A Talk With Tennessee's Head Deer Biologist

A Talk With Tennessee's Head Deer Biologist

We asked the TWRA's head deer biologist Daryl Ratajczak some questions about deer management, populations and regulations. Here's what he had to say. (August 2007)

Though it is impossible to count every game animal in the woods, TWRA biologists track the health of the deer herd by collecting data on harvested animals and through field studies.
Photo courtesy of TWRA.

Have you ever wanted the chance to talk one on one with Tennessee's Big Game Coordinator Daryl Ratajczak? Here's a chance to hear some of the questions that hunters want Ratajczak to address.

He recently agreed to answer several questions that Tennessee Sportsman thought would be of interest to a variety of hunters in the state; he answered questions on everything from deer population carrying capacity to trophy management and buck limits to questions on wildlife management areas (WMAs) and public hunting areas (PHAs).

Ratajczak often finds himself on the hot seat when it comes to satisfying deer hunters while managing Tennessee's deer herd as the state's Big Game Coordinator. We've changed that around and given him the chance to discuss some background on how and why deer management works, and what it can and can't do.

We first let Ratajczak assess the status of the state's deer herd unit by unit; then we asked him similar questions concerning our WMAs and PHAs. Last, for the future of our young sportsmen, we're going to evaluate some of the better juvenile opportunities out there.


Tennessee Sportsman: What is the carrying capacity of the deer herd in Unit A, and have we reached that mark?

Ratajczak: The simple answer? We're not at the biological carrying capacity in Unit A at all. And that goes for the rest of the state as well. The long of it is that the TWRA doesn't manage deer based on biological carrying capacity but (instead) on social carrying capacity. In a nutshell, that's how many deer there are in an area that people in that area will tolerate or put up with. Social carrying capacity is heavily based on auto collisions and habitat depredation.

Tennessee Sportsman: What counties are at capacity in this region, and which ones are not?

Ratajczak: We don't have an actual number as far as carrying capacity. It's hard to put a figure on the exact number of deer in the woods. But there are presently no counties in Unit A at biological or even social carrying capacity. Even if we stopped deer hunting altogether in Unit L where we have the densest deer populations, the deer population would still increase. Even the counties within Unit L, our most liberal hunting areas, are not at carrying capacity. There isn't a county in the state where deer are starving to death due to a lack of food.

Tennessee Sportsman: How have changes in buck bag limits affected the populations in Unit A?

Ratajczak: Even with the three-buck bag limit with two-per-weapon season, things have been working well. But the buck limits can't improve the quality of the bucks specifically, and there will be a leveling out soon. Each year, we're not killing too many yearlings. That means the age structure is improving every year. The agency is very pleased to allow hunters these increased opportunities. The limits are definitely not hurting the age structure of the deer herd.

Tennessee Sportsman: In areas where the deer herd is nearing social carrying capacity, what are the management options?

Ratajczak: Even though there are not any counties in Unit A that can be said to be at carrying capacity, there are those that are currently on the upper end. Overton County and Roane County are two such examples that the agency is keeping an eye on. The management strategy for monitoring the deer population across the state is simple. The state is divided into three separate units now for a reason. All counties in each should be similar to those in their respective areas, whether they lie in Unit A, Unit B or Unit L. Once a county deer herd status nears carrying capacity, socially speaking, they are upgraded to the next unit. Unit B counties can be transferred to Unit A with its less restrictive limits as deemed necessary. Likewise, Unit A counties can be upgraded to Unit L counties should management strategies call for such a move. Two perfect examples are found in Houston and Stewart counties. These two counties were transferred from Unit A status just this summer and moved into Unit L, where more liberal limits will help manage the doe harvests more effectively. It's a natural progression -- Unit B to Unit A and Unit A to Unit L. The key is not to monitor the biological carrying capacity at this time. Again, it's about the social carrying capacity. The TWRA officers on the ground in each county are the eyes and ears of the agency. When more and more people complain about having too many deer on their land and the complaints reach a boiling point, that county will give consideration and perhaps a move to Unit L and a liberalized season. People in Unit L are satisfied with the liberal limits and also lowering the number of deer.


