Doe Management – a Fresh View
Doe management is a crucial, often misunderstood aspect of deer management.
By Steve Bartylla
Sitting in a tripod in the middle of the 6’ high CRP field, the adult doe and her fawns seemingly materialize 40 yards in front of me. It was the opening day of Illinois’ first firearm season. So, I wasn’t thrilled to be taking out a doe. However, working as a consultant for Schuyler County’s Sugar Creek Outfitters, I knew I should do my part to help us meet our population dynamics goals.
Shouldering my muzzleloader, I searched the dead grass until I found them once again. Tracking the lead doe, I followed her in the scope until she hit a thin spot in the dense grass. Settling the top circle of my Monarch Scope on her shoulder blade, the plume of smoke clouded consumed my view. As it cleared, her white belly patch reported a well placed shot.
Shooting Bucks To Improve the Herd Sidebar and doe management
When managing for trophy bucks, a key component of doe management in harvest goals is often missing. Sure, it’s important to allow bucks to reach 3.5 years of age, but many bucks should never be allowed to get older. When they are, the results can be very negative.
Too many management programs focus only on getting bucks to achieve antler minimums. Unfortunately, some bucks don’t have the genetics to reach those levels.
Buck dominance has next to nothing to do with antler size. Though many factors play into it, health, being middle aged, temperament and the level of competition are the biggest ones. When a property has a surplus of prime aged 8s running around, chances are greater that they’ll occupy the upper rungs of the buck dominance ladder. A common result is that they displace many of the other mature, yet subordinate bucks, often with greater genetic potential.
The solution is to base buck harvest on potential, as opposed to pure inches. Assuming the area’s bucks have good genetic potential, 3.5 year old and older bucks sporting short tines and 8 or less points should generally be removed. Allowing bucks to reach 3.5 years and then applying the 9 or even 10 point rule is the first step.
Next, good mass is often not a great sign. It typically indicates that the tines are already about as long as they’re going to get. Besides, a lack of mass also indicates young buck in most settings. Additionally, short brow tines are a limiting factor. If an 8 has 2 inch brows at 3.5 years of age, chances are next to nothing that he’ll suddenly have 6 inchers at 4.5 or older. Since he only has 6 tines to begin with, having 2 of them being short is a huge negative.
Thin bucks with a lot of long points are the ones to save. If you truly want to manage for top end bucks, these are the animals that should be left until they hit at least 4.5 years of age, and 5.5 is that much better.
It’s not uncommon for bucks of these types of builds to put on 20 inches or more from 3.5 to 4.5 and 4.5 to 5.5. Suddenly, that good 145” ten at 3.5 years old is a mid 180s at 5.5.
On the flip side, that 130” 3.5 year old 8 doesn’t have far to go. Unfortunately, he’s also a rack busting brute that the bucks you really want have to compete with. That is, unless they relocate to the neighbors and enjoy the easy life.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any aspiring deer manager these days that shooting does can be an important part of managing for big bucks. However, I’ve come to the firm belief that many of the reasons we’ve been fed on this subject just don’t hold water.
Before we begin taking a closer look at the canned justifications for doe management, I need to be perfectly clear on two things. I’m all for having a tight doe:buck ratio and keeping overall deer numbers at reasonable levels.
What I’m not all for is propaganda that I believe is based on half truths, at best. This piece won’t be popular with many. However, I feel it must be written. So, let’s stop stalling and begin.
Skewed Ratios and Unbred Doe management
Almost all of us that have been students of deer hunting for long have heard about the second rut and how it’s made up of fawns, aw well as does on their second and third attempts to get impregnated. Often, this topic also covers how massively out of whack sex ratios are the main culprit in adult does going unbred. Frankly, there are several issues with this.
The first is that we hunters tend to buy into the reports of massively out of wack ratios to begin with. In reality, it’s extremely difficult to get above a 2.5 female to 1 male ratio, even in areas that refuse to harvest does. Even there, 2:1 is more likely
Before you begin screaming for my head, let’s perform a little exercise that retired Wisconsin deer biologist Keith McCaffrey once shared with me. It begins by placing a fictional fence around 1 square mile of deerless land and then adding 10 pregnant does and four 1.5 year old bucks, giving us a 2.5:1 adult doe:buck ratio. For the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume that every doe has twins each year and that they are a 50/50 split in sex. We will also assume that we are capable of killing every single 1.5 year buck each year and no does or fawns are killed.
