Debunking some of deer management’s most common misconceptions.
How are myths and misconceptions created? It often starts with limited understanding of the subject. We’re constantly looking for answers to unravel the mysteries of the whitetail, so we make assumptions and draw conclusions based on information available to us at the time. Later, as more information becomes available, we should adjust our conclusions accordingly. But if too much time passes, some of those earlier conclusions are perpetuated to the point they’re accepted as fact.
What follows are a few examples from the world of whitetail management. You might already be aware of some of these myths; others might open a few eyes.
MATURE BUCKS DO MOST OF THE BREEDING
It’s easy to understand why most people think this is true, and it’s almost as easy to understand why it’s generally not the case. Intuitively, you would think that the biggest, strongest and most experienced bucks would get breeding rights for the most females.
That might be true to an extent for elk, where a bull gathers and defends a harem. But whitetails practice serial polygamy, each buck pairing and breeding with only one female at a time.
Although the breeding season might last a month or more, most does will be bred within a rather narrow window of a week or two. Now consider that a buck will pair with a single doe for 24-48 hours before breeding occurs. That doesn’t leave an individual buck much time to make hay.
All the while, other bucks are breeding other does, and as time goes by there are fewer opportunities to breed. Does seem to show a preference for older, more experienced bucks but will settle for whoever is close when the mood is right. In fact, research has shown that when does give birth to twin fawns, each is often sired by a different father.
REMOVING CULL BUCKS PROMOTES GOOD ANTLER GENETICS
Management objectives vary, but some managers believe removing bucks that have poor quality antlers will improve overall antler genetics in the local population. However, numerous studies have demonstrated that outside of tightly controlled conditions in an enclosure, it is nearly impossible to improve antler genetics through culling specific individuals.
There are several reasons for this. One is genetic drift. In any free-ranging population there is an incredible degree of genetic diversity. Another is ingress and egress as deer move among and between different populations. Yet another was alluded to earlier: There is little you can do to control which bucks breed which does. Also, we don’t know how much a doe contributes to the antler quality of their offspring.
If you really want to increase antler quality, allow deer to reach older ages and keep the herd in balance with their habitat. About the best you accomplish by culling bucks with poor quality antlers is removing one digestive system from the population, freeing up more food.
OLD, BARREN DOES SHOULD BE REMOVED
While we’re on the subject of culling, let’s put this one to rest as well. The concept of an old, barren doe is largely a myth. First, research has proven that older does make better mothers. They’re more experienced and, as any veteran hunter will tell you, can be the wariest whitetail in the woods. While few live past 10, they can produce offspring well into their teens. And just because a doe has no fawns with her, it doesn’t mean she’s barren. They could well have fallen victim to disease, predation or hunting.
CULL ALL SPIKES
Every time we think we’ve dismissed this one once and for all, something pops up to support it. In most cases, culling yearling spike bucks has no positive effect on overall antler quality. Many of those young spikes are simply born later than their cohorts or during a time of poor nutrition. Given a year or two, they catch up and in some cases exceed their peers in antler quality. However, there are exceptions. Studies from east Texas showed that removing spike bucks can, in some specific instances, result in better antler quality.
WINTER FEEDING INCREASES DEER SURVIVAL
As with most such contentions, there’s a certain amount of truth to this one. Supplemental winter feeding can be beneficial, but only if done the right way. If done improperly, it can be extremely harmful.
White-tailed deer have a very complex digestive system that uses microorganisms (beneficial rumen bacteria) to help break down plant matter into a more digestible form. These micro-fauna change gradually as the deer’s natural diet changes with the seasons.
By late winter, their diet consists largely of coarse woody browse that is very difficult to digest. A sudden change to foods high in carbohydrates (like corn or deer pellets) causes a rapid change in stomach chemistry, which disrupts and even destroys the microorganisms. It’s a bit like running your chain saw on pure, un-mixed gas. Without the proper digestive microorganisms, a deer can literally die of starvation with a full stomach.
A recent example occurred this past winter in New Hampshire where more than a dozen deer were found dead near a feeder that had likely been set up too late. Evidence from necropsy suggested the deer all died from complications due to feeding. Of those that were aged and sexed, two were adult bucks (one estimated at 5½ years old), three were adult does, and five were fawns. Two of the adult does were pregnant, one with twins.
