Doe Harvest Is Ever-Evolving Dilemma

By Scott Bestul

It was a shot I’d have never passed a half-dozen years ago. The doe walked the trail like she’d been programmed; browsing contentedly, pausing in just the right places so I could adjust my stance and draw my bow. At 10 steps, she came to a stop and looked away, exposing her ribcage like a target. But I never put my hand on my bow, and when the old gal walked off, I smiled. The doe had received a free pass and never knew it. Hours of stand time — and a host of other factors — had me convinced deer numbers were down in my area, and I needed all the healthy, experienced breeding females in the area I could get. When it came time to shoot a slickhead to stock my freezer, I’d focus my attention on other farms to accomplish that goal.

Evolving Antlerless Deer Management

If you ever doubt that sound whitetail management is an inexact and ever-changing science, look no farther than the issue of proper doe harvest. When I started deer hunting more than 30 years ago, does were considered sacred, and shooting them was accepted grudgingly, if at all. Barely a decade later, state agencies practically begged hunters to kill more does in an effort to curb swelling whitetail herds. It took a massive education effort to convince hunters that antlerless harvests were critical and, in some cases, mandatory to keep deer in harmony with the landscape. That campaign worked so well that I know hunters who tagged nothing but does for several seasons and were content. They view themselves as deer managers as much as hunters — an attitude that would have arched the eyebrows of many of my old mentors.

But now, after nearly two decades of listening to the steady drumbeat of the “kill more does” movement, the antlerless kill pendulum has swung back toward the center. Indeed, hunters and biologists are learning that it is possible to shoot too many does in some areas. Habitat conditions, predator loads and hunting practices — as well as many other factors — can knock back deer herds to the point that reducing or eliminating antlerless harvest might be necessary.

So how do we know how many does we should shoot? There are no easy answers. In fact, when I mentioned I was writing this story to several top whitetail researchers, their general response was, “Good luck with that one!” Many even chuckled. However, they proposed some guidelines to consider when hunters/managers are deciding on an appropriate doe harvest. Here they are, in no particular order.
Food/Habitat Conditions

Whitetails are one of the few creatures capable of negatively affecting native vegetation for themselves and other species. Overly dense deer herds will eat themselves out of all native food sources, as well as farm crops, food plots and other plants not intended for their enjoyment. Just ask any suburbanite trying to maintain a garden. One of the most telling indicators that a deer herd needs trimming is the presence of a browse line: an absence of brush, browse and tree limbs below 6 to 7 feet. If you notice such a distinct line on the edge of a timber stand, a more aggressive antlerless harvest is in order. In most cases, by the time a browse line is evident, deer will have already affected other native plant species and the regeneration of tree seedlings.

Significant damage to agricultural crops and food plots is another sign that deer numbers are too high and does should be shot aggressively. Many of the corn/soybean fields on the farms I hunt receive some damage from deer activity, but I try to pay attention to relative trends across several seasons in an attempt to assess deer numbers. For example, if whitetails typically trim the tops off soybean plants within 10 steps of the field edge in most years, but that line extends twice as far one summer, I get concerned. Food plots can provide other tell-tale signs. Exclusion cages that prevent deer from eating plants within their confines allow a comparison of how heavily deer are using the food source outside the cage. Again, dramatic differences between plants within a cage and those growing outside can indicate an overabundance of deer.

Record Keeping

One of the most solid yet most-ignored means to monitoring trends in herd size and health is record keeping. This can be as simple as a recording the sex, weight and age (jaw-bone verified or an estimate) of every deer harvested on a property. Viewed through time, this data allows a year-to-year comparison of herd health and composition. For example, if the average weight of harvested does decreases 20 percent for a couple of consecutive seasons, it might indicate that deer numbers are too high and available food is affecting body weights.

Record keeping can also reveal other herd-health indicators, such as fawn recruitment and buck-to-doe ratios. Whether you use personal (field) observations or trail cameras, simply recording the number, sex, estimated age and location of every deer you see (or “shoot” with cameras) is a huge step in learning the size and composition of your deer herd. Remember, this is not a census. You’ll never count every deer on your property. But it's an important estimate of numbers, ages and sex that can be used as a snapshot of your deer herd from year to year. Again, trends will emerge that will help you adjust harvest goals for the season.

