How Average Hunters Can Fix the Deer Decline
There are lots of news articles and state agency reports coming out about declining deer populations and harvest rates in several states. Even the powerhouses where Boone & Crockett bucks are taken regularly.
While your hunting skills and luck play a major role in harvesting big bucks, neither will bring back your deer herd to record levels. Simple math and science can speed up the recovery and here’s how you do it.
The 100-acre Example
Let’s say you hunt a 100-acre piece of land where 20 deer live. This past season you killed four leaving 16. Predators, weather, vehicle accidents, natural causes, etc. average another 5 mortalities. Now you’re at 11 deer. Let’s say five of those 11 are bucks and the rest does. When fawning season comes, pretend five of those six does have twin fawns and the other doe has no fawn.
5 does + 10 fawns + 1 doe + 5 bucks means you’re back to 21 deer. Near your average.
The scenario above is your average year. It’s not the exact same every year, but it’s close. You are happy with the four deer you kill each season and things are going great.
Now, let’s introduce Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) to your deer like we saw in widespread, record-setting levels in the last few years in some areas.
As usual, you have 20 deer. Like always, you kill four and the other factors kill give. Business as usual. But now, EHD kills FIVE MORE deer including your two mature bucks. Instead of 11 total deer like above, you only have six total deer heading into fawning season, four of which are does. They each have twins, yet property still has only 14 deer.
4 does + 8 fawns + 2 bucks = 14 deer
With just 14 deer, you enter the season with about 30 percent below your normal deer population. You see fewer deer with minimal opportunities to harvest one and you don't see a mature buck all year. Not knowing any better, you still kill four. Coyotes haven’t gone anywhere. Natural causes deaths haven’t gone anywhere. As usual, predators and natural causes kill their five. Plus, EHD happens again in 2017, killing two deer. You started with 14. You still killed four. Predators and natural causes got five. EHD got two.
Do the math. You have three deer left on your property that usually supports 20.
This sounds awful, right? Amazingly, there are hunters facing situations like the one above. There’s good news and bad news.
White-tailed deer are some of the most resilient creatures in the world. In just a year or two, they have the ability to reproduce quickly. Remember, most does have twin fawns. So deer can repopulate about twice as fast as humans. The other good news is that EHD is a disease that happens in pockets. Your hunting property may have taken a beating, but your neighbors down the road might not even have had a single deer die of EHD. So just because things are bleak on your 100 acres, doesn’t mean your county or region is nearly as bad. And we all know by habitat improvement, you can attract deer from surrounding areas. We've been dealing with EHD for years and deer will continue to bounce back as random outbreaks occur.
What You Can Control
There are two things you can control: your trigger finger and the predator population.
I know you don’t want to hear this, but when the deer population is way down, you must shoot fewer deer. Yeah, you’ll have to buy beef for a year or two. But it’s your job to be a steward of whitetails and when they are hurting, it’s your job to help. If your family normally eats four deer annually, you may only want to harvest one or none for a couple years. Being a good steward is about taking care of what you have at any given time…whether it’s a lot or little.
Coyotes and other predators are still around. When the population of whitetails is down, your local predator population has the ability to keep it down. It’s time you either learn to trap or hire a professional. Buying an electronic caller and trying to shoot a coyote or two is not predator management. Using the 100-acre example, you might be able to call in and kill a coyote or two each year on your property, but because females average litters of five to six pups, only trapping will significantly reduce the coyote population. Trapping will also help control bobcats and raccoons – both of which are a nemesis to fawns as well. If you want your deer population to rebound quickly, you must reduce predators.
The Bad News
The bad news is that it takes four to five years for a buck to mature. So if most of your mature bucks died of either EHD, hunter harvest, predation or natural causes between 2016 and last year, realistically it could be 2020 or 2021 before you’ll see many more. That means trophy buck hunters in some areas still have a couple trying deer seasons ahead. For meat hunters, you can be back in the game a season or two sooner.
What You Can Control
Thriving deer populations in the 1990s and 2000s meant a lot of states expanded firearms seasons. Longer seasons, more generous bag limits... it works great when there are plenty of deer. Everybody’s happy.
But now, even though things aren’t so great, the laws have remained the same. If your state agency hasn’t reduced tags, bag limits, shortened seasons, etc., tell them they should! You’re a taxpayer and hunter and your state agency needs to hear from you. Your state's deer population is hurting and without thoughtful seasons and bag limits, it will make quick deer population recovery difficult. In certain states, just a day or two of firearms season can be the difference in thousands of deer statewide. Make no mistake, adding or subtracting firearms season dates is how state agencies raise or lower statewide populations of whitetails.
In cases where state agencies do take action, like Illinois did a few years back, make sure other hunters know and understand why. It's not the government imposing on hunters. It's a state agency doing their job and managing the resource that is the white-tailed deer.
Chances are you live near a hunter who isn’t as serious as you are about deer management. Spread the word and share this article. Every time a hunter pulls a trigger or releases an arrow, that hunter is making a management and stewardship decision. That decision must be made with the best interest of whitetails as a whole in mind. Sometimes the herd needs to be thinned. Other times, it needs a little TLC. Does your deer herd need TLC right now? If so, it's up to you and your neighbors to provide it.
Get together with the neighboring hunters in your area and commit to shooting less deer. It’s unfortunate when hunters shoot deer because “if I don’t, the neighbors will.” That mentality isn’t why we hunt. It’s certainly not how we manage deer. We manage deer in their current situation. If the population is hurting, you and all your neighbors need to step up to the plate to help your local deer herd.
One Last Piece of Advice
Many Whitetail Properties Land Specialists and staff members have completed The Quality Deer Management Association’s (QDMA) Level I Deer Steward course; some going even further in the program. The coursework is amazing and educational. The most critical issues facing deer and deer hunters are part of the curriculum. The certification as deer stewards prepared our staff to be better counselors to clients we work with on hunting, ranch and farm land sales. If you’re interested in managing whitetails, we encourage you to sign up to take the course.