MOWING PROMOTES BETTER PLANT GROWTH
When I posed this one to Dr. Craig Harper from the University of Tennessee, he chuckled. “You’ve put all that effort, minerals and fertilizer into the soil to produce a crop of standing biomass to feed your deer. Why on earth would you then go and mow it down?” Why, indeed?
Truth be known, mowing does promote plant growth. But your objective is to maximize the transfer of soil nutrients from plant to deer, and that’s best accomplished by leaving the crop as it is. It’s also true that younger, actively growing plants are more nutritious and palatable, but once the crop is up and growing, you actually lose biomass by mowing. Furthermore, mature plants like clover will flower and then go to seed, providing a good natural seed base for the next growing season.
PERENNIAL PLOTS ARE LESS WORK
Here’s another one that seems fairly intuitive. You only have to plant a perennial plot once, and it will produce food for several years. Annual plots require re-planting every year. But let’s look at some data.
At the 2014 QDMA National Convention, Dr. Craig Harper provided results from a two-year analysis he conducted comparing yield per effort on annual and perennial plots. Factoring in all the costs associated with establishing and maintaining both types, he found that annual plots produced 24,688 pounds of forage per two acres at a cost of $0.009/pound. Perennial plots produced at 13,846 pounds per two acres at a cost of $0.016/pound. He also noted that nutritional value in perennial plots peaked between May and July, outside of nutritional stress periods for deer.
ACORNS ARE A CRITICAL FOOD SOURCE
This one is like our buck breeding example. No question, acorns are a favorite food. Several studies have shown that deer prefer acorns to just about any other natural food. One possible exception is chestnuts, but naturally occurring chestnuts are extremely rare.
Now go back and think about all those how-to articles you’ve read about deer hunting and acorns, and how you must adapt to annual variations in the mast crop. Bumper crops make for tough hunting because there’s so much food around. When the mast crop is poor, deer are easier to hunt because they key in on what acorns exist. And in some years, there are no acorns, but the deer don’t all die.
The fact is, deer don’t need acorns to survive, otherwise they would not live where there are no oaks. Acorns are a bonus. They certainly help, especially in terms of fattening deer up for winter, but they are not essential to deer survival.
MINERAL LICKS PROMOTE ANTLER GROWTH
This one is bound to spur some controversy, but the research generally doesn’t bear out any direct correlation between the availability of mineral licks and increased antler growth.
A two year study in Louisiana found no significant difference in average body mass of yearling bucks, antler points, beam length or circumference between controlled sites with no licks and treatment sites with licks.
It’s important to keep in mind that much depends on what minerals are present or absent in the environment and what is in the licks. If certain trace minerals otherwise scarce or absent are provided, they could indeed have a positive effect. In any case, more research is needed.
One thing the studies determined is deer like mineral licks, whether or not they derive any benefit.
A WHITETAIL’S HOME RANGE IS APPROXIMATELY ONE SQUARE MILE
There’s a fairly good reason this myth is perpetuated. If you compiled all the data on whitetail home ranges and took an average, it would probably come close to that figure.
It’s important to understand this is an average. Home range sizes can vary considerably outside of the average. For every one that’s smaller there’s another that’s larger, and the range can be considerable.
Home range size is influenced by several variables, not the least of which is available food. The more food available and the more nutritious the food, the smaller the home range.
It could also be a function of population size, as well as age and sex ratios. Bucks that have to travel farther to find does will naturally have larger home ranges.
Also, the area used within an annual home range varies throughout the year, and even from year to year. From late spring through late summer — when food is abundant and before the breeding season — both bucks and does often spend most of their time in small core areas. As food becomes scarcer and calories more important, both sexes will travel more. And as the rut kicks in, bucks begin moving farther and more often from their core areas.
We’ve covered some of the more common management myths, but there are plenty of others. Biologists and hunters are constantly searching for solutions to the riddles of the whitetail world. It’s in our nature to seek the simplest answer, but the simple answer isn’t always the right one. As you can see from these examples, there’s often some truth in every myth or misconception.
The more we learn, the more we discover that natural systems, like the whitetails that inhabit them, are complex.
This article was published in the August 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.