In my last column, I shared recent data from five states that reported the largest increases in deer populations. Even if your state isn't represented in the report, there are many individual properties throughout the whitetail's range that have worked to improve the habitat and balance the predator and prey populations. This has resulted in increasing populations of whitetail deer on these properties.
Deer populations can increase by 25 percent or more annually. The best way to balance the number of deer and the amount of quality forage is to harvest does. With more and more information being published about the nutritional value of venison, most folks consider the need to harvest does a blessing.
If there are more deer than quality forage, the most important goal is to either remove a sufficient quantity of does so each deer has plenty of quality forage, or improve the habitat until there's enough quality forage for each deer to express its full potential. If you're lucky, you can work on both goals at the same time.
When to Shoot
Hunters are often curious which age class of does should be harvested to improve the herd's quality. The answer to this question depends on several factors. If the hunters have a history of missing doe harvest quotas, or the habitat quality is substantially reduced due to being overbrowsed, then the most important objective is removing enough does. Which does are removed isn't as important as ensuring the doe harvest goal is reached. If does are to be harvested, there are many benefits to harvesting them during the first part of the season.
The first is removing does so bucks don't expend energy tending them. Mature bucks in captivity have been shown to lose more than 25 percent of their body weight during the rut. Imagine the cost of tending does in the wild where bucks most likely spend more energy seeking, tending and defending does. If does are harvested early, many bucks could save a lot of energy and have more resources to survive the winter and produce larger antlers the following year.
Fewer does can also result in bucks spending more time searching during the rut. However, this doesn't mean bucks leave their home range seeking does. Bucks will exhibit rutting behavior whether there are does present or not. A buck's testosterone level is keyed by the amount of light during a day, not how many does he contacts.
There have been hundreds of GPS collars placed on mature bucks. Scientists have learned that throughout the whitetail range, bucks rarely leave their home — even during the rut. Certainly, some bucks do make quick trips outside their normal home range, but these tend to last less than 36 hours. However, it's extremely rare for a 2-year-old or older buck to leave its home range for an extended period. This is good news for hunters who have postponed harvesting does because they feared fewer does where they hunt would result in bucks leaving the property and searching for does on neighboring properties. It seems bucks are more fearful of the unknown outside their home range than they are interested in finding additional does.
Mature or Immature?
Another common question is whether it's better for the herd if hunters remove mature or immature does. This somewhat depends on the local conditions and the site-specific herd-management goals. For example, if only a relatively small doe harvest is recommended, it may be slightly better to harvest younger does. Younger does usually don't produce as many fawns and their fawns have a lower survival rate. This is because younger does are simply less experienced mothers. They don't have as much experience avoiding predators and finding quality food resources. By passing on mature does and harvesting younger ones, there's less impact on the herd's ability to recruit fawns and increase in population size.
If the herd is grossly overpopulated and quality forage is being damaged, it is usually better to focus on meeting the doe harvest quota and not be picky about which does to tag. If the hunter has a choice because multiple does are in range, attempt to harvest the most mature doe for the same reasons listed above.
Finally, there is the myth of the "old barren does." This is probably because human females finish their reproductive stage long before they reach old age. However, this isn't true with female deer. If does are healthy, they will typically produce twins through most, if not all, of their lives. If mature does are not producing fawns, there's most likely a problem with the local habitat quality and/or there are too many predators in the area.
If you hunt in an area where there is great habitat quality and few deer/human conflicts — such as crop damage — then there is no need to tag many does this fall. On the other hand, if the best quality forage is being damaged due to over browsing, it's time to harvest does and help the herd and habitat quality improve!