While we tend to focus on bucks, the does are the key to whitetail management.
By Bob Humphrey
I heard them before I saw them — hasty footsteps rattling on the dry leaves like hail stones pinging off a tin roof. Three deer broke cover at 250 yards and raced across the open bog. A quick check through the binoculars showed none sported antlers.
It didn’t matter, though. This was the second-to-last day of a month-long season, and I was looking for any deer — almost any deer. I quickly sized the trio up and focused on the largest one, following her progress through the tall marsh grass and standing dead timber.
I’d already decided against a running shot, and a twinge of panic set in as she approached the near side. Then, just before entering the woods, she stopped. The gun went off; and three bounds later, she folded. Thanksgiving had arrived, albeit a day late.
What About the Girls?
A lot of you are probably thinking, “So what? It’s just a doe.” Admittedly, it wasn’t quite as thrilling as shooting a big buck; but it wasn’t that far off, either. That doe came as a result of the same hard work and time spent afield. And it wasn’t a simple reaction. Taking that particular doe was a conscious decision based on considerable thought and a sense of obligation to the resource.
Nowadays it seems that bucks get all the attention. But from a purely biological perspective, they’re little more than window dressing. They are what attracts license-buying hunters to participate in the sport, thus supporting state wildlife agencies. The most important component — the crux — of any deer management program is does. And as 21st-century deer hunters evolve from merely recreational consumers to hunter conservationists, it behooves us to take a more responsible approach, or at least be more enlightened on the subject.
Deer Population Biology 101
Simply put, does represent the reproductive potential of a deer herd. White-tailed deer are polygamous, which means one buck can mate with many does. Removing one buck means one less deer in the herd and will have little effect on the population, immediately or in the future. There’s always another to come along and take his place.
Removing one doe will have the same effect in Year 1. However, if it was a mature doe in healthy condition and range, she would most likely have given birth to two fawns the following year, which means one doe equals three deer in Year 2. Let’s assume one fawn was male and the other female. In Year 3, the doe would again give birth to two fawns, and her yearling from the previous season would give birth to one; that means six deer. In Year 4, that single doe could represent as many as 12 deer.
That’s assuming no natural mortality, which, of course, would not be the case. Still, you get the idea: It’s easy to grow your herd by protecting does. And that was the prevailing attitude throughout most of the last century, as states tried to rebuild their deer populations.
Then something happened. The timing varied geographically, but at some point within the last 15 to 20 years (in some cases, less), deer populations nationwide began to skyrocket. Seemingly overnight, deer had gone from scarce to abundant, then to nuisance levels. Suddenly we had too many deer. Conflicts arose initially as folks who grew up in times of scarcity clung tenaciously to their protectionist attitudes toward doe hunting.
Things began to change, however. The next generation of hunters was coming of age. Meanwhile, biologists spent considerable time and effort trying to educate them about responsible deer management. This, in turn, spawned programs like Quality Deer Management. The discipline of wildlife management, developed by Aldo Leopold over 70 years ago, was being marketed to the masses.
Deer hunters were becoming more sophisticated, too. In conversations overheard at the local diner or check station, you began hearing terms like buck-to-doe ratio and overbrowsing. And more important, hunters were no longer ashamed to admit they’d shot a doe. Some, in fact, were quite proud of their accomplishment.
The Next Step
Nowadays, shooting does is not only an accepted practice, it also is encouraged. In some cases, it is required. More and more hunting clubs are calling for their member to harvest does. Some states even require archers to harvest a doe in order to earn a buck tag. Hunters are not only rising to the challenge, but also looking for guidance on how to get the best bang for their buck — or, in this case, their doe. They want to know the how, when, where and why of hunting does.
A Which Hunt
Several variables can influence which doe you should shoot, and they will vary with circumstances and specific goals. Probably the two most important variables are your management objective and how close you are in achieving it. In other words, if you have way too many deer, your initial goal is reducing numbers. Any doe is fair game. Still, you can be more effective by being selective.
On average, a healthy adult doe will birth two fawns per year. Conversely, a yearling doe will typically produce only one fawn, if she has any at all. Productivity also goes down in sick and over-mature deer. Removing mature, healthy individuals has the greatest short- and long-term effects.
But what if you’ve achieved your goal of balancing deer with habitat, and you want to maintain a healthy herd? Look first at the oldest and youngest does. Doe fawns too young to breed and overmature does are liabilities. They tax food resources without giving anything back in the form of more deer. Both the immediate and residual effect of removing them is one deer. Removing a breeder, on the other hand, has an immediate effect of one less deer. But that’s three less deer that will be around the following year, which, in this case, is not your objective.
There are several ways to distinguish adult does from fawns. The fawn’s coat might appear spotted early in the fall, though it is normally replaced with a brownish or grayish coat by mid-autumn. The relative shortness of a fawn’s face/nose is the best identifying feature. A fawn’s forehead and nose will appear much shorter (about the size of an 8-ounce soda bottle) in comparison to the adult doe’s head (the size of a 16-ounce soda bottle). This distinction is much easier if you have several deer present to compare. Fawns have short, square bodies, short necks and less muscle development. Adult does have larger, rectangular-shaped bodies, long necks and swaying backs or sagging bellies.
Shooting fawns can be detrimental, however. While our biological goal is to balance the herd with habitat, our social goal is to satisfy hunter demands by increasing the number of antlered bucks. Accidentally harvesting a doe is not very costly to either goal. But taking a button buck fawn can be very costly to the social goal; you need to keep such accidents to a minimum.
Somewhat surprisingly, timing can be very important to how effective your management program is. If your goal is simply to remove deer, the best time to do so is whenever you can. This includes conventional hunting seasons, controlled hunts and even year-round culling through depredation permits.
Biologically, the best time to remove does is autumn, which is why hunting seasons occur then. There’s plenty of food going into the fall, but winter is a bottleneck — the period of greatest stress, and lowest quality and quantity of food. Removing deer before then lessens the effects of winter on those that remain.
Even within the fall, there are better times to remove does. For instance, removing does before the rut has several beneficial side effects. First, bucks expend a great deal of energy breeding does. If some of those does are removed after the rut, that energy was wasted. Furthermore, having fewer does around during the rut increases the competition among bucks, resulting in a shorter, more intense rut. The downside is that increased pre-rut hunting pressure can reduce daytime buck movement before you’re ready to hunt them.
There is another reason to promote antlerless deer hunting. Recent survey statistics have shown that hunter numbers are dwindling. This is especially evident in the proportion of younger hunters. In this fast-paced world, computer games and sports are a lot more appealing to our youth.
If we want to get them interested and involved in hunting, we need to make it fun and rewarding. Whether it is actual or perceived, it always seems like we see far more does afield. Why not let a young hunter’s first deer be a doe? Then, once they’re turned on to deer hunting, they can choose to take on greater challenges.
Editor’s Note: Bob Humphrey is a certified wildlife biologist with an M.S. in wildlife biology. In addition to being an award-winning outdoors writer and nationally recognized whitetail authority, he also owns a consulting company that specializes in wildlife habitat management.
This article was published in the August 2007 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.