A Look At Louisiana's Herd

A Look At Louisiana's Herd

Our state's deer are in good shape -- and new tagging regulations ought to help keep them that way. (July 2007)

Photo by Ralph Hensley.

As I sat down to write this article, it occurred to me that I had yet to report on my harvest card for the previous deer season. Logging on to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' Web site, I found the card and clicked a couple of buttons to complete my report.

It took me less than 60 seconds to complete the card and send it on its way -- mainly because all I had to report was a zero. No fresh venison occupies space in my freezer this year. (I wasn't really worried, since I carried over a good supply from last year.) I didn't have a good shot at a doe this past season, and the only "shooter" buck I saw was out of range for my muzzleloader. Thus, my season was spent watching small bucks, a few turkeys, and lots of birds and squirrels.

What about that Deer Tag Harvest Card I carried around with me during this past season? Since I didn't harvest a deer, was it really necessary that I report this fact to state officials?

"Yes," explained Emile LeBlanc, Deer Management Assistance Program coordinator for the LDWF. "We need information from those cards as much as we do cards from successful hunters. This helps us with our overall database, which sets the stage for the next phase that goes into effect for the 2007-08 hunting season. Beginning this coming season, we'll implement a tagging system that hunters will be mandated to use."

LeBlanc said that each hunter will receive a set of tags attached to his hunting license. Hunters over age 60 and those with lifetime licenses will also have to have the tags in their possession; they'll have to furnish proof of age or possession of a lifetime hunting license to pick up their tags.

"Hunters must have in their possession the license with three-doe, three-buck tags attached," LeBlanc explained. "Once a deer is harvested, the deer is to be immediately tagged with the appropriate tag. Another requirement is to call the toll-free number on your license to report your kill and receive a confirmation number to write onto your license in the space provided. Tags must remain attached to the license until used; loose tags are illegal and cannot be used.

"I realize this new system will take some getting accustomed to, but the data we will be able to collect from tag reporting will give us much more and better data then we've had in the past."

After the update on these significant license and tagging changes set for the upcoming deer season, we asked LeBlanc to comment on the state of Louisiana's deer herd, and on what hunters can expect once they hit the woods this fall and winter.

"Overall, our deer herd is pretty stable. There are populations of deer in practically every spot in the state that can support them," he said. "We have come up with a new model to more accurately assess just how many deer we have in Louisiana. In the past, we relied mostly on estimates, and have said for a number of years that we believe our deer population to be around 1 million. Using the new model, that figure is more in the neighborhood of 750,000 deer. The annual harvest seems to be around 255,000."

Have today's Louisiana deer hunters become more accustomed to shooting does than were those hunters of a few decades ago?

"I believe we can see a definite trend of hunters becoming educated to the fact that we must harvest does to take the pressure off yearling bucks," said LeBlanc. "It is important in deer management to allow as many bucks as possible to move up into the next age-bracket. Hunters are probably killing a few more bucks than does today, but overall, the situation is a lot better than the days when does were considered 'sacred cows,' and hunters wouldn't hesitate to shoot a spike or forkhorn instead of taking a fat doe,"

The implementation of the hunter harvest card system used this past season and of the tagging system upcoming this fall has obviously affected the numbers of hunters who have chosen to stay with the state's two programs, which have allowed the taking of antlerless deer throughout the season.

DMAP allows hunters owning or leasing lands of at least 500 contiguous acres to receive antlerless deer tags to be used anytime during the season. The Landowner Assistance Deer Tag program allows hunters on much smaller acreage to receive antlerless deer tags to be used throughout the season. The principal difference between the two programs is that DMAP requires that more intensive records be kept of weight, antler measurements, lactation of female deer and jawbone removal for aging, whereas LADT requirements are much less restrictive.

We asked LeBlanc, who is responsible for managing these programs, how the current harvest card system and the one involving tagging to be mandated for the upcoming season will affect DMAP and LADT.

"Many hunters had already switched from DMAP to LADT," he said, "because all they were really interested in was the chance to harvest a doe anytime during the season and had no real interest in managing the deer on the property they hunt. With the current system in effect, they can harvest a doe anytime during the season without having to keep records, and as a result, our LADT numbers have dropped.

"On the other hand, those hunting clubs who are genuinely interested in managing their property for deer are staying in DMAP. They get more interaction with biologists and are willing to collect the data we require because they're serious about quality management on their property.

"Last year we had over 800 DMAP members and over 1,100 LADT members. Currently, there are 619 DMAP clubs and 823 LADT clubs. The ones who are staying in are those who are really interested in having a high-quality situation on the land they hunt."

Although statewide deer numbers are stable overall, the population is flourishing in some areas, while growth is not as dramatic in others. Said LeBlanc, "One thing is for certain: Deer need a variety of habitat types to do well. In the Florida parishes, timber harvest has stepped up and as the forest canopy is opened by the harvest of mature trees, sunlight comes in and plants that are attractive to deer spring up, creating a banquet for the deer.

"On the other hand, deer and most other species of wildlife don't do as well where one type of tree is allowed to dominate. The ideal situation is to allow for a mixed pine/hardwood component where deer do well as opposed to a pine monoculture or towering hardwoods that allow little sunlight through to the ground.

"Deer nee

d plenty of browse plants but they also need hard mast, particularly acorns, to add body fat to prepare the animals for winter and the rigors of the breeding season," LeBlanc explained.

There is another element that is impacting the deer somewhat across the state, another four-legged creature that has bullied its way onto the outdoor scene and competing for food and space that deer ordinarily use. Feral hogs are becoming a factor that hunters and professional game managers have to deal with.

