Doe Harvest Strategies Examined
“Back in the day” antlerless harvest was not only unpopular, but also downright illegal in some areas. Many areas of North America still have permit-only antlerless harvest due to low populations so why all the fuss about why to harvest female deer?
This article is more about the HOW and not the WHY of harvesting antlerless deer. We know why we harvest females—to help lower the population and keep the herd in balance as best we can; but the how sometimes gets lost or foggy and so perhaps we can clear the muddy waters a bit here.
Doe harvest is not, or should not, be about going out and just harvesting a female deer. Only in severe over-population instances is this scenario recommended. When it is an emergency herd reduction, you are correct–any female that turns broadside is one to remove. But what about managing a sustained deer herd or taking a deer herd from point A to point B? Read on if this is for you……..
Ranch A is a classic scenario where the landowner or lease hunters desire to produce quality bucks on a sustained basis but don’t like having to harvest a boatload of antlerless deer every year to do it. It seems every year the biologist recommends harvesting 60-80 does and this turns into a job. Because the managers desire to concentrate more on quality than quantity, why feed and support all those extra does? Females have babies and males do not so why care for all those females that will drop fawns and simply add to the problem? This situation requires one or two years of increased female harvest to lower the female population to the point of replacing only enough deer that the hunters wish to harvest each year. For example, let’s say this property has 60 bucks, 120 does and a 50% fawn survival rate, or 60 fawns annually. Obviously, the sex ratio is two does per buck (expressed as 2:1) and a 50% fawn survival rate. So in order to keep this population static, or constant, 60 total deer must be harvested (60 fawns means 60 new mouths coming into the herd). So the standard sustained harvest recommendations would be something like 10-12 bucks and 40-50 females each fall. Again, this is referred to as sustained harvest and it usually represents 20-22% of the standing buck herd and 30-32% of the standing female herd. So just to “keep on keeping on” this group of hunters must harvest 10-12 bucks and 40-50 does, or at least sixty total deer.
Because they want to lower the population, the first year we lower the buck recommendations to “no more than ten total bucks” and now we increase the antlerless harvest to 50% of the standing female herd and recommend 60 total females. Now we are harvesting at a 6:1 ratio and allowing more bucks to mature while severely lowing the female population. This strategy does not mean to harvest any female possible, but instead, to now select females that are less productive. Perhaps we concentrate on any female deer over two years of age without a fawn present for initial harvest. This dataset says there are at least 25-35 in the herd (remember only half of the females successfully raised a fawn and some of those are yearlings so without knowing last year’s fawn survival ((this year’s yearling cohort)) we can only assume that 25-35 exist). So begin harvesting early and aggressively while it is simple to identify an adult female without a fawn present. Once we get all we can get, and let’s say that is 30 adult females with no fawns present, then we move to the next step and harvest the oldest possible doe with the oldest possible single fawn. This will be a big number because previous recommendations said just to shoot female deer. So there should be ample mature/dominant females available that have only one fawn with them. We will select the largest and oldest females we can find because they have the oldest genetics. Chances are, we were not managing this herd as well as we are now, so removing the oldest genetics possible will speed up our genetic gains. So we head to the field with this harvest strategy in hand and remove a total of 20 old dominant does that have only one big and healthy fawn with them. Now we stop and wait for the rut and work on our bucks. We took out a few pre-rut mature bucks that visited the feeders early and so each lease member took a mature management buck each and are happy. Now the rut is coming so let’s quiet down the ranch and keep activities quiet and just relax and hunt for trophy bucks. Remember, our strategy is to harvest only mature or post mature bucks so trophy harvest must be selective and not guaranteed on this lease. After three weeks of good quality trophy buck hunting, a few guys were lucky and successful. Now that we realize we have ten more females to harvest, let’s be ultra selective and take out ten does that perhaps had young fawns with them earlier in the season but now their fawns are weaned. We had watched a few old does but their fawns were too young so now we target them for removal. So by the time the first run finished, we have successfully removed the least productive females, taken out the easy mature management bucks and managed a few trophy bucks along the way. For those hunters that have not yet taken a trophy, they still have the second or even third rut to hunt and find something that qualifies.
By next year, the deer herd should look much improved and the buck numbers will have sufficiently increased (removed only 10 of the 60 bucks, so we now have 50 plus the 30 buck fawns that are now yearlings). Assuming a 15% mortality of yearling bucks, you can assume we will have about 75 bucks in the population next fall. The doe herd now looks much different. We now have 70 breeding aged females and the 30 yearlings that will not likely breed.
The rains were average through the spring and summer so our surveys indicated 72 bucks, 92 does and a 50% fawn survival rate. Now our sex ratio is 1.27 does per buck (1.27:1) and we have 46 fawns, half are male and half are female. Using this dataset, the harvest recommendations are now to harvest up to 18-20 bucks and only 25-30 does. A big improvement from just a year ago! We use adult sex ratio to alter our harvest outcome and it really is that easy. We lay off the bucks, selectively hammer the does for one or two years and manage for an average to above average fawn survival rate and in only two or three years, we have a fun deer lease instead of one that requires lots of work and effort to control.
