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Quality Deer Management Programs
 

Quality Deer Management Programs

There are many things today’s whitetail deer hunter can do in order to improve the quality of whitetail deer on the property they are hunting. As a whitetail deer outfitter one of my main focus’s must be to employ a Quality Deer Management Program so that my hunters harvest trophy bucks annually. We have enacted several elements to assist with the growth of trophy whitetail bucks as well as manage the herd in our area. As a result our buck to doe ratio in 2008 according to our studies was around 4 to 1, while our success rates for hunters wishing to shoot a trophy deer ranged on various hunts anywhere from 90% to 231%. This would suggest as a whitetail deer outfitter we are successfully employing our Quality Deer Management Program.

We concentrate on many factors which include mineral supplements, the harvesting of does and not just trophy bucks, make certain our whitetail hunters only shoot bucks scoring better than 125 inches, provide food plots, and much more.

I have had several whitetail deer hunters over the years ask me how we continue to take monster bucks off the same farms. Don’t get me wrong as a whitetail deer outfitter we obtain new ground all the time and we also drop farms annually, however most of our ground we keep year after year. The answer to the question of how we take trophy whitetail deer off the same farms year after year is simply, a Quality Deer Management Program. We have several farms that when we started hunting them they were good but not excellent. After two or three years of management we began to see tons more big deer. Our farms don’t get hunted out or hurt, they continue to get stronger due to us managing them intensely. I recall one whitetail deer farm that we leased from a woman in Missouri. It was a huge farm. For several years she had leased to a bunch of “yahoo’s” from the city. They had hammered the place. The first year we leased the farm we literally didn’t even hunt it. We rested it one full year. Year two we hunted it but were strict with it. By year three the farm was a virtual whitetail deer haven.

Getting Started
First off, whitetail deer hunting is not about just harvesting bigger antlered bucks. It is really about strengthening the local deer herd and keeping it that way. It just so happens that deer hunters will and do have more opportunities to harvest larger antlered deer, as a result of quality deer management practices in a given area.
The two keys here are: Harvest more does (in most states, the doe population has exploded) for your venison meat, and pass up shooting the 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 year old smaller bucks. Some states have enacted regulations for antler restrictions upon bucks that are harvested. (Missouri and Pennsylvania are examples of this.) If these quality deer management techniques can be implemented in your hunting area; it will only take 2 to 3 years and you will start seeing more nice trophy deer. You will still see the spikes, fork horns, and small 6-pointers that you now see on your hunting land. The only difference is that these deer, will be the future trophy deer in your hunting area.
What's needed to start a Quality Deer Management Program ? First of all you need acreage; and plenty of it. It can take up to 1 - 3,000 acres for a successful program. This is one reason why whitetail deer outfitters have such big whitetail deer to pursue. The reason for this is that a mature whitetail buck can cover this much ground during the peak of the rut. This is also the time that they are most vulnerable to hunters. Very few deer hunters own this much land. You will have to seek cooperation from neighboring landowners for a successful Quality Deer Management Program to work. You may want to start a hunting club that promotes the Quality Deer Management Program . Explain to the prospective members the rewards of such a program. Ask them if they would like to see a healthier deer herd and more opportunities at harvesting trophy deer.
Remember that the major goal of a Quality Deer Management Program program is to promote a stronger, healthier deer herd that can survive harsh winters, draught conditions, and hunting pressure for years to come. It is not about growing trophy antlers that a hunter or group of hunters get to harvest every year. It is not about having an unusual abundance of deer available to harvest. That may be an outcome, result, or even a benefit of a successful program that has had time to mature. But neither one should be a goal. A good Quality Deer Management program can't and won't happen in just a year or two. It takes a dedicated effort and commitment by many involved for years on end.
A last bit of advice; talk to your local U.S. Forest Service Agent/Manager and ask for a "Wildlife Management Plan" for your property. Tell them your plans, wants, and desires. Be honest with them and ask them to walk your property with you. They will develop a detailed plan for your property that will help you on your way towards a good " Quality Deer Management Program " program. The other thing you should do is go sown to your nearest "Department of Natural Resources" or "Department of Fish and Game" and talk to them; ask questions about Quality Deer Management Program as well as other programs offered that may help you and look for pamphlets and handouts that offer advice. Probably the best source to research is the Quality Deer Management Association.
QDMA reports the following:
What is a Quality Deer Management Program
Quality Deer Management (QDM) is a management philosophy/practice that unites landowners, hunters, and managers in a common goal of producing biologically and socially balanced deer herds within existing environmental, social, and legal constraints. This approach typically involves the protection of young bucks (yearlings and some 2.5 year-olds) combined with an adequate harvest of female deer to maintain a healthy population in balance with existing habitat conditions and landowner desires. This level of deer management involves the production of quality deer (bucks, does, and fawns), quality habitat, quality hunting experiences, and, most importantly, quality hunters.