"I just got back from a feral hog symposium in Mobile, Ala., where research is ongoing on these animals. Hogs are fun to hunt and fine to eat . . . as long as they're on somebody else's property," LeBlanc said, chuckling. "It's very hard to get rid of the hogs on your property, and we have found that your best bet is to try and control them by taking out as many small young pigs as you can.

"Where hog trapping is ongoing, we're suggesting that smaller mesh be used in the traps to keep the younger ones from escaping. These young pigs are not as savvy as the older ones, and therefore easier to lure to a trap. Get these little ones out of the population, and hopefully you'll reduce the next generation of feral hogs on your property."

Now that Louisiana is two years removed from the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, we asked LeBlanc to assess the situation today in the storm-ravaged areas as it relates to the deer population.

"Surprisingly, there has been a good recovery in the area hit by Katrina, with a greater impact today in southwest Louisiana where Rita came ashore," said LeBlanc. "Deer are tough animals, and they have survived other storms down through the years.

"For example: When Hurricane Camille hit the Pass-à-Loutre area years ago, we feared the worse for the future of deer in that area. The deer came back, however, and things were going well until Katrina hit.

"We are already seeing good recovery in that area," he continued, "and in one particular area the storm may have actually helped in improving the deer population. In the Pearl River wildlife management area, millions of dollars worth of timber, mostly mature hardwoods, wound up on the ground, creating an impenetrable tangle and profusion of dead trees.

"While the deer lost a lot of the hard mast element there, the canopy opened by the storm has created a lush growth of foods that deer eat. In addition, this area is now extremely difficult to hunt, which has removed much of the pressure on the deer herd there, allowing them to replenish themselves."

LeBlanc noted that while Rita may have wrought devastation less spectacular than that of Katrina, which hit metropolitan areas, it caused its own sorts of problems for wildlife. "The storm surge inundated the marsh and low-lying areas with salt water," he noted. "Ordinarily, this scalds native plants for a while, but rains that follow help reduce the salinity and return the area more to normal. The problem with Rita was that, following the saltwater surge, a drought hit the area, which left a high level of salinity, since it wasn't diluted by rainwater.

"Deer live on the ridges and higher areas in the marsh, but the effect of Rita followed by the drought has greatly reduced the desirable habitat there."

In order to peer into the crystal ball to assess the outlook of the upcoming season around the state, it helps to see what happened in the deer woods last season. LeBlanc noted that some really good deer were harvested around the state, with one region in particular producing trophy deer.

"Most of the trophy bucks came from the areas that have traditionally produced quality deer," LeBlanc said. "The best area continues to be what we call the 'Fertile Crescent', the area along the Mississippi River where the Red River converges with the Mississippi. This has long been a highly productive area because of the fertility of the soils that grow more nutritious and rich deer foods.

"You'll see an occasional trophy buck come out of other regions of the state but most of the better ones continue to come from private lands and our management areas found within this region."

Looking at a map of the area, several state and federal public hunting areas are located here. In addition to the Lake Ophelia and Tensas National Wildlife Refuges, there are state public areas, including Big Lake, Three Rivers and Red River wildlife management areas.

The state agency is responding the improving situations around the state with at least two wildlife management areas affected for the coming season.

"We're in the final stages of changing hunting regulations on two wildlife management areas," said LeBlanc. "On Jackson-Bienville management area, we're planning to offer either-sex hunting throughout the season to correspond with the season outside the management area. In the past, we have had several days of either sex hunting followed by a bucks-only season. We have determined that the deer population is in good condition here, and as a result, we are proposing changing regulations here to reflect this situation.

"We are proposing the same regulations -- antlerless deer hunting throughout the season -- on Ben's Creek Wildlife Management Area as well, and for the same reasons." (Hunters should check the LDWF Web site, www.wlf.state.la. us, to insure that these proposals are in effect for the 2007-08 deer hunting seasons at these two areas.)

In order to continue to assess the deer situation around the state, wildlife personnel are in the process of a deer telemetry study in some portions of the state. "We are doing a telemetry study in West Baton Rouge and Iberville parishes," said LeBlanc, "where we catch and radio-collar deer to be released and studied. We use bait sites and set a drop net over the site.

"Once we have deer under the net, it is quickly dropped and then the fun begins. We wrap the deer in the nets and slip a blindfold over their heads to calm them a bit. They are weighed and aged and a radio collar is attached before releasing them at the same site.

"We're doing the same study down in the marsh around Pass-à-Loutre," he continued, "but we use a different method of capturing the deer. We go out at night in air boats (and) run the deer out into the water, where they're easier to capture. We'll be able to learn a lot from the data these radio-collared deer will furnish.

"We will be implementing another program this fall where we'll use volunteers to give us a monthly report during the deer season. We'll be looking for hunters from all around the state who are in the field a lot and will ask them to keep a log book of deer sightings, harvest, etc. and to turn this in to us at the end of the season.

"Another possibility to assess the deer situation is our checking with deer processing plants. We feel we can learn a lot from their records as to when deer are brought in from which parishes," he added.

By the time the 2007-08 deer season rolls around, the state's hunters will be fervently hoping that another

devastating hurricane has not kicked the state in the teeth as happened two years ago.

Hunters will also be preparing themselves mentally to take part in something state hunters haven't contended with in many year, that of tagging the deer they take and calling in each success.

One thing Louisiana's deer hunters can feel good about is the extent that the state's overseers of our deer -- professionals such as Emile LeBlanc -- are working to insure that neither hurricane nor drought can keep Louisiana from being one of the South's best deer hunting destinations.

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