white man arrived, but the late Ernest Thompson Seton, a pioneer naturalist and author, estimated a population of about 40 million animals. We would surmise that, despite predation and hunting by Native Americans, bucks 4.5 years old and older were not uncommon. The adult sex ratio of such herds was probably in the range of 50-75 bucks per 100 does. In local areas, the rut and fawning seasons probably lasted six to eight weeks. These were healthy deer living in social balance.

The situation is much different today. Post-hunt adult sex ratios of 20 or less bucks per 100 does are the rule, and most of these bucks are 1.5 years old. Mature bucks, 4.5 years old or older, are rare and many hunters cannot even comprehend how a mature buck from their area would look. Thus, at the beginning of the rut, 80% or more of the antlered bucks are 1.5 years old. These youngsters rise to the occasion and most receptive does are eventually bred, but at a price. How do the demands of breeding inhibit the growth potential of those few bucks that survive the hunting season? Because of the social imbalance, the rut and fawning periods may last 15 weeks or longer. This places additional stress on the few surviving bucks and causes fawns to be born after the period of optimum nutrition during spring or summer.