Deer Management Strategies
In general, there are four primary deer management strategies:
- Maximum population management
- Maximum harvest management
- Quality deer management
- Trophy deer management
While these strategies are not mutually exclusive, each differs in its goals and intensity of management. Because the maximum population approach and maximum harvest approach are very similar, they have been combined into traditional deer management for the purposes of this guide.
Traditional Deer Management
Under traditional deer management, bucks of any age or antler quality may be harvested and antlerless deer harvest is regulated to produce an abundant deer herd and/or to maximize total buck harvest. Under this approach, most bucks harvested are yearlings (1.5 years old), with few bucks surviving beyond their second year.
This management approach is typically the least intensive and sometimes allows herds to increase to levels that can damage the habitat. Depending on herd productivity and the intensity of buck harvest, the sex ratio often becomes heavily skewed in favor of females. In some herds, particularly those where substantial buck harvest occurs before the rut, this imbalance may result in some does not breeding during their first estrous (heat) period, or perhaps delay their first estrus. If does do not conceive during their first estrus, the next breeding opportunity will not occur until 28-30 days later.
The doe's fawns will be born one month later for each cycle missed. Later-born fawns have lower survival rates, lower weaning weights, and poorer antler development as yearlings than fawns born at the appropriate time of year.
Quality Deer Management
Quality deer management (QDM) is a management philosophy/practice that unites landowners, hunters, and resource managers in a common goal of producing healthy deer herds with balanced adult sex ratios and age structures. This approach typically involves protecting young bucks while harvesting an appropriate number of female deer to maintain herds within existing environmental and social constraints.
A successful QDM program requires an increased knowledge of deer biology and active participation in management. This level of involvement extends the role of the hunter from mere consumer to manager. The progression from education to understanding bestows an ethical obligation on the hunter to practice sound deer management. Consequently, to an increasing number of landowners and hunters, QDM is a desirable alternative to traditional deer management.
Practicing QDM produces many benefits.
Typically, the sex ratio becomes more balanced and the number (or proportion) of bucks in the older age classes increases. Often, more mature bucks are available for breeding, resulting in less stress on yearling bucks and an earlier, more-defined rut. In some cases, deer health and body weights improve due to improved habitat conditions, which also benefit many other wildlife species. The lower deer density also helps reduce crop damage and deer/vehicle collisions.
One obvious benefit is the increased presence of mature bucks and the exhilaration of observing their behavior. Many landowners and hunters receive great satisfaction from the increased involvement with their deer herd that QDM offers.
The benefits of QDM do not come without costs. Typically, large tracts of land are required to achieve maximum results. While defining a minimum size is difficult, 600-1,000 acres is a reasonable starting point in most areas. While QDM can be successful on smaller areas, cooperation with hunters on neighboring properties and unique management practices are required.
Participants must take an active role in management and maintain accurate harvest records to assess management progress and fine-tune management strategies. Harvest restrictions and rules, especially for young bucks, must be implemented and enforced. Where high deer populations already exist, initial QDM restrictions generally result in a reduced total buck harvest and an increased doe harvest. As such, QDM often requires a change in hunting practices and a new mindset.
Trophy Deer Management
QDM often is confused with trophy deer management. While the two approaches share several objectives, they also differ in many ways. Under trophy deer management, fully mature bucks with high-scoring antlers are the primary focus. Whitetail bucks typically attain maximum antler size between 5.5 and 8.5 years of age.
Producing bucks of this age and antler quality requires many ingredients not available to most hunters. Because some adult bucks have home ranges of 2,000 acres or more, large tracts of land, often 5,000 acres or more, are required. Because buck home ranges are not uniform in shape and size, few adult bucks live their entire lives on a single property, even on 5,000 acres.
The ability to control hunting pressure is paramount, especially on promising 2.5-, 3.5- and 4.5-year-old bucks. This requires considerable field-judging skill and self-control. Unless the herd is enclosed and supplementally fed, deer density must be kept low to allow optimum nutrition so bucks can maximize antler potential. This often involves aggressive doe harvests (even higher than under QDM) and intensive habitat management. Therefore, while trophy deer management is a biologically sound approach, it is not feasible in many areas and the associated costs outweigh the benefits for most hunters.