Herd Management

One on the first and foremost goals of deer management is to restore out-of-whack herds to proper balance. There are several keys to doing this, and today, we’re going to look at some of them.

A common ill of unbalanced herds is the lack of older bucks. Biologists would say the herd has a poor buck age structure. We hunters would just call it sorry hunting. Ideally, bucks of all ages should be present in a herd, but that’s seldom the case, mostly because of excessive and nonselective hunting pressure on bucks. A realistic target would be for at least 30 percent of the antlered bucks to be 3.5 years old and older. That would guarantee pretty good hunting, assuming the bucks have enough food to grow quality antlers. How do you get there? Stop shooting the youngsters and limit the buck harvest to a sustainable number!

Another trait of out-of-balance herds is too many does and too few bucks, commonly known as a bad buck:doe ratio. This usually stems from over-shooting bucks and under-shooting does. Throw in overcrowding and the associated low reproduction that often accompanies it, and the buck:doe ratio can really get badly out of whack. In such cases, the does just keep stacking up and the bucks just keep going away, with few fawns coming into the population to replenish the buck numbers. When this sorry state exists, the buck:doe ratio may be as poor as 1-to-6 to 1-to-12. That’s bad news and guarantees sorry hunting and poor bucks. Under good management, the target buck:doe ratio can range from as low as nearly one buck per doe to as high as a buck for every 2 does. Higher than 2 does per buck, the herd needs work and more does need to end up on the hanging pole.

Good reproduction is key in management and is the engine that powers a program. Simply stated, the number of deer coming into the herd will determine the number YOU can take out. The reproductive rate is the number of fawns per adult (1.5 and older) doe entering the fall population. Don’t confuse the number of fawns born with the number entering the fall population. A lot of fawns can die or be killed between the time they are born and the fall. Being born is easy; surviving for 5 or 6 months is not…when you’re a fawn. Nutritional stress, bad weather and predation are the main culprits in poor reproduction. Coyotes especially can be a huge factor in fawn survival.

Reproduction is expressed as a percentage. In a healthy, managed herd, the fall fawn count should be at least 60 percent of the adult doe count. Under ideal conditions, it may be as high as 100-130 percent. Frankly, reproduction over about 75 percent can be present a challenge in intensive, tightly controlled programs managing for older age bucks. Assuming a fixed buck:doe ratio and total deer number, the high number of deer coming into the population means that a high number of deer have to be taken out. Unless some of these are younger deer, this means heavy pressure on the older age deer, which can be a problem when managing for older bucks is the goal. In these cases, a manager needs to lower the buck:doe ratio to something around 1-to-1 or even lower, shoot lots of does and cull inferior bucks, perhaps including some immature ones, to make room for the young bucks coming into the herd.

Natural mortality, or more accurately, non-intentional mortality, is all deaths beyond the control of the manager. Predators, roadkills, trigger-happy neighbors and natural causes all factor in. Certainly, over-zealous neighbors are a major source of unintentional mortality on small tracts and can account for losses as high as 25 to 50 percent of the available bucks. Under management, 5 percent “natural morality” is about as low as you can hope for and 10 to 15 percent is reasonable and acceptable. Over that, you’ve got problems that need addressing.

Quality genetics are important, but don’t fret it early on. If your area ever produced bucks that would have made you happy, then when age and nutrition are taken care of, I’ll almost guarantee you that bucks will show up that’ll force you to clear a space on the den wall.

Next time, we’re going to look at the important art of aging deer both in the field and after the harvest. I’m David Morris. See you then.

Posted by David Morris

Photo By Hardy Jackson

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