Local Harvest/Mortality Trends

Most of us know how many deer we shoot on our properties, so tracking that data should be easy. But unless you own a huge tract, paying attention to deer harvests on adjacent properties — I refer to it as “my neighborhood,” with apologies to Mr. Rogers — is certainly worthwhile. For example, my next-door neighbor Dave is a dairy farmer and whitetail nut. Neither of us killed an antlerless deer this season, and that was on purpose. We are almost surrounded by public land, and liberal antlerless tags have been available to area hunters for the past several years. Through a combination of habitat/food analysis and personal observation, Dave and I recognized that overall deer populations were down in the neighborhood, and we backed off our pursuit of antlerless deer to make up for the aggressive harvest by others.

As another example, one of my friends hunted a farm that had excellent habitat and food. Because he was the only hunter on 200 acres, Jesse worried about killing enough whitetails, but every fall, the one or two does he shot seemed adequate. Jesse was a little puzzled, until he finally discovered that the neighboring farmer had been granted a depredation permit and was shooting dozens of deer every year. Again, an aggressive harvest on neighboring property was making up for Jesse’s limited one-man show. Obviously, the opposite scenario can also exist. Some hunting groups simply refuse to shoot antlerless deer, causing their neighbors to bear the burden of herd control. This can be an extremely difficult situation to endure, as hunters on surrounding properties must pay the freight for these sanctuaries. Other than visiting the neighbors and attempting to educate them in a calm, friendly manner, I’m not sure there’s a perfect solution for situations like this.

Not long ago, the prevailing wisdom was that predators were almost a non-issue for whitetail deer. With wolves and mountain lions basically removed from most of the East, black bears, bobcats and coyotes were the only major carnivores capable of killing deer, and most folks (even biologists) believed their effect was minimal. That attitude has changed in recent years. In fact, two recent studies have proven that coyote predation on fawns can be substantial. Of 60 fawns monitored by South Carolina researchers during a two-year period, 44 died before recruitment (surviving to their first fall) into the local population. Forty-four (80 percent) of those fawns were killed by coyotes, a fact proven by DNA sampling at the kill site.

Another study in Georgia compared fawn/doe ratios at two study sites; one where predators (coyotes and bobcats) were trapped aggressively and another control site where no trapping occurred. The doe/fawn ratio on the trapped site was .72/1, but the ratio on the untrapped area was .07/1 — nearly 10 times lower.

Clearly, coyotes — a common predator throughout whitetail range — can have a significant impact on deer numbers. Black bears (another widespread species) are well-known fawn predators, and areas experiencing a rebound in timber wolf populations (primarily the Great Lakes region) can experience even more predation. What can be done in regions with high predator loads? First, monitor sightings, sign and (with coyotes) audible clues that predator numbers might be increasing, as doe harvest goals might have to be adjusted accordingly. Second, keep whitetail sex ratios as balanced as possible, as that creates a short, intense rut that results in most fawns being dropped at the same time. This flooding effect ensures that predators simply can’t get to all the fawns before the fawns are mobile enough to escape (usually about eight weeks). And finally, don’t be reluctant to take up coyote hunting and trapping in the off-season.

There are other X-factors to consider when determining proper doe harvest. Weather is a perfect example. Al Gore’s claims to the contrary, global warming was not alive and well across much of the North this past winter. Harsh winters can take a toll on deer by killing animals outright as well as stressing them enough to affect long-term reproduction and health. Severe drought can have a similar effect in warmer climes. And of course, disease outbreaks — particularly EHD — can dramatically knock a herd back in short order. All must be considered when deciding on an adequate doe harvest.

Obviously, these many factors prove that deer management in general — and doe management in particular — is an ever-evolving, dynamic process. There is no cookie-cutter approach. Indeed, what worked well this past fall might be a disaster two years from now, which should encourage hunter/managers to keep their fingers on the pulse of local herd dynamics and the unique elements that affect them. Doing so can be time-and labor-intensive, but it's absolutely necessary.

Fortunately, today’s hunters can get help. Many states offer deer management assistance program consultation, in which a biologist will visit your property to assess habitat health and herd conditions, and then recommend an appropriate harvest strategy for the coming season. For those lucky enough to live in such areas, I believe it's silly to not take advantage of such expertise. In states lacking such a program, paying constant attention to the aforementioned factors is critical.

Recently, a veteran state deer biologist told me that people came to him with three main complaints: not enough deer, too many deer and not the right kind of deer. Though his comment was squarely tongue-in-cheek, it was also based in fact. An adequate doe harvest helps us eliminate the first two complaints and lets us focus more on the third.