Protecting Deer Is Not Managing

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protecting deer is not managing deer
During a drought deer will eat entire areas of corn down to the ground.

It has been a drought year here in the Midwest, and a lot of deer hunters were afraid to look at their cornfields, but finally got up the nerve. Some have food plots and have commercial cornfields, so they have real money invested in farming – deer farming and the regular kind. Some deer hunters about threw up when they saw the damage to the back ends of all their cornfields. The deer hammered the corn this summer – ate entire areas right to the ground. More than likely it had a lot to do with the drought, but that little to ease the strain on the pocketbook.

Now they are seeing red and are on a rampage to lecture any of their neighbors that “manage” for deer. The message is simple: what you are doing (protecting deer) is not beneficial in the long-term.

In the end, protecting deer will be the downfall of all of us deer hunters. You have to remove deer from managed lands at an aggressive rate every year or the population will hit a critical mass and then normal hunting won’t be able to control it. It will quickly become very hard to get the numbers back under control short of taking drastic measures.

Some deer hunters will not be very happy about that situation and a lot of your crop-farming neighbors won’t be happy either. Not only is a high deer population bad for public relations, farming cash flow and habitat, it is also bad for those who are trying to produce the highest quality herd and the biggest trophy bucks possible. Here’s why you need to take your harvest responsibility very seriously.

Lots of Deer Equals Smaller Bucks

Grant Woods addresses problems in the Midwest
According to Grant Woods if deer have to scrape for suboptimal food it can have as much as a 20% impact on their antler size.

Dr. Grant Woods just held a meeting that specifically addressed problems in the Midwest. There is so much corn here most of the year that when a farmer sneezes, corn comes out. Yet even in the Midwest, where everyone thinks deer never go hungry, Grant pointed out how a gap of just two to three months during the winter - when the deer are having to scrape for suboptimal food - can have as much as a 20% impact on the size of the antlers those bucks will grow the next year.

If that is possible (even likely) in America’s breadbasket, think how much more of a problem this is in areas with poorer soils and less available food.

Let’s say a certain mature buck scores 150 inches even though he doesn’t have prime nutrition for two to three months each year (usually late winter in most parts of the country). If he had desirable foods all year, he could well be approaching 180 inches instead. This is because deer grow their antlers from minerals stored in their bones. When their overall health is not optimum, they start growing those antlers from a weakened system. Eating brome grass for three months each winter is not going to produce the healthiest bucks.

Browse is also a big source of deer nutrition in all parts of the country, even in agricultural areas. Where the browse is good the deer will often spend much of their time feeding in the cover. They are selective feeders and will naturally go to the plants that supply their current needs. Some have seen deer in the Midwest that fed heavily on browse until early June despite the fact that clover and alfalfa were nearby. It is obviously a big part of their diets. When there are too many deer, they quickly obliterate the best browse and if the numbers stay high for several years they so impair these plants that they simply die out.

When there are so many deer that they eat the entire supply of high quality browse as soon as it is available, clean up all the waste grain in the commercial farming fields and then wipe out the designated food plots well short of winter’s end, you have too many deer, plain and simple.

R.E. Hawkins discusses buck dispersal
According to R.E. Hawkins the majority of buck dispersal takes place during a buck's second fall during the rut.

A lack of optimal food during the tough months will stress them. While they are unlikely to starve to death, they are also unlikely to reach their potential either in body weight or antler size. If you aren’t aggressively removing deer from the population you are hurting the future quality of their health, habitat and ultimately their antler size.

Dispersal Studies

Research done by R.E. Hawkins into the dispersal of bucks from Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge showed that 4 % of fawns disperse, 7 % of adult does disperse, 10 % of adult bucks disperse, 13 % of 1 1/2 year old does disperse and fully 80 % of 1 1/2 year old bucks disperse. That’s right, 80%! The majority of buck dispersal takes place during the buck’s second fall, and more specifically during the rut.

Through study and numerous conversations with leading deer biologists such as Dr. Harry Jacobsen, Dr. Karl Miller and Dr. Grant Woods, we have learned that buck dispersal starts with the doe. Here’s how it works.

The young buck starts looking for a new place to live after the doe kicks him out of the family group. Presumably, this is nature’s way of preventing bucks from breeding their mothers and assures a greater degree of genetic diversity. The greatest pressure from the buck’s mother comes right before breeding begins, adding even greater credibility to this notion. Once these bucks start wandering, they may roam two or 20 miles before settling into their new range (if they live that long).

In 1992, S. Hölzenbein and R.L. Marchinton conducted a very interesting and important study. Fifteen buck fawns that had lost their mothers (orphans) and 19 buck fawns that still lived with their mothers were all radio collared. Of the 15 orphans, only one had left his home range by age 2 1/2 years and as it turned out, an unrelated doe harassed him into leaving. Of the 19 bucks that grew up with their mothers, fully 18 of them had dispersed from their original home range by the time they were 2 1/2 years old. Eighteen out of 19 bucks had left before they reached 2 1/2!

dispersing bucks
Dispersing bucks are much less likely to survive to maturity than bucks that don't disperse.

Maybe you are thinking that a dispersed buck is likely to return to his original range during the rut to breed. Sorry, but he’s probably dead. Dispersing bucks are much less likely to survive to maturity than bucks that don’t disperse.

The obvious conclusion, and the right one, is to orphan as many buck fawns as you can without causing your overall deer numbers to implode (which is almost impossible in most areas). Which would you rather see this season: 40 does and 5 bucks or 30 does and 15 bucks? You can keep the total numbers the same but have more bucks if you manage it correctly.

You may fear that reducing dispersal among bucks will increase the likelihood of inbreeding and have unfavorable affects on herd condition. According to Grant Woods, this is not an issue. There is enough genetic diversity in deer herds that the degree of inbreeding that results from reducing dispersal does not hurt future genetics.

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