One of the hardest aspects of managing a property for hunting is knowing how many deer should be taken on an annual basis. Many hunters simply rely on their state’s bag limit to guide their harvest decisions without ever considering how many deer are actually using the property or what kind of impact they may be having on the local population. But making uniformed harvest decisions is like trying to decide how much money you can spend without having a clue how much you have in the bank. And the last thing you want to do is “overdraw” the local deer herd!
So how does a deer hunter truly know when it’s time to shoot more does or when to switch focus to bucks only or simply hunt a different property? Unfortunately, there is not a simple, one-size-fits-all answer to this question, because so many factors come into play. The property’s habitat quality determines how many deer the land can support, but rarely would you want a deer herd at true carrying capacity. We all love to see lots of deer, but there is a tipping point at which more deer is going to result in poorer overall health of the herd. That means smaller body weights, smaller racks, and deer more susceptible to disease. So, to determine if we need to shoot more does, we have to look at how many we have, how many we are seeing, and how they are impacting the habitat.
When The Cameras Say You Can
Actually determining the exact number of deer on a property is nearly impossible when no high fence involved. Deer aren’t the easiest animals to count, and they have a tendency to roam across property lines; sometimes numerous property lines!
But there is a way to get an accurate enough estimate to begin making some harvest decisions, and that is with a trail-camera survey. For detailed information on how this is done, you can check out my previous article at https://www.bowhunting.com/blog/2017/09/15/conduct-trail-camera-survey/.
As a quick refresher, a trail-camera survey involves running one camera per 100 acres of property over a baited site for a period of two weeks. You then go through all the photos captured, tallying the total number of bucks, does and fawns, as well as the total number of unique bucks photographed. You can then take those numbers, and with some basic math, come up with an estimate for your property’s deer population, buck-to-doe ratio, and fawn recruitment rate. The best time to do this is just before deer season or just after. However, if you plan to use that info to set harvest goals, you’ll want to do it prior to the season.
Once you have an estimate of the number of does using your property, you can then determine about how many deer you can harvest based on your management goals.
“Research shows that as long as a deer herd is healthy, productive and exhibits a normal growth rate, you need to remove anywhere between 20-33% of the adult does on the landscape to stabilize the population,” said Matt Ross, a wildlife biologist and QDMA’s Assistant Director of Conservation. “That means there will roughly be the same number of deer on the landscape year over year. However, in cases where growth rates are restricted by predators, disease or other mortality factors, you would need to dial that back; and vice versa in places where the land is very productive and the growth rate is higher than average. This is why deer management is so site specific. It really varies by region, county, township and even down to the individual property.”
So, if the camera survey reveals that 20 deer are using your hunting property, you should be able to kill four to six does and still have about the same number of deer when next season rolls around, providing your property has decent habitat and an average number of predators. If you are trying to reduce the deer population, then you could bump that number up. And if you’re trying to increase deer numbers on your property, you would want to reduce that figure.
When Your Observations Say You Can
If you don’t have the time or means to conduct a trail-camera survey, then deer observations may be the best indicator of whether you can shoot more does, particularly if you have hunted the property for several years. The best scenario would be detailed records from each of your hunts containing the number of hours hunted and the number of bucks, does and fawns seen. This will give you a number of deer seen per hour figure that you can compare year to year to see if deer numbers appear to be steady, increasing or decreasing on your property.
Even if you haven’t kept detailed hunt information (you should start this season!), you can still use some generalities to make a decision. For instance, when you think back over the last few deer seasons, did you see more, less, or about the same number of deer each year? Another factor to consider is if you are happy with those observations. Keep in mind, however, that while you may be happy seeing plenty of deer every hunt, as we discussed earlier, it may not be the best situation for the overall health of the deer herd. It’s ultimately on you to decide where to draw the line between seeing enough deer to keep you happy, and having so many deer that the overall health of the deer and the habitat decline. In short, if you are seeing plenty of deer each season, that is a pretty good sign you can begin to increase your doe harvest.
When Your Habitat Says You Can
“Habitat use is perhaps the most important, and most telling, measure to know if it’s time to start killing more does,” said Ross. “That’s because the actual number of deer living on your property isn’t really that important, but can the land support them and allow them to reach their maximum potential? That should be the question that everyone asks.”
Signs that you need to shoot more does may include the inability to grow food plots on your property without the deer eating them down to the dirt. If you’re hunting agricultural land, it may be a significant amount of deer crop damage. Another good indicator is when you see heavy browsing pressure on plant species that deer typically do not prefer. In extreme cases, you may actually be able to see a browse line, where all the vegetation in an area is gone from about 4 foot and below, indicating that the deer have eaten pretty much everything in reach. These can all be signs you need to shoot more does.
“You can apply a few easy techniques when assessing habitat for deer like putting out exclusion cages or looking for evidence of browse lines,” said Ross. “However, deer want to eat the best and most nutritious plants available, and it takes a little bit of training to see if they are choosing lower preference forages — which likely means they ate all the good stuff already. Grab a plant ID book — don’t be scared — and start looking for evidence of what the deer are eating, then find out if its something they even want to eat. If that’s happening everywhere, that’s a good indication you need to start harvesting more does.”
Keep These Things In Mind
If you do end up deciding you need to shoot more does, always start conservatively and closely monitor the results. For example, if you have been removing three does annually from your property and decide you need to increase that number, don’t suddenly bump that number to ten. Start by taking one or two extra and see how it impacts things the following season. If the following season brings a similar population estimation and/or just as many deer sightings, then you may be able to bump that number up again to six or seven. Take baby steps, and always be prepared to back off if your deer numbers fall off from where you want them.
It’s also important to monitor other sources that could potentially impact deer numbers on your property, like hemorrhagic disease or an increase in predator abundance. These can have a dramatic impact on your deer herd and may require on-the-fly adjustments in your harvest strategy.
Managing a deer herd is part art and part science. There are a lot of factors influencing deer populations, and those factors are ever-changing. You have to be willing and able to monitor those changes and adjust your harvest strategies accordingly. So, as you’re deciding how many does to shoot this season, keep these things in mind, and let your deer numbers, deer observations, and your habitat quality guide your decision.