A successful QDM program requires an increased knowledge of deer biology and active participation in management. This level of involvement extends the role of the hunter from mere consumer to manager. The progression from education to understanding, and finally, to respect; bestows an ethical obligation upon the hunter to practice sound deer management. Consequently, to an increasing number of landowners and hunters, QDM is a desirable alternative to traditional management, which allows the harvest of any legal buck and few, if any, does.
QDM guidelines are formulated according to property-specific objectives, goals, and limitations. Participating hunters enjoy both the tangible and intangible benefits of this approach. Pleasure can be derived from each hunting experience, regardless if a shot is fired. What is important is the chance to interact with a well-managed deer herd that is in balance with its habitat. A side benefit is the knowledge that mature bucks are present in the herd - something lacking on many areas under traditional deer management. When a quality buck is taken on a QDM area, the pride can be shared by all property hunters because it was they who produced it by allowing it to reach the older age classes which are necessary for large bodies and antlers.
The Four Building Blocks of Quality Deer Management Programs
While QDM guidelines must be tailored to each property, there are four cornerstones to all successful QDM programs: herd management, habitat management, hunter management, and herd monitoring.
Herd Management
Arguably, the most important part of QDM is herd management. Determining the appropriate number of deer to harvest by sex and age is essential. The first step is to establish the number of deer the habitat can support in a healthy condition. Thus, habitat quality determines herd size, herd quality, and harvest requirements for both sexes.

It is often difficult to establish the appropriate herd size for a property because it is not a fixed value from year to year, or even season to season. Habitats are constantly changing and seasonal conditions vary. Land-use changes on your property or adjacent properties also affect habitat quality. However, with a little homework and some advice from a wildlife professional, a reasonable starting point can be established.

The manager must understand that deer health will decline if it exceeds the habitat's capacity to provide quality forage and cover. A good indication of habitat quality is deer body weights, especially in young deer. A decrease in average body weight within an age class often indicates a decrease in habitat quality. In bucks, average antler measurements within an age class also provide useful insight regarding current habitat quality. With does, other warning signs include a reduction in the average number of fawns per doe or the lactation ("in milk") rate in adult does.
Antlerless Deer Management
In many areas, deer herds are at or above optimum densities and herd stabilization or reduction is needed. Both are accomplished through the harvest of female deer ‹ the reproductive segment of the herd. In fact, appropriate antlerless deer harvest often is the most important aspect of herd management. Traditionally, does were protected from harvest because of their reproductive role. Today, in many areas, an increased doe harvest improves the social structure and health of the herd without jeopardizing herd size or stability.

Many hunters are reluctant to harvest antlerless deer because they fear that buck fawns will also be harvested. While this is a valid concern, techniques are available to greatly minimize these mistakes. By paying close attention to body size and shape, head size and shape, and behavior, the harvest of button bucks can be minimized. Regardless, in the early stages of QDM it is more important to achieve the correct antlerless harvest for the area, even if a few button bucks are taken. A good starting point is to maintain an antlerless harvest with less than 10 percent button bucks, although a lower percentage is desirable.

Another concern is that harvesting does with fawns will result in the death of those fawns, especially buck fawns. However, research has shown that as long as fawns are at least 60 to 90 days old (weigh more than 40 pounds) their chances of survival are not negatively affected. Most states have established their antlerless deer seasons with this in mind. With buck fawns, most disperse from their birth area when they are between six and 24 months of age. Often, they will disperse several miles before finding a new home. This reinforces the need for hunters on small properties to encourage their neighbors also to protect buck fawns, as these may be your adult bucks of tomorrow.
Antlered Buck Management
Another important aspect of herd management is establishing appropriate harvest restrictions for bucks. Restrictions are established on a property-specific basis according to hunter objectives, property size, habitat quality, management practices on surrounding properties, and other factors. A reasonable starting point for most QDM programs is the protection of yearling bucks.

Several body and antler characteristics can be used to distinguish yearling bucks from older bucks. For simplicity, most properties use antler characteristics such as a minimum number of points. However, in many areas, the number of antler points is a poor predictor of age and should not be used as the only harvest restriction. Other antler characteristics, such as antler spread and antler length, are generally better predictors of age, but more difficult for the average hunter to judge. When possible, both antler and body characteristics should be used to maximize reliability.