The first spring, the 10 does produce 20 fawns, 10 of which are male. After that fall’s breeding, all the 1.5 year old bucks are killed. Next spring, our now 20 adult does give birth to 20 doe fawns and another 20 buck fawns. That hunting season, with the first year’s fawns now 1.5 years of age, we now have 20 adult does and 10 adult bucks, giving us a 2:1 ratio. Again, after breeding, all the 1.5 year old bucks are killed. That next spring, our 30 does birth 60 more fawns. By hunting season, we have 40 does that are at least 1.5 years old and 20 bucks, providing a 2:1 ratio Regardless of how long this exercise is carried out, the ratio always returns to 2:1 by the start of hunting season.
I’ll be the first to admit that there are some flaws to that exercise. For one, good luck killing every 1.5 year old buck in the woods. The other is that studies indicate that slightly more doe fawns are born in habitats that are well below carrying capacity, but that more buck fawns are produced when habitats are over populated. Therefore, more does would have been produced the first couple of years in the exercise, only to swing to producing more bucks. Furthermore, though it doesn’t really apply to our exercise, adult bucks also suffer a higher natural mortality rate than does.
Despite its flaws, I feel that exercise is extremely effective at making the startling point that the wild doe:buck ratios we hear about just can’t happen in nature. Sure, if one is going to compare all does and fawns to 1.5 year old and older bucks, ratios can begin flirting with the 5:1 mark, but that’s flat out cheating. A doe:buck ratio, to be legitimate on any level, has to either compare all males to females or only those on both side that are 1.5 years old and older.
The result of this is that extremely few does go unbred in almost any setting. This is a subject that outdoor writers Brad and Carol Herndon, Wisconsin outfitter Tom Indrebo and I discussed at this past Archery Trade Association show. During this conversation, the Herndons remarked that they are seeing antler development stunted on their lease. They reasoned that it’s because their Southern Indiana deer numbers are indeed to high for the habitat and many local hunters refuse to shoot does.
Upon hearing that, I asked if they’d ever seen a buck tending a mature doe in December or January. Keep in mind, between the Herndons, Tom and I, we have around 150 years of hunting experience.
Though all of us had seen bucks on fawns in December and January, none have seen bucks tending does 1.5 year old or older. Even though Tom’s land now has a tight doe:buck ratio, all of us have spent many, many years hunting lands that are as far out of wack as they come. Anyway you look at it, does going unbred due to out of wack ratios are so the exception that they aren’t even worth mentioning.
The “Stress” Breeding Places on Bucks
The next myth often used to justify shooting does is that bucks must work so terribly hard to breed all the does. Though often not said outright, it’s strongly implied that, in populations with heavily skewed doe:buck ratios, breeding bucks are placed under far more stress that when the ratio is closer to 1:1.
Oh, man, do I ever have to cry foul on this one. This is simply common sense here. What is more strenuous, breeding and less competition for does or putting on miles and near constantly fighting other bucks for the chance to breed?
The answer to this question is obvious and can be clearly seen in my consulting work for Sugar Creek Outfitters. Owner, Don Barry, has amassed well over 6500 acres for his free range outfitting business. Because we’ve made doe harvest a top priority, the doe:buck ratio is tighter than in most locations, averaging somewhere around 1.5:1.
On the flip side, Don also owns HYPERLINK “http://www.sugarcreekoutfittersillinois.com/BriarwoodRanch/” BJB Briarwood, a 1550 acre high fence operation, with a legit 1:1 ratio. Though I’ve never hunted the property, I’ve invested considerable time studying the deer it holds. With all the deer being descendants of the wild deer native to the area, they serve as invaluable learning tools.
One of the first things you notice when comparing the bucks between the two operations is the amount of stress that the intense competition for breeding rights places on the Briarwood bucks. Despite having the ultimate in nutrition, the fenced bucks shed earlier each year and have a significantly higher mortality rate, due to stress and fighting.
