Grow Your Own Bucks -- With Help!

The Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries would like to help you improve the deer herd on your property or hunting lease. Here's a look at their Deer Management Assistance Program.

By Carolee Boyles

Year after year, the bucks you take from your hunting lease seem to all be spikes or 4-pointers. On the other hand, your next-door neighbor, who's on a hunting lease 10 miles up the road, brought home a pair of 8-pointers last year and a 10-point the year before that.

What's the difference? Maybe it's the kind of management his hunt club is doing on the property.

The good news is that there are some things you can do to improve the quality of the bucks on the land you hunt. The first step is as simple as a phone call to the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries' (DWFF) Deer Management Assistance Program (DMP).

The DMP came about during the 1984-1985 season as a way to give landowners some assistance in managing their deer and, to a lesser extent, to give them a way to harvest does.

"Until we liberalized the doe season, we had a very restrictive either-sex season," says Bill Gray, a DWFF deer biologist working in east-central Alabama. "Some areas had up to a week to harvest does, but some areas had only one or two days, and some areas had none. That was hardly sufficient. The DMP in part filled in the gap, and allowed folks on a property-by-property basis a method to take the number of does that they needed to take, and where we could keep tabs on it. The DMP was a good segue into the liberalized season that we have now, because it gave folks a chance to see that you can harvest does and not wipe out the deer."

Photo by Tim Black

During that first season, the DMP worked with 10 pilot cooperators - the DMP term for a landowner or hunt club in the program - just to see how the system would operate. Today there are 1,900 cooperators with a total of 3.6 million acres involved in the program.

Actually, at this level, the program is down quite a bit from the period of time when the DMP served in part to provide more doe days in the state. Once a more liberal doe season was in place, cooperators whose main interest was more doe hunting opportunity began leaving the DMP. As a result, today the DMP plays the role it was originally conceived to play.

"All along, it was intended as a program to work with folks who have a true interest in managing their deer," Gray says. "These people are willing to jump through all the hoops and collect all the data. People who were on the program just to get doe tags aren't on it anymore."

Having such a large base of cooperators at the beginning of the program, however, meant that biologists were able to collect a great deal of data about the condition of the herd statewide, information that's proved invaluable in helping biologists make harvest recommendations in different areas.

"We were able to collect some very good harvest data, particularly with respect to the ages of deer being harvested," Gray says. "It gave us a very good data base to look at deer and look at how soil type, physiographic region, habitat type and other factors affect deer quality in Alabama."

The Deer Management Assistance Program is a cooperative program between private land cooperators and the DWFF.

"It's a technical assistance program that landowners can sign up for," Gray says. "We partner up - a biologist is assigned to work with each individual DMP cooperator."

Regardless of how much or how little land you have for hunting, the DMP is open to you.

"We've never set a limit on it," says Rick Claybrook, District IV supervising wildlife biologist. "The smallest one that I recall had 50-something acres, which isn't enough to do any management. But we're available to help anyone."

When a cooperator signs up, he chooses one of four objectives for his property. He may choose to manage for more deer, for maintaining the status quo, for better quality deer, or for trophy deer.

"Most people opt for quality deer management, or better antler development and physical condition," Gray says. "Ninety-five percent of the people on the program are interested in this objective."

The entire program is voluntary.

"Even if they don't follow the recommendations, we keep working with them," Gray says. "But it's like anything else. You get out of it what you put into it."

However, there is a small fee to participate as a cooperator.

"It's $35, and in addition 6 cents per acre," Claybrook says. "So if you have a hundred acres you'll pay $35 up front and then $6, or a total of $41."

However, if you're running a commercial hunting operation in which people pay to hunt, the base fee is $100, plus the 6 cents per acre.

Each cooperator agrees to collect data from every deer harvested on the particular tract of land. They record the deer's weight and number of antler points, and they complete antler measurements. They check does for milk, and they extract the lower jawbone from each deer killed.

"At the end of the year, each cooperator sends all his data sheets, along with the jawbones, to the assigned biologist," Gray explains. "The biologist enters all the data into a program we have that summarizes and analyzes the harvest data and then prints out a harvest summary that breaks the deer down by age class, average weights and other factors that we look at."

Based on this annual report and on the objective that the cooperator selected when he signed up, the biologist gives the cooperator a set of written harvest recommendations for the next year, including suggestions about whether to increase or reduce the harvest of certain categories of deer based on antler profile. For example, after three or four years of looking at the data, biologists may see that the inside spread of 2 1/2-year-old and younger deer is 14 inches or less. They may tell the cooperator to concentrate on harvesting only deer with a 15-inch inside spread or a 19-inch main beam, depending on the criteria the landowner is using on the property.

The results of all this management sometimes take awhile to see. How long depends on many things.

"It depends on the s

ize of the land base, what's going on at neighboring properties, how badly the condition of the deer has deteriorated, and the population dynamics, which include the buck-to-doe ratio and the age structure," Gray notes. "I've seen results in as little as three years, and I've seen a few cases where things hadn't changed after seven or eight years. But those are exceptions."

The bottom line here, though, is that it takes time for a deer management program to have an effect.

"Things don't get bad overnight for a deer herd, and they don't get fixed overnight, either," Gray emphasizes. "If you think about it, everyone wants to harvest mature bucks. But if you start the program this year and your goal is to harvest only 4 1/2-year-old and older bucks, how long does it take to produce a 4-1/2-year-old buck?"

Once you reach the place where you want to be, to stay there you still must continue with annual evaluations and harvest recommendations. This is particularly true where the doe harvest is concerned.

"The doe harvest is kind of like the Lord's work - it's never done," Gray says. "You never reach a point where you can say, 'OK, we've shot a sufficient number of does.' In most of Alabama, particularly in South Alabama, where we have a very dense deer population, we have to implement an adequate and sufficient doe harvest every year."

For cooperators on the DMP, assistance is more than just how many deer to harvest.

"We've always done habitat analysis and offered suggestions about habitat management," Gray says. "This includes burning and planting. Cooperators call us all the time and bounce things off of us, and ask us what to do about a lot of things."

Biologists meet with cooperators, look at their property, and offer advice. Even landowners who aren't on the program can get this kind of help.

Biologists stop at writing detailed management plans for cooperators.

"We have written guidelines such as planting dates and seeding rates that we'll give cooperators," Gray says. "We meet with them as many times as they want. We just don't have the time or the manpower to write detailed management plans for every piece of property in the program. But we'll give cooperators the resources to write their own management plans."

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