Ranch B has always kept their deer herd at or below carrying capacity but now wants to take their quality to the next level. They want to produce the largest possible bucks on their lease and are willing to let the bucks reach full maturity before harvesting. They want to have only enough females on the ranch to replace what they intend to harvest upon maturity. Their surveys indicate a 1:1 adult sex ratio, or 50 bucks and 50 does, and because they are conservatively stocked, their production is very high at 75%, or 37 fawns. They have been managing this ranch for years and so their old genetics are just about as good as their new genetics. Given these goals and objectives and dataset, the harvest recommendations would be to harvest at a 1:1 ratio to mean 18 bucks and 18 does. Because the older genetics are just as good as the newer ones, these guys will still harvest any ultra old female without a fawn present (they may know their does because they have watched them grow up over time). Let’s assume they harvested five old post-mature does for various reasons. Now they need to harvest up to 13 more. But because the sex ratio is tight and the rut will be hard on the bucks (because they have a good age structure in their buck herd), they wait to harvest the rest of the females until after Christmas until all fawns are sufficiently weaned. And they begin harvesting doe fawns once they are more easily identifiable from their brothers. Doe fawns are not producing yet and the hunters want to keep as few females on the property so they elect to leave the older does that tend to produce twins and remove any doe fawns or even yearling does that may or may not produce for them. So they harvest 13 doe fawns in the month of January and make no mistakes. So the bucks had less antler breakage in the rut because there were enough breeding-aged does to be had and the hunters kept their overall population static yet production was kept high because the bulk of their female herd are experienced mothers that tend to produce more fawns than younger females do. This ranch is easily maintained from a harvest perspective and annually produce fully mature trophy bucks with minimal harvesting efforts.
Ranch C has historically been mismanaged and overharvested on bucks. The landowner doesn’t care about the deer herd and allows his cattle to eat every blade of grass he can grow. He regularly swaps out lease hunters because they always complain about not seeing any big bucks and his cattle always messing up their hunts. Surveys indicate a wide adult sex ratio, six does for every buck (6:1) and his buck age structure is poor. The oldest buck on the property is three years old and there are only two of them and one is a seven point and one is an eight point. There are 20 bucks and 120 does. Because the population of deer is high and the sex ratio is wide and the landowner overstocks his cattle, the fawn survival rate is only 20%, or 24 total fawns. In the hunting lease, it specifies that each of the four hunters can shoot one cull buck and one trophy buck and no more than two does each fall. So the hunters set up their camp, set up their blinds and corn feeders and then can’t wait for opening morning of the hunting season to arrive. At daylight, each hunter is greeted with 18-26 does and fawns at their feeder and only one or two young bucks. They sit there all morning until the cows show up at 10:30 and run the deer off as they try to pick up any remaining corn on the ground. When the hunters return to camp for lunch, they realize they saw a grand total of seven bucks and more than one hundred does and fawns–and they all saw cattle! Sunday morning arrives and each hunter decides to shoot something. At the crack of dawn each hunter shoots a buck. Two spikes, one two year old six point and the three year old eight point all hit the ground on the last day of the opening weekend because the hunters were determined not to return home empty handed. Each man packs his truck and heads home and drops the bucks off at the local meat market for processing. Three weeks later, the men return to the lease for another weekend hunt just before Thanksgiving. The rut should be on so anticipation is high. Saturday was full of more disappointments with only four total bucks observed and more than one hundred does and fawns counted…… but now the cattle have knocked over two of the corn feeders. Sunday morning once again rolls around and three bucks hit the ground. This time it includes a three point yearling, a five point two year old and the big seven point three year old. The men once again drop their “trophies” off at the meat market and head home ready to brag about “tagging out” so soon in the season.
About Christmas, the men’s kids are out of school and on break and ask to go hunting. But when the wives gets wind of the idea, they plead otherwise because the freezers are completely full of deer meat and they have nowhere to put anymore, and besides, there are no buck tags left on the lease. So the kids don’t get an opportunity to hunt or get outdoors so they call their buddies and go hang out at the mall for the entire Christmas break. Meanwhile back at the ranch, the deer herd continues to spiral downward. Winter is setting in and it is cold and dry. The remaining bucks are working hard trying to cover all the does cycling into estrus for the third and final time. Some simply can’t recover and die from the instinctual demands that push their depleted body too far. Most of the does manage to get bred but they are so thin and in such poor condition, they can’t carry the fetus and end up having to absorb it just to survive. By the second year, the hunters are struggling to find any bucks to shoot and so they pack their camp, blinds and feeders and leave in search of “greener pastures”. The landowner puts another ad in the local newspaper and sure enough, more calls come in and he has a long line of folks interested in leasing the ranch. And the vicious cycle continues…….
Antlerless harvest is what makes a deer herd work. Everyone worries about the bucks but they are simple—bucks wear their genetics on their head. If you like him, leave him alone and allow him to breed and mature. If you don’t like him, kill him. But the does make the herd go. Does are the lifeblood of any herd and the selective manipulation of the female segment will determine the outcome and health of the herd. What are you doing to manage your doe herd? If you are not happy with the current results, look at the doe herd to make the needed changes.
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