Taking it a step further, I’ve also noticed that the bucks living on the Sugar Creek properties, as well as the properties on other well managed free range grounds, also have a higher non hunting mortality rate than those residing on the public grounds that I hunt. During thorough winter and spring scouting trips, of the buck carcasses intact enough to study, it’s relatively rare to find dead bucks that don’t reveal signs of being shot on unmanaged grounds. Sure, it happens, but not much. That’s just not the case on land with tighter doe:buck ratios. When you look at all of this as a whole and toss in a dash of common sense, breeding stress just doesn’t hold water.
For hunters, there is one very good reason to keep ratios tight. The bucks have to compete harder for does. Because of that, they tend to move more and be more responsive to calling, decoying and scents. Without a doubt, that makes them easier to kill, but surely doesn’t make their lives less stressful.
Deer Numbers are out of Control
For as cut and dry as the issues we’ve covered thus far are in my mind, I’ll grant that the need to kill does to keep populations in check is a little trickier. Without a doubt, in poor habitat this can be and is often a serious problem. I’ll even concede that it can be in rich habitats. That said, I firmly believe that we are often sold a bill of goods on what deer numbers a habitat should naturally support.
Simply put, carrying capacity is the number of deer that can survive on a piece of ground. This number is based on the quality of habitat, with much of that being determined by the quality and abundance of available, year round nutrition.
It’s commonly accepted that keeping the deer population at half a property’s carrying capacity is the ideal. By doing so, birthing success is higher and natural mortality lower than when it’s maxed. Because of that, you can harvest as many deer each year off of the property kept at half carrying capacity as you can the one at full capacity.
Not only that, but the deer living on the less densely populated piece of ground will be healthier and the bucks will typically sport more impressive head gear. Of course, this is assuming that the genetics and two habitats are otherwise the same. This is largely due to reduced stress and better nutrition.
The problem with the perception that we must kill more and more does to achieve a healthy herd is that there are many settings where the population is already below 50% carrying capacity.
Let’s look at my own home state of Wisconsin, as an example. Several years back, I was told by a top biologist that many areas in farm rich regions of Southern Wisconsin have a carrying capacity of around 120 deer per square mile (dpsm) of habitat.
With that in mind, let’s look at Buffalo County, Wisconsin. Also rich in farm lands, private deer management is more the rule than the exception. Because of this, timber management often occurs, as well as many land owners and/or lease holders leaving farm crops up for deer throughout winter. Next, one must factor in the area’s impressive number of food plots, man made mineral licks and even winter feeding programs. By the time everything is said and done, few places in the whitetail’s range provides better deer habitat. Even factoring in the slightly harsher winters Buffalo County endures, when compared to Southern Wisconsin, it’s safe to say that the carrying capacity is at least 100 dpsm.
That begs the question, why has the Wisconsin DNR set an over winter population goal of 20 dpsm for the management unit containing Buffalo County? After all, using the conservative number of a 100 dpsm carry capacity, that number should be considerably higher. One could argue that it’s the resident’s desire to keep deer numbers lower, but several petitions would prove that to be false. One could also argue that it’s due to the fear of CWD spreading, but the goal was set to 15 dpsm before CWD was discovered in Wisconsin.
The point is not to pick on the WI DNR. Frankly, I believe they often do a very good job in a thankless field. The point is that it can be a mistake to automatically believe every piece of land holds too many deer. Without a doubt, there are areas that do. However, just because it seems like all the “authority” figures claim that deer numbers are too high doesn’t mean that they are on your property. Instead of taking it for granted, do a little digging, figure out what the carrying capacity is, determine where your population sits and react accordingly.
All that said, it’s best to play it safe. Deer numbers are almost always easier to grow than reign back in.
There are many important reasons to harvest does. Most importantly for the overly benefit of the deer herd is that populations above 50% carrying capacity simply aren’t as healthy as those at or below that figure. The higher those numbers go, the more horrific the habitat destruction, the great threat disease posses, social stress of competition for food, water and bedding occurs, the lower the reproductive success, on and on and on. Even from a purely selfish stand point, tightening the doe:buck ratio makes buck hunting comparatively easier.
The point of this article was never to paint shooting does as a bad thing. In many situations it’s one of the most productive acts deer managers can take. That said, one is always best served when they base decisions on accurate information and act for the right reasons.