By Tracy Breen
-- Harvesting does is a topic that all hunters seem to have an opinion about. If a hunter brought a doe back to camp when I was a kid, he would be ridiculed and sent to his tent without supper. Everyone believed that harvesting does quickly killed a herd of deer.
If you ask old-timers if they would shoot does, most of them would say no. The reasoning is that when a doe is harvested, three deer are eliminated from the herd. At least that is what some hunters believe. With that mindset, most deer hunters of yesteryear and many of today would rather go home empty-handed than go home with a doe.
Many hunters believed harvesting does was wrong because there weren't many deer around. From the 1950s to 1970s, many parts of the country didn't have near the deer population which is present today. The deer population has increased due to urban sprawl and the white-tailed deer's ability to thrive around people. Deer are just as much at home living behind a subdivision today as they are living in open farm country. This explains why does need to be harvested.
Many hunters don't completely understand how big of a problem the growing deer population is in the United States. Most of us live in towns or subdivisions where we see deer and notice a few dead ones on the road, but don't think deer numbers are out of control. Think again.
C.J. Winand, a deer biologist from Maryland, knows a few things about doe management. Deer numbers are out of control throughout Maryland, Washington D.C., and much of the East Coast. Winand is regularly hired to determine how many deer live in small suburbia settings and then determine a solution to the overcrowding. According to Winand, the solution more times than not is to harvest does.
"It is not uncommon for several dozen or several hundred deer to live in a small wooded area," Winand said. "They eat everything in sight that they can reach. In a lot of cases, overcrowded deer are smaller and malnourished."
As deer numbers increase in these small parcels, they start eating homeowners' grass, flowers and trees in an effort to stay alive. In many cases, the bucks in these areas don't grow large simply because there isn't enough food.
Most deer hunters might not hunt behind someone's house but regardless of where we hunt, the doe numbers probably need to be thinned. In turn, this will help contribute to a healthy deer herd and allow bucks to reach their full potential.
"It doesn't take long for a herd of deer to get too big if does aren't regularly taken on a piece of property," Winand added. "As the numbers increase, available food will decrease and the health of the deer will suffer.
"Most hunters would like to have 50 deer per square mile or one behind every tree. However, very few habitats can support this type of ongoing impact. Habitat management and the taking of antlerless deer must be managed together for everyone's benefit. Wildlife biologists aim to keep the deer herd just below the carrying capacity. This ensures good reproductive performances and a sustainable habitat.
"It is important for hunters to remember that carrying capacity is not a fixed value from one year to the next or even from season to season. When estimating carrying capacity, hunters must consider all of the animals in a particular area, not just deer," Winand explained.
In the past, many states went from buck-only tags to allowing hunters to harvest bucks and does. Many hunters don't completely understand why wildlife agencies allow this practice, but according to Winand, hunters should applaud it because it often results in better hunting.
"If hunters want to see bigger bucks, they need to take more does. It's that simple," Winand noted.
So how many does should hunters harvest each fall? According to Winand, in most of the country the answer is as many as they can legally shoot. There are so many deer that harvesting numerous does won't have an adverse effect on deer population; it will only help it.
"When I tell hunters to shoot as many does as they can by law, they often look at me like I'm crazy, but the truth is there isn't enough habitat to support the numbers of deer in most of the country," Winand stated.
I recently hunted at a private free-ranging ranch in Georgia. The property was managed by a well-known biologist. When the property began to be managed for trophy deer, the biologist came in and said that hundreds of antlerless deer needed to be taken off the property. When hunters think about it, hundreds of deer is a lot of animals. To most of us, that seems a little overboard, but biologists know that drastically reducing numbers in a deer herd, including bucks, will help it prosper.
Biologists don't just pull a number out of the sky and tell a ranch a specific number of deer to harvest. They base their decisions on the amount of food that is on a particular piece of property and how much land is available for the deer. Most of us don't know how to determine if the property we're hunting on has too many deer but there are clues that will tell us if there are too many.
"A lot of hunters don't pay attention to the deer's food sources when managing a piece of land," Winand said. "They focus on putting in food plots and other things. If hunters really want to know if a piece of property is being eaten to death, they should look closely at the vegetation, small trees, and anything else that might be food sources for the deer. If there are too many deer, these food sources will noticeably be stripped bare.
"Every small tree will look over browsed and every bit of fruit or vegetation that is eatable and within reach of a deer will be gone. I see trees that are stripped of their branches as far as six or seven feet in the air because deer will stand on their back legs and eat everything in sight," Winand explained.
Woods are not all the same. In some areas of the country that don't have a large deer population, not as many does need to be taken. If you know there aren't many deer in your area, don't shoot five does just because this article says take does. However, if you live in a subdivision and have 30 deer living behind your house and there are only five acres of woods, taking a few does would help reduce the amount of stress on the herd.
If hunters want the herd they are hunting to prosper and if they want to see bucks, does must be taken regularly. If not, a few deer could easily turn into hundreds of deer that are practically starving to death.
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