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Choices in Deer Management
By Chas Moore, Wildlife Biologist
Managing white-tailed deer populations is very important to many landowners and land managers in Alabama. White-tailed deer are the most hunted game animal in Alabama and throughout the nation. The Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is responsible for establishing the framework for deer hunting, but the ultimate manager is the hunter. Hunters face many choices depending on their deer management objectives.
Many hunters would like to see a big buck every time they go hunting. Unfortunately, that is not a realistic objective. You can either have a lot of deer or fewer deer with some really big healthier deer. Most managers realize the importance of having a healthy deer herd with a balanced sex ratio. In order to achieve this goal, the best management tool is controlling the trigger finger and knowing what to shoot and what not to shoot.
Hunters should establish a set of guidelines for deer to be harvested depending on the objective and the habitat. If quality deer management is the objective, one must allow the young bucks to reach the appropriate age class for harvest. Often hunters say they want mature bucks, but they continue to aggressively harvest the young ones.
Age and nutrition are key elements in the development of a quality buck. There are a number of identifying characteristics to look for such as antler mass and body size in determining the age of a buck. An older buck will generally have thick antlers with a spread that will usually be outside the tops of the ears. However, they will not necessarily have a lot of points. If your goal is to simply harvest bucks that are at least two years old, then harvesting those bucks with at least three points on one side may allow you to reach this goal. It will certainly minimize your 1.5-year-old buck harvest. Sometimes a yearling buck will have six or eight points, but the antler will not be much larger than a pencil. These are bucks you may want to protect because of their antler development potential. The antlers of a 1.5-year-old buck are only about 10 percent of their potential development. Also look at body characteristics such as overall body mass. A young buck will have a skinny neck and will appear gangly. A mature buck will have much greater body mass. His neck and brisket will appear as one, and he will often have a potbelly and swayback appearance.
Adequate doe harvest is also a very important part of managing deer in Alabama. Harvesting does is a way of reducing the deer population to a healthier level and a way to correct unbalanced sex ratios. A balanced adult sex ratio would be one buck to every two does. Also, reducing the populations will ensure there is plenty of food for the remaining deer. Another problem with having too many does is that the rut is spread out and not all of the does are bred in the initial or primary rut. Twenty-eight days later, those does that did not get bred come into estrous again, and so on until they are bred or the bucks have shed their antlers. This can go on through March in some cases, meaning these does’ fawns will be born in October. Fawns born this late may not survive or will not reach their potential the first year. With a lower population and balanced sex ratios, you will have a short abrupt rut, with plenty of activity.
Deer hunters face many choices each time they pursue the wiley whitetail. Establishing realistic deer harvest management goals and objectives on your property may make each outing more enjoyable.