Doe Harvests a Big Part of Deer Management
Dr. John Woods 11.19.14
The old guard of deer hunters never wanted to kill antlerless deer. The thinking was that hunters would be diminishing the breeding stock of doe deer that would provide future generations of deer on a property. Such thinking has long been proven contrary to sound white-tailed deer management practices in the modern game management age.
There was the same kind of thinking about taking out spike bucks, which has also been proven wrong by current deer research. That is a subject for another article, but the point is that much of the old wives’ tales about how to manage a deer herd has been proven defective.
In a perfect world the buck-doe ratio would be 1:1. That is a pretty stiff goal to achieve, but a close ratio of bucks to does is critical. When a population of deer gets so far out of whack a lot of things begin to happen. First of all, the rut becomes little more than a rush to breed every doe out there without the traditional fanfare that deer hunters love to witness in the field.
Then where there are too many does to be bred in a short period of time, some does will be inevitably bred late. This means that the doe drop dates start to be later and later in the spring into early summer. If you are seeing spotted fawns in the fall months of hunting season, this is probably the reason. This is not a good management practice.
If you own private hunting lands for white-tailed deer, then you should have a state deer biologist visiting your property annually to advise you and your hunters on an appropriate number of does to harvest each season. This is the only way you can effectively estimate the number of does to take out in order to better balance the herd.
This certainly is not an exact science by any means, but having expert input is one way to assist you with an overall deer management plan on your hunting lands. The area biologists can help with habitat assessments, browse evaluations, deer herd health, and other factors that you can control to help build a better deer herd including bigger bucks.
Collecting Harvest Data Sets
You can spend a lot of time trying to estimate your deer herd population by doing observational spotting of game, camera surveys, and even more sophisticated modes such as aerial game surveys, hoof track counts, and such. Some of these are quite time consuming, but I am of the mind to suggest that the more information you have about the deer where you hunt, the better job you can do of managing them appropriately.
Annual harvest data helps, too. This includes counting and recording the number of bucks and does taken every day of the hunting season. You should put down the sex of each deer, measurements of buck sizes with rack dimensions, every deer should be weighed and ideally the jawbones pulled for a deer biologist to age them. Health checks can be done too looking for blue tongue, other disorders and if the does are lactating. Put all this information down into a 3-ring binder and keep season after season to establish a harvest record history for the property. This will become a valuable management tool as the years go on.
It is not a bad idea either to collect a photo album of the deer you capture on your trail cameras. This activity is actually getting to be so popular among deer hunters that many have turned it into a mini-hobby. Some hunters catalog their bucks, name them, and follow them season after season keeping up with age estimations and annual antler rack changes and development.
Better decisions can be made about buck harvests, too. I am not an advocate of the “cull” buck philosophy, but if you have five year old cow horn buck, then he probably needs to be taken out.
Which Does to Take?
Copious articles and deer management book chapters have been written on this subject. The opinions on which does to take out are many and highly diverse. Here are my own personal thoughts and reflections upon studying deer management materials for 40 years and completing a master’s degree in wildlife science.
There is no such thing as the classic “barren doe.” Old does can continue to be bred and deliver fawns. There is no need to harvest old does on this basis alone. Another reason not to take an older doe is that they eat less. Basically, they are on a maintenance diet not a growing diet. They will do less damage to your habitat and browse.
I personally do not take a doe that has young yearling deer with them. It is true in many circumstances that a yearling can survive without its adult mother doe around, but the idea is not reassuring to me. I prefer to allow these young deer to fully develop with the milking, training, and exposure to their mother deer. That’s just me.
One to two year old does are prime targets for the freezer. If you have lots of them, then taking a few out will not negatively impact your overall deer herd numbers. Young deer are still growing and developing. In converse to the adult doe, these youngsters devour lots of valuable browse and can in fact over-browse your habitat.
Use care though in targeting young does that you don’t mistake a button or little spike buck for one. All deer hunters should have binoculars to examine all deer for the best ones to take out of the mix. Remember, baby bucks are “flatheads” and young does are have more rounded head tops. With close observation of deer before shooting, you can learn to tell the differences between young bucks and does.
So, this is just the penny tour on harvesting does as part of an overall comprehensive white-tailed deer management program. This treatise makes it all sound too easy, but it is not always so simple. Deer management is a tough science, and we learn more and more every year.
Thankfully, today’s deer hunters have proven themselves much more interested in the study of deer, how to management them, how to grow big bucks, how to age and score them on the hoof, and how the treat the resource more respectively. Now if we could just get away from the “big trophy buck mania” that prevails in some outdoor hunting publications and especially the outdoors television hunting shows, I think the whole hunting world would be better off. But again, that’s just me.