Text & Photos by Tommy Kirkland
-- Day after day the sun beats upon the parched land - evidence of the extreme lack of rainfall. Combined with an Easter freeze when temperatures dipped below 32 degrees for several mornings, vegetative foliage and most nut-bearing trees, for the majority of deer, are not providing nutrition. As we all know, the drought and spring freeze of 2007 are producing negative impacts upon wildlife throughout the Southeast. What has happened and will whitetails adapt and survive through these harsh conditions? What will be the long-term effects for deer and our hunting tradition?
The creek has stopped flowing; only pools of water remain. Soft mast, such as blackberries, has been sparse, and the persimmon and cherry trees haven't produced much fruit. White oaks look spotty at best, yet the whitetails forage on.
Along the edge, the deer herd seeks out forbs amongst the dull, green vegetation. The clover is pounded as the pink flowers turn brown and the leaves and stems wilt. Even so, they consume the clover. Foraging on, the deer enter the creek basin. Fortunately, morning fog generated by the partially dried up waterway helps to provide a little moisture for plant life; thereby stimulating some growth amid the drought. Here, they locate pliable food, yet predators are utilizing the basin also. The whitetails flee and resume their search for nutrition.
The heat of the day sets in, forcing the herd to seek cover. The animals gradually move back to the woodlands. Raising its head, the matriarch doe nibbles the overhanging limb of a laurel tree. And although the leaves are coarse for digestion, she eats the leafy foliage that is usually avoided by whitetails. Now concealed amongst pines and evergreens, the deer find remote coolness and relief from the sun - taking time to bed, chew cud, and conserve energy.
The lack of rainfall for 2007 has affected many areas. From the West and the Midwest to a variation of drought conditions in the East, parched lands extend from the Great Lakes down to Florida. In the Southeast, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and western areas of Florida and North Carolina have been under the gun. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, these states have shown significant rainfall deficits for the year. Specific areas, such as eastern to northeastern Alabama have experienced an astounding lack of rain - some 25 inches below normal. The drought varies by region and locales and, of course, with additional rainfall.
For an updated assessment you can log onto the U.S. Drought Monitor at www.drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html. As of late July, agricultural crops and pasture lands have suffered damage coupled with very low water sources - regardless of recent beneficial rains, which brought some temporary relief to certain areas in the Southeast.
So, the questions are rising as to whether whitetails can endure this drought. With vegetative growth being effected by the drought, nutrition and the amounts being consumed are vital for deer - especially pregnant does.
Spring and summer are critical times for does to obtain proper nutrition. Without the proper amounts of nourishment, does may abort a fetus; and if they are still able to give birth, the fawn's survival hangs in a precarious pendulum. Even if the doe can nurse its offspring, the nutritional quality is absent, and fawns may be more vulnerable to roaming predators due to survival instincts not being at full capacity. However, areas with high deer densities, especially where hunting is prohibited or minimized, may actually benefit from the drought. When fawn recruitment is low due to nutritional stress; the population growth is hindered, thereby reducing high deer numbers.
The pressures of drought and a late spring freeze can limit food availability - causing whitetails to expend more energy to locate nutrition. This activity combined with improper nutrition can effect antler growth. By late summer, forbs and grasses naturally decrease in nutritional quality. These foods can also become harder to digest for whitetails. Drought just worsens the situation. If intake of crude protein drops below 16 percent, then their metabolism is affected - adversely hindering normal antler growth and survival, as well.
A lot of hard mast producing trees such as oaks and hickories may not provide a crop this year. However, due to the cycle of red oaks, these acorns might generate to a small degree - keeping deer in the woods during the rut. Subsequently, in 2008, red oaks stressed by this year's freeze will most likely be negatively affected. Simply, red oak acorns require two years to develop, and so the spring freeze may not affect these trees until 2008; yet, the lack of rainfall could stop acorn production regardless of the red oak's two-year seeding cycle.
The drought's long term affects on certain trees will be disease. Trees are more subject to insect infestations when under stress. We may not know the full impact on timber stands until a few years down the road; but undoubtedly we are going to lose mast producing trees in some areas of the country.
Whitetails affected by the drought may behave differently during the rut. Deer expert and researcher, Dr. Karl V. Miller from Warnell School of Forestry discovered that the number of tree rubs used for scent communication were reduced 30 to 60 percent in areas with poor acorn production. As we know, the drought is hurting acorn crops abroad.
Simply, less energetic whitetails are not going to physically exert as much energy as they normally would during the pre-rut and rut. It is also believed that nutritional deficiencies cause does to delay estrus or they may not even enter the breeding cycle at all; thereby changing the dynamics of a typical rutting season.
When hard times like these unfold, the man-made labors of food plots can be affected as well - unless a plot can be irrigated. Even though clovers and other legumes are able to endure drought to some degree, nutritional quality diminishes. There are ways to make food plots more resistant to drought, but it is costly and time consuming - especially the preparation.
Managing the native habitat surrounding a food plot is more realistic because most native plant species endure drought fairly well. By all means, food plots help in supplementing whitetail diets and should be given attention; but with the proper management of the surrounding land, whitetails should adapt with the native forage.
Once the cold temperatures of winter suppress the landscape, this will be the time of testing the whitetails' endurance. As we all know, good forage during the winter is scarce. Drought only compounds the situation. If feasible and the land received adequate rain in the late summer and early fall - then giving herds a supplemental food plot with cool season forbs will help. If fescue grasses are around for cattle, whitetails can survive off this coarse food source.
All in all, hunting strategies for weather extremes need to be in place when events such as drought unfold. Deer will be feeding shaded woodland edges, available acorns, and watershed basins that hold sufficient moisture in the soils while producing fog and dew upon the surface foliage.
The rut could be affected in some regions this year by bucks and does experiencing nutritional stress due to the drought. If so, it's a reality we all have to face as the hunting season unfolds. But optimistically, there will always be some rut-crazed bucks somewhere - chasing does, battering trees, and using the "lip curl" to scent doe urine - the topic for my next installment here at Buckmasters Online!