I was perched in one of my favorite early-season stands one afternoon when I heard a disturbance in the underbrush. The timing and direction were about right for a deer, so I unhooked by bow and readied for a shot. My suspicions were correct, and to my delight not one, but two, deer entered the small clearing below, a spike buck and a yearling doe. It didn't take much deliberation to determine which one to take. At the shot, the yearling doe made two bounds and dropped.
It was a rewarding experience in more ways than one. My scouting, preparation and practice paid off. One tag out of the way and meat in the freezer took some pressure off the rest of my hunting season. Now I could ease up and look for antlers. Plus, I'd done my good deed for the day, reducing the local deer herd by one. I was hunting an area that biologists claimed had too many deer. Removing does represented the most efficient remedy, and I was happy to oblige.
Why Shoot Does?
Shifting your hunting effort toward female deer is an integral part of the Quality Deer Management (QDM) philosophy. At the most basic level, it's a means of reducing the deer population to bring it more in line with what the habitat can support. As a result, the overall health, body weights and reproductive rates of remaining deer increase, along with improved habitat conditions. If crop damage and deer-vehicle collisions are an issue in your area, you can also take credit for reducing them.
In nearly all cases, increasing doe harvest also leads to a more balanced sex ratio. Even in this modern age of abundant deer and enlightened management, most hunter effort is directed toward bucks. Shifting effort toward does helps counteract that. Then, the number (or proportion) of bucks in older age classes increases. Subsequently, more mature bucks are available for breeding, resulting in less stress on yearling bucks and an earlier, more defined rut. The following spring, fawns are born during a narrower and more appropriate window of time, meaner healthier young and greater survival rates.
Admittedly, harvesting does is not a wholly unselfish act. There's a certain amount of personal satisfaction that comes with killing a deer -- any deer. Then there's a shopping bag full of all-natural protein that will help defray the grocery (and perhaps the medical) bills.
The real carrot for most hunters though is that we're also protecting and improving the male segment of our local deer herd. As already mentioned, fewer deer means more food to go around for those that remain; and reducing buck harvest allows a few more to reach the next age class. Older deer means bigger deer.
Reducing doe numbers also reduces stress, which research has shown can influence antler size. In general, deer are not territorial. However, fawn-rearing females select and defend habitat that is best suited for rearing offspring during a period that is nutritionally critical for both does and bucks. An overabundance of fawn-rearing females not only leads to over-browsing and forage depletion, it also results in bucks being excluded from areas of better habitat. Increased social stress and reduced nutrition means smaller antlers.
Which Does to Shoot
Once you've determined you need to thin out a few does, you need to decide which one to shoot. It may seem a bit flippant, but the short answer is the one that's in range. You've got to start somewhere.
If conditions allow you to be selective, consider the current deer population status and your objective. If your population is very high, start by taking does of any age. As you approach your objective, you can begin shifting effort toward older deer. They have the highest reproductive potential, so removing them will have the greatest impact on both immediate and long-term population growth. To stabilize the population or allow slow growth, target younger deer. This reduces the impact on food resources without as much affect on overall reproduction.
When to Shoot Does
When you should remove does falls along the same logical lines as which ones to kill. Anytime is good if you have a lot of deer. Removing does before the rut offers the combined benefit of one less stomach to fill, one less doe for bucks to compete over during the rut and one less pregnant doe the following spring. If your herd is close to your population objective, but still needs to be thinned, wait until after the rut. You'll have less effect on the herd's reproduction, but will be removing an extra mouth just prior to the most nutritionally stressful period.