Tennessee Sportsman: What is the carrying capacity of the deer herd in Unit B and have we reached that mark?

Ratajczak: Most counties in Unit B are still below social carrying capacity. The valleys in Unit B are denser, and as a whole the Unit B deer herd isn't as dense -- So much so that none of the counties in Unit B at this time are ready for Unit A status. The correct limits under the Unit B guidelines are in place as well.

Tennessee Sportsman: How have changes in buck bag limits affected the populations in Unit B?

Ratajczak: The key to controlling the deer population at this time in Unit B is the control of the doe population. The doe harvest is controlled by quota hunts in some counties and then by protecting does during the gun season. If we insure more does survive, we increase the deer population overall. Three years ago, the agency didn't recommend changing the statewide three-buck bag limit to two bucks in Unit B. Enough people supported it and lobbied for it that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission changed the limits. The hope was that lowering the buck limit by one antlered deer would increase the age structure. However, in the last three years, there has been no change. There were already enough yearlings surviving with the three-buck bag limit in place. Going from three bucks to two did not improve the age structure at all.


Tennessee Sportsman: How can regulations be designed in Tennessee to move toward bigger racked bucks, given that over time that's what many hunters say they want?

Ratajczak: If we lower buck limits, we're not going to see any significant difference as far as hunter success rates. The vast majority of hunters will shoot the first buck in front of them. Only 1 percent of all hunters harvest more than one buck annually. If we go to a one-buck limit, bucks will just grow older. Tennessee hunters have just as much success at killing a mature buck as those states with tighter buck limits. A lot of states have gone to the tele-check harvest reporting method. Our harvest tracking method is the truest snapshot of the herd. The harvest is getting better every year, with an increasing age structure of bucks. Since 2000, the number of 1 1/2-year-old bucks (in the harvest) has been declining while the number of 2 1/2-year-old and 3 1/2-year-old bucks has been seeing increases. Compared with other states that harvest 56 percent or more yearlings each season, Tennessee hunters have leveled off at a lower yearling harvest percentage of 50 percent. If you looked at WMA data alone, we had a buck harvest of 40 percent yearlings, 40 percent 2 1/2-year-old bucks, and 20 percent 3 1/2-year-old bucks.


Tennessee Sportsman: Which WMAs have reached their carrying capacity of the deer herd?

Ratajczak: WMAs are managed differently from regional or countywide management. With managers on the ground, you get a better feel for the deer herd. You have relative control over a smaller area. Since most WMAs have their own managers, they have a good feel for the herd and relative density. Most assuredly, none are approaching biological carrying capacity. If they are, something went wrong.

Tennessee Sportsman: Which WMAs are not at carrying capacity and how can they be improved?

Ratajczak: With WMAs, you can manage an area (so that) hunters have more opportunity to see deer like the situations found at Chuck Swan WMA and AEDC. Hunters have opportunities at these places to see a lot of deer on a given hunt. With areas that feature a lot of prime habitat, you can manage the deer herd more for quality, like Catoosa, Oak Ridge and Presidents Island WMAs. That's why you see areas that feature antler restrictions and a management strategy based on quality. But you still have to manage some WMAs to give hunters somewhere they can go to just shoot a deer.

Tennessee Sportsman: How have changes in buck bag limits affected the populations on WMAs, specifically those with quality deer regulations?

Ratajczak: Catoosa WMA is a good example of what antler restrictions can do for an area. It's been charging along for six or eight years now, and you can see that there are more 2 1/2-year-old-and-older bucks being harvested. Catoosa now has a wonderful advanced age structure to its herd. However, out of 250 bucks or so harvested, there was only one 4 1/2-year-old buck taken last year. With the antler restrictions, bucks have to have a minimum of 4 points on one antler on all hunts. For the most part, the 1 1/2-year-old bucks are protected. Interestingly enough, 90 percent of the bucks harvested at Catoosa WMA fell into the 2 1/2-year-old age group. At WMAs that employ antler restrictions, they are working quite well. We're accomplishing what was expected and accomplishing our objectives.

Tennessee Sportsman: How can regulations be designed at WMAs to move toward bigger racked bucks?