The appropriate restriction or combination of restrictions that best protect yearling bucks is determined by examining previous years' harvest data on your property. The restriction selected should protect all or nearly all yearling bucks, especially the largest-antlered yearling bucks. If no previous data are available, contact your state wildlife agency. Usually, they can provide assistance in selecting the most appropriate initial restriction. After the first few years, the restriction can be fine-tuned through the harvest data collected on the property.

Often, QDM participants increase the harvest restriction over time to protect other age classes in addition to yearlings. Antler size of even mature bucks can vary greatly. Therefore, a mistake to avoid is the establishment of a minimum harvest restriction so high that many mature bucks never reach harvestable status. This can result in these small-antlered mature bucks breeding many does, which may negatively affect herd antler size over time. Some deer managers recommend culling these smaller-antlered mature bucks. However, this requires more experience in estimating deer age and antler size than most hunters have. Most deer managers agree that bucks should not be culled until they are least 3.5 or 4.5 years of age, if ever. Generally, this approach is reserved for very experienced hunters on properties practicing trophy deer management.
Habitat Management
Whitetail Nutritional Needs
Improving the nutrition available to a deer herd is another important component of QDM. The diet of a healthy herd should contain 12-18 percent protein and adequate levels of calcium, phosphorous, and other important nutrients. Although whitetails can maintain themselves on lower quality diets, antler development, body growth, and reproductive success suffer. Fortunately, several techniques are available to increase nutrition to desirable levels. Three common practices include natural vegetation management, food plots, and supplemental feeding.
Natural Vegetation Management
Natural vegetation includes all plant species, both native and introduced, on a property. Because these species account for most of a deer's diet, the most desirable species should be widely available and abundant. While it is possible to plant certain desirable native species, it is more economical and beneficial to manipulate the habitat to encourage desirable species and deter undesirable ones. Habitat management techniques may include prescribed burning, mowing, discing, fertilizing, and the use of selective herbicides. Determining the best technique or combination of techniques for your area depends on property location, property size, site quality, existing vegetation, management goals, available equipment, and financial resources. Therefore, we recommend you seek advice from a wildlife or forestry professional before undertaking any habitat management program.
Food Plots
When properly established and maintained, food plots are a very beneficial habitat management practice. Food plots include all plant species planted in an agricultural manner to increase the quantity and/or quality of forage available to deer. While the common question is what's best to plant for my deer herd?, the answer is rarely as simple. There are no "magic beans" that fulfill the dietary needs of whitetails on a year-round basis. Determining which species or groups of species to plant depends on many factors.

The first step in a food plot program is to determine the location, size, shape, distribution, and total acreage of food plots needed. Selecting sites with the best soil characteristics is very important and a county soil map (available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service) can be a great help. Recent research suggests that as little as one percent of a property planted in high quality, year-round food plots can measurably improve the overall condition of a deer herd. A more aggressive goal would be three to five percent. Food plots should be between a half and three acres in size, irregularly shaped, and evenly distributed throughout a property. Small plots (1/4-1/2 acre) are more difficult to manage and more vulnerable to overbrowsing.

The second step is to conduct a soil test. For a nominal cost, the soil test will provide a detailed summary of the soil pH (acidity level) and current nutrient levels. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to know how much lime and/or fertilizer must be added to maximize yields.

The third step is to decide whether to plant annuals or perennials or a combination of both. Annuals grow for a single season only, whereas perennials may grow for five years or longer. Annuals are easier to grow, but typically must be replanted annually which increases the cost and labor requirements. Perennials require periodic mowing, fertilizing, and weed control. However, when planted and managed correctly, they generally produce more total forage and are more cost effective than annual plantings.

A final consideration is whether to plant cool-season forages, warm-season forages, or both. Cool-season forages grow best from fall through spring while warm-season forages grow during the late spring and summer months. Many hunters plant cool-season food plots to increase hunting success during the fall. Fall food plots also increase opportunities for hunters to view deer for extended periods; thereby, increasing harvest selectivity.

Cool-season forages provide useful nutrition during the fall and early spring, but typically not during mid- to late-summer when does are raising fawns and bucks are growing antlers. As such, in many areas, both warm- and cool-season forages should be planted to ensure year-round forage availability and nutrition.
Supplemental Feeding
Supplemental feeding is the practice through which bulk feeds such as corn, soybeans, or commercial deer pellets are provided to deer in large quantities throughout the year or during specific stress periods. This practice differs from baiting in that the primary emphasis is to improve deer health and not simply to increase deer density or harvest opportunities.

