Oklahoma's Booming Deer Herd

Oklahoma's Booming Deer Herd

Even after a string of record and near-record deer kills year after year, our deer herd just keeps growing stronger.

By Mike Lambeth

My wife's excited voice blared on the other end of the telephone: "You will never believe what I saw in our housing edition on my way to work!"

"Did the hippie couple on the next block finally mow their knee-high front yard?" I quipped.

"No," she said, "I spotted a nice buck in velvet."

Not a big deal, huh? Well it actually is, considering I live in the heart of a sprawling urban community in the central part of the state given over to shopping centers and fast-food restaurants. It seems as if deer pop up in the most unlikely places nowadays. Deer can now be found all across Oklahoma in areas where just a few years ago there were few.

Oklahoma's deer herd is exploding statewide, and hunters are reaping the rewards.

Sooner State deer hunting seems to get better each year. The quality of our deer also is improving as hunters are becoming aware of the potential garnered by selective harvest - taking more does and fewer older bucks. Hunter success rates are rising in step with more deer hunting opportunities made available each season. In short, the outlook for Oklahoma deer hunting is promising.

Current estimates put our deer herd at 475,000 animals. That figure is amazing when you consider that in the late 1940s it was estimated that Oklahoma had only 5,000 deer.

I have spoken to several people who said they never saw a deer when they were growing up in the 1940s and '50s. Now our deer herd has repopulated with such explosive growth that all of Oklahoma's 77 counties have good deer populations. I see deer almost daily, even in the middle of cities and other unlikely places.

Photo by Gordon Whittington

A few years back, biologists predicted Oklahoma's deer harvest numbers would peak at 80,000 and then start to decline. However, harvest numbers continued to rise and now average near the 100,000 mark. In fact, the 2000 and 2001 total deer harvests eclipsed the 100,000 mark, and 2002 looks to be just a little shy of that mark.

According to Mike Shaw, our "whitetail guru" with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, the reason for deer kills surpassing the 80,000 mark was increased antlerless days, which provided hunters with more hunting opportunities.

"Harvest numbers should stabilize within 5 to 10 percent of 100,000," he said, "but could grow higher with the possibilities of more antlerless hunting days and lengthened seasons."

Shaw believes Sooner deer hunters take nearly a quarter of the state's deer each season, with 40 percent of that harvest made up of does.

According to check station figures, the southwest part of Oklahoma is showing the most growth. The top counties include Beckham, Comanche, Cotton, Greer, Harmon, Jackson, Kiowa and Tillman.

Early figures show Beckham County with 669 deer, up from last year's harvest of 622. Comanche County hunters took 388 deer, nearly equal to last season, while Cotton County was up nearly 100 deer with 351. Greer County weighed in with 546 deer, while Harmon County reported 399 deer. Jackson County, which was home to a former state-record whitetail taken by David Gribble, had 512 deer. Kiowa County racked up 420 deer.

Not too many years back, southwest Oklahoma could not support much antlerless deer hunting, and now the region needs more does thinned from the herd.

The trophy buck craze has swept the United States. Landowners are learning that trophy deer can be grown by implementing sound management practices and by providing high-protein foods to promote larger bodies and bigger antlers.

The ODWC started the Deer Management Assistance Program several years ago as a cooperative effort to educate and to help area landowners. Under the program guidelines, any landowner with 1,000 to 5,000 acres can enroll for $200. For tracts of land larger than 5,000 acres, the ODWC charges $400. These programs feature a "hands on" approach by a qualified biologist who will personally monitor and manage the property for maximum yield. The biologist suggests what crops to plant and calculates the number of does to be harvested to increase herd potential. The does can be harvested at any time during blackpowder or gun seasons.

Antlerless deer taken under the DMAP program are considered as bonus deer and are not counted against bag limits. This management tool is achieving fantastic results by showing sportsmen the untapped potential of their favorite hunting spots. Landowners are presented with annual harvest reports and analyzed data.

Landowners wanting to enroll in the program should contact the ODWC to request a DMAP application.

In a survey of the 11 harvest units in Oklahoma, including wildlife management areas, the average weights of yearling bucks ranged between 80 and 105 pounds. The same data showed adult bucks averaged from 90 to 134 pounds. Adult does averaged 74 to 98 pounds statewide.

Amazingly, there were more than 100 deer checked in 2002 weighing 200 pounds or more, including a bruiser from Cimarron County that tipped the scales at 280 pounds.

Trophy white-tailed deer now live in almost every county. The Cy Curtis Trophy Deer Records, which recognizes Oklahoma's top deer trophies, lists typical whitetails scoring at least 135 points and non-typicals scoring 150 points or more.

The top five all-time typicals with scores ranging from 177 7/8 to 185 6/8 were taken in Bryan, Jackson, Oklahoma, Blaine and Harper counties, while the top five non-typicals with scores of 229 4/8 to 238 7/8 were taken in Wagoner, Delaware, Alfalfa, Pittsburg and Dewey.

The top five all-time typical mule deer scores range from 170 0/8 to 180 1/8 and were taken in the Panhandle counties of Texas, Cimarron and Beaver. The top five non-typical mule deer scores range from 189 0/8 to 215 0/8 and were taken in Woodward and Cimarron counties.

Top counties for Cy Curtis typical entries include Pushmataha, located in Southeasern Oklahoma, with 168 entries, followed by neighboring Pittsburg, with 132 entries. Osage County ranked

third, with 114 entries, followed closely by Woods County, with 111.

Top counties for non-typical entries, are Pushmataha with 27, and Woods, with 26; Hughes and Pittsburg followed with 24 and 21, respectively.

For a complete list of all Cy Curtis Award recipients, pick up a copy of the Cy Curtis Trophy Deer Records, available from the ODWC by calling (405) 521-3856.

Though Chronic Wasting Disease has been found in two bordering states, no wild deer have been found in Oklahoma with the disease.

Fear spread when a captive elk herd near Edmond contracted the disease. Most of the herd died a grueling death; the remaining elk were put down to avoid suffering. The ODWC ran extensive tests on random deer harvested nearby, and found no residual effects. To date nearly 400 deer and elk have been tested with no cases reported.

"Oklahoma venison is as safe to eat as any other game meat," said Shaw.

Mike Shaw believes at some point there will have to be fewer bucks harvested in the state for the overall health of the deer herd. Several states known for producing high-scoring bucks allow limited buck harvest and their deer quality is phenomenal.

Shaw said the emphasis needs to be on growing quality bucks. That's accomplished by selective harvest. Small bucks that are harvested instantly lose the potential to become big bucks. Wise stewardship of our resource is essential.

As the ODWC likes to say, "Hunters in the know, take a doe."

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