July 28, 2015
It’s amazing to think that just 50 years ago, there were hunters that would never even consider shooting a doe. White-tailed deer populations were just starting to grow in many of the states, and it wasn’t that distant of a memory when crowds would gather at the sight of a deer track in the snow. Fast forward to the 1990s, which for many of the biggest deer hunting tradition states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, were the “glory days” of deer hunting. Maybe not always in terms of the killing of giant bucks, but for sure in terms of number of deer seen. Fast forward to heading into the 2015 deer season, and the herds have changed dramatically. Much of that was because of the harvest, and yes, lack of harvest, of does across the country. It still is one of the most puzzling questions, “How many does should I shoot?”
Throwback to the 90s
Growing up in a hunting family in Pennsylvania, there may have been no other day we looked forward to more than the opening of gun season. In the 1990s, that was a buck only season in Pennsylvania right after Thanksgiving. But shortly after buck season closed, a brief 3-day gun season for antlerless deer would run. People talk about the opening day of buck gun season being a “war,” but during the 1990s, the real war was on the Monday opening antlerless gun season! When herds of 30+ antlerless deer would come blowing through the valley, well let’s just say there are lead mines from hunter deposits! The season harvest was regulated by antlerless tag allocations, which most hunters received 1 tag on a county basis. No whitetail hunter will likely complain about seeing “too many” deer, but the reality is for a lot of areas of Pennsylvania, and other major deer hunting states, there was just that – too many deer.
However, that really drove home “How many deer should we shoot?” The state agencies looked at survey data, hunter harvest reports, and many other variables to determine the amount of tags necessary to allocate in a region. This was not necessarily financially- or politically-driven as most may think, at least not at that time period. What was concerning, however, was the decreasing habitat in the “big whitetail woods” and increasing populations in suburban America.
There needed to be a major change. For Pennsylvania it was concurrent buck and doe seasons. Something that literally started the “Deer Wars of Pennsylvania.” The deer density needed to be reduced in these areas, for two separate reasons, but the focus shifted to decreasing the antlerless, specifically doe, population in order to bring the herd in check. But with diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease and Hemorrhagic Disease appearing, as well as economic crashes affecting the timber market, the compounding factors took a relatively straight forward management act to new dimensions. The end result is a wide range of deer population levels even within the same county.
So with that said, “How many does should you shoot?”
(Jeremy Flinn photo)
Numbers Don’t Lie
State biologists will analyze and calculate plenty of variables to determine the target number of antlerless deer to harvest in a given area. I’m sure with the deer hunting “riots” we have had lately, many of you believe they pull those numbers out of their…well we won’t go there. As a biologist, I can tell you that there are scientific methods in place to calculate harvest projections, some maybe more accurate or reliable than others, but needless to say there is data out there guiding recommendations.
With all that said, I have never calculated state, region, or even country recommendations. Mainly because I have never had the data sufficient enough to do so, but also because my deer management philosophy revolves around managing on the local level. That’s not to say that state guidelines aren’t importantly as they absolutely are critical to preserving the resource and deer hunting tradition, however, just because the state deems it legal to harvest 10 antlerless deer on your 100 acres, does not mean the deer herd in your area can sustain that type of removal, at least not if you want the population levels to remain steady or grow.
When it’s time to determine how many deer you need to shoot on your land, lease, or even public ground you control what you can control. What do I mean by that? Well, if you’re one of 5 landowners on 500 acres, and 3 of the landowners shoot every deer they see during the season, the fact is you may not want to shoot a single antlerless deer on your property. Is that fair to you? Absolutely not, but if you want to continue to have a viable deer herd, you must first take action and sacrifice to preserve the herd. On the flip side, I have hunted plenty of places in which landowners won’t shoot does, and the herd is like a combine marching through the fields. In these situations you may be calling every “Hunter Sharing the Harvest” type vendor possible for donation of a lot of meat. The bottom line is, most of us will never own enough land to control a deer population, but we can most certainly influence it by the action we take when we pull or don’t pull a trigger.
Use Your Resources
One of the best ways to determine how many does need to be shot on a property is by conducting a trail camera survey. A simple, yet effective way to estimate the number of deer using your property. “Using” is the key word, as small properties will rarely hold that many deer, but a lot of deer may pass through which affects the habitat and social stress of the herd. The survey is fairly simple to setup, and really the most time will be to sit and look though the pictures counting bucks, does, and fawns; as well as, identifying unique bucks in the population. Most often done before the hunting season in late summer and early fall, the calculations have been very well laid out by Mississippi State University.
So as the season approach, don’t just open the regulations book or “do what you did last year.” Take some time to truly think about the area you are hunting and what you want out of it. From there, you will be able to determine what is best for you and the land. The question of “How many does do I shoot?” becomes much easier.