In some portions of the whitetail's range, inadequate rainfall, poor soils, or landowner constraints prevent hunters from undertaking natural vegetation management programs or establishing high quality food plots. In such cases (and where legal), supplemental feeding provides a reliable means of improving nutrition available to deer. However, this practice is more costly than other management techniques as well as more time and labor intensive. In addition, supplemental feeding is highly controversial among wildlife professionals because it has been linked to the transmission of certain diseases and parasites, some of which have human health implications. As such, supplemental feeding programs should not be implemented in areas with disease concerns and considered carefully before implementing in other areas.
Hunter Management
Hunter management is a critical, yet often difficult aspect of QDM. Within most hunting groups, support for QDM varies. It is difficult to achieve the objectives of QDM unless all hunters are fully committed. Education is the key. Hunters must fully understand the benefits and costs of QDM before they become active participants.

Active participation in a QDM program requires hunters to learn about deer ecology and behavior, and become participants in management. They must be able to distinguish fawns, does, yearling bucks, intermediate-aged bucks (2.5 and 3.5 years old), and mature bucks (4.5 years and older). Making these distinctions requires knowledge of body size, shape, behavior, and other features related to sex and age. Again, education is the key to success.
Knowledge leads to increased respect for the quarry, and often a greater focus on the experience rather than the number or size of animals harvested. Conversations with other hunters become focused on what is observed and left rather than what is taken. Landowners and clubs can become better neighbors as they unite to have areas large enough for QDM. In brief, QDM fosters a sense of pride in the deer herd and nature as a whole.
Herd Management
Herd Monitoring is another important building block of QDM. There are two types of data commonly collected ‹ harvest data and observation data. Harvest data should be collected from deer harvested during the season or found dead at other times. Observation data may be collected at any time, but generally collected while hunting. Together, these data help hunters and managers make educated decisions about their deer herds. Good records generally result in good management decisions, whereas poor or incomplete records often result in faulty decisions.

It takes a substantial amount of data to develop a good "picture" of a herd. On many properties, the number of deer taken is too small and measurements are too variable for conclusions to be drawn from a single year's data.
Therefore, data must be collected over several years or combined with surrounding properties' data to determine trends in herd condition.
Harvest Data
Harvest records are generally the most important information from which to base management decisions. However, management decisions are only as good as the quality of data gathered. Therefore, harvest data must be complete and consistently collected from every deer harvested. This should be made mandatory. If this is not possible, a convenient, well-equipped check station or shed to process deer will help encourage data collection.

When possible, one person should record all of the data while others process the deer. Data collected on both bucks and does include: date of harvest, sex, weight, age (jawbone), harvest location, hunter's name, and any comments or unique observations. Additional data collected on bucks should include number of points, antler spread, antler length, circumference at the base, and possibly other details such as Boone & Crockett score. Additional data collected on does include evidence of lactation ("in milk") and fetal information.

All jawbones should be retained until after the hunting season and provided to an experienced wildlife biologist for aging. With practice, hunters can become efficient at estimating deer age. Several resource materials on deer aging are available from the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA).

Harvest data provide useful insight into the current condition of a deer herd. When compared to previous years, harvest data provide the opportunity to see where a deer management program has been and where it is going. This information is particularly useful in QDM programs that implement antler restrictions to protect young bucks.
Observation Data
When properly collected, observation data can reveal important details about a herd's size, sex ratio, fawn survival, age structure, and overall management success. Because some age classes of bucks are protected from harvest under QDM, observation data, especially on bucks, can provide useful information not provided by harvest data. The most important aspect of observation data is consistency. Whether collected throughout the year or only during the hunting season, observation data should be collected the same way each time and compared only to information collected during the same period in future years.

Observation data can be collected by hunters or with remote-sensing cameras. When collected by hunters, every deer should be counted during each outing, even if the same animal was observed during a previous observation period. This means the same animal may be counted several times during a season. This is fine. The purpose is not to count every individual deer on a property, but rather to determine the relative abundance of deer and the proportion of bucks, does, and fawns. Also, unless a deer can be positively identified as a buck, doe, or fawn, it should be recorded as "unknown." A small amount of reliable data is better than a large amount containing numerous misidentified animals.

The use of remote-sensing cameras positioned along trails or feeding areas is a relatively new method for collecting observation data. These cameras have the advantage that they can monitor deer at night and when no one is hunting the area, as well as provide useful reference photographs. This is especially important for mature bucks, which are infrequently seen by hunters except during the rut. The photographs taken can provide useful information on herd size, sex ratio, and buck abundance and age structure. They also can raise the excitement level around the deer camp and verify that management efforts to produce older bucks are working.

Darrin Bradley

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