Recently, I've heard several well-intended friends proclaim I should take a bunch of does off my hunting property. Weird thing is, they said it without ever having seen my property. When pressed, one buddy admitted he didn't have a clue how many deer I had, the property's carrying capacity, or even how a robust doe harvest might help the hunting.
It seemed he'd watched too many hunting shows.
Fact is, whitetail populations are leveling out in some areas and even falling below what professional game managers consider ideal in others. In these areas, harvesting does is detrimental to the herd and to hunting.
In this article I'll explain the impact doe harvests have on habitat and how to tell the difference between properties that need deer reduction and those that don't.
The Science of Shooting Does
Taking does controls impact on habitat more so than taking bucks because each doe killed also eliminates the potential to produce future deer. Conversely, taking a buck eliminates only that deer and not necessarily potential offspring because other bucks will breed in its place. Doe harvesting helps balance the buck-to-doe ratio, which makes it easier to hunt trophy bucks. This is because bucks must work harder and travel more to find a mate in areas with less does.
Also, where the buck-to-doe ratio is in balance, more does will breed on the first estrous cycle, which produces a consistent fawn birthing period. This consistent "fawn drop" allows those fawns a greater survival rate because predators have a brief surplus of food. After a couple of weeks, when the predators are looking for food again, fawns are stronger and more capable of escape. And higher fawn survival rate means more bucks will survive.
All this means that in places where there is a surplus of deer — or more deer than the land can carry for optimal health of both the herd and habitat — often hunters can improve their land's trophy potential by shooting more does. The trick is knowing if your hunting property has a surplus or a shortage of deer.
Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist and the CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). He's one of the world's foremost experts on whitetails, whitetail habitat, and how the two relate to hunting. While a by-product of the group's mission is older bucks with larger antlers, it's not its primary goal. Rather, its goal is to promote a healthy deer herd by way of regulated hunting.
For the last 25 years, most of America has been in a surplus deer situation wherein the habitat in many regions could not carry many more deer without negative consequences. Therefore, QDMA stressed a simple, win-win situation for deer and hunters, and that was to hunt does and protect young bucks. Harvesting female deer decreases the population, while satisfying hunters by increasing the nutritional value of the land and the age at which bucks are harvested, therefore increasing its trophy buck potential.
Times are Changing
However, the times, at least in some areas, are changing. "We are in a new era of antlerless harvest," Murphy says. "It used to be that the 'shoot every doe you can and three more' was the right method, but now it's not for some areas." Particularly the Midwest.
"Factors such as designed overharvest, predation, two severe disease outbreaks, severe winters, and habitat loss of CRP acreage combined to hammer deer herds," Murphy says. Some of the most severely hit regions were southern Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Some of those areas documented the first long-term deer declines in decades. "Some harvests were down 49 percent over the last decade."
So hunters and agencies in those areas, and potentially others, must adjust. Obviously, state game managers have the resources to conduct local herd studies, but how does the average hunter know if the herd he's hunting is healthy or if he should or shouldn't hunt does?
"Deer are good barometers of the habitat," Murphy says. "If deer are eating well, it means the habitat can support them, and so you probably don't need to shoot a bunch of does."
So how do you tell if the deer are eating like kings and queens?
"Simple," he says. "After harvesting deer, weigh them. Then age them [via its teeth or a professional.] Call your state game office and see how the weight compares to same-aged deer in the area. [For maximum herd health and trophy potential] you want your deer in the top 10 percent of the weight range." If so, it means the deer are eating well and healthy. Assuming age and genetics are adequate, this area will produce big antlers.
Murphy also suggests an easier, albeit less scientific, way for hunters to know if they should take more does on their hunting property. "If you're seeing multiple deer every time you go out, then you probably need to shoot some does. If you are seeing zero deer in three or four trips, be cautious about shooting does."
Pay attention to the number of fawns per doe that make it into the fall hunting season. "When running trail cams, note the average fawn number per adult doe," Murphy says. "Ideally, there should be one fawn per doe. If you only see one fawn for every two to three adult does, your deer numbers may be down.
"On the other hand, some people in many areas should still be aggressively shooting does. Look at the property. It may need a sledge hammer, it may need a tack hammer, or it may need no hammer at all."
In most cases, shooting or not shooting a couple does for the freezer isn't going to disrupt any overall management goals. But hunters should know their property and the health of its herd before mowing down a bunch of does just because it's en vogue.