Ratajczak: We are particular, we're not going to take every WMA and do that. The agency is trying to promote the gambit. More or less, to each his own. You have an opportunity to kill deer at Chuck Swan and AEDC, and other WMAs offer bigger deer. Will more be added? Possibly. A lot depends on what hunters want, and generally, they want to see deer on their hunt.

Tennessee Sportsman: Are there WMAs showing new trends to move toward antler restrictions?

Ratajczak: Catoosa WMA and Presidents Island are known for antlers, and they're doing well. Moss Island and Ernest Rice WMAs were the most recent additions, but it generally takes three or four years of monitoring and tracking data to see how management processes are working. Most WMAs with antler restrictions are still in the analyzing mode.

Tennessee Sportsman: Are there WMAs that are overcrowded like Fort Campbell, LBL, Catoosa or are they underutilized like, say, the CNF?

Ratajczak: Public land has some tremendous opportunities. About every single WMA has areas that are underutilized. They are usually the hard-to-reach places that hold monster deer. Cheatham and Yanahli WMAs are prime examples. Other areas like North Cherokee, South Cherokee and the Bridgestone-Firestone WMAs that feature big woods with little road access are good starting points. Every WMA in every region has a diamond-in-the-rough area.


Tennessee Sportsman: Our public hunting opportunities on PHAs have dwindled in recent years with the loss of many paper company lands once associated with the program. Are there any sleepers still out there?

Ratajczak: This is our biggest loss in hunting opportunity in the last 10 years. What you have is land under private ownership, and we are granted the hunting rights. Only two presently remain, and one of the better options is the hunting found at the Ataya PHA along what is known as the elk corridor. Most hunters will remember the Ataya PHA as Tackett Creek WMA as it was called in the 1970s, and the truth is, many still refer to it as such. The area is mostly in Claiborne County with its 40,000 acres and the remaining 12,000 in Campbell County. Seven years ago, the area was placed in the PHA program. The property itself is owned by Wachovia Bank, while Ataya Hardwoods is the company that acquired the timber rights three years ago. Several mining companies work within the PHA, with the majority of the coal mining done by Dean Chamber's Mountainside Coal Company and John Asher's Apollo Fuels. The TWRA is actually looking at purchasing this piece of property and adding it to the WMA program.

Tennessee Sportsman: Are there any PHAs that are underutilized?

Ratajczak: Again, the Ataya PHA property is one such area that has good hunting and some quality deer that is underutilized. The only other current PHA property is the former Graham PHA known now as Heartwood. It features over 7,000 acres in Perry County.

Tennessee Sportsman: Is the trend for us to likely see fewer PHA opportunities or are there additions to the program on the horizon?

Ratajczak: Yes, unfortunately, it's mostly a wash now with the loss of paper company lands.


Tennessee Sportsman: What counties seem to be the big producers for young sportsman hunt success?

Ratajczak: For some reason, Roane County stands out among the young sportsman hunts. The harvest records also show which ones are more consistent. The most consistent counties in Region I are Hardeman, Henry and Weakley for youth hunts. Almost all that lead the way in young sportsman figures are also atop the heap in the statewide harvest. Region II's top youth hunt success is found in Giles, Lincoln

and Montgomery counties. Other than Roane County, Region III youth do best in Dekalb and Meigs counties. The best young sportsman success in Region IV is found in Claiborne County and especially Hawkins County.

Tennessee Sportsman: Are the youth hunts on certain WMAs the best options for taking a buck or doe?

Ratajczak: There are some WMAs that feature good youth hunting. The best thing to do is look at the TWRA's 2007 Tennessee Hunting & Trapping Guide to see which WMAs offer young sportsman hunts. There are probably as many WMAs in Region I that feature some sort of young sportsman hunt during the season as those that do not. Region II is similar, with several WMAs in that part of the state hosting youth hunts. Things begin to thin out a little in Region III and Region IV, but there are some youth hunts on a select few WMAs and many allow the use of a bow, rifle, shotgun or muzzleloader. The other good news is that deer taken on some of the WMAs count as bonus deer. Also, many are non-quota hunts and often fall on dates separate from the statewide young sportsman hunt -- increasing a youngster's opportunity even more.

Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com

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