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Whitetail Deer Management

Written by Russell Kutish -Forester/ Wildlife Biologist


            I want to take this opportunity to discuss basic Whitetail Deer management and their effects on your woodlot. The more of the deer’s needs you can fulfill, the more deer you will be able to keep on the property while managing for a healthier herd.

            One of the biggest problems a landowner with a small tract of land could encounter is hunting pressure from neighboring properties. Hunting season can become competitive even amongst friends. One way to deal with neighboring hunters is to discuss your goals with them. Chances are you both are sharing a common goal of growing big bucks on your property’s and can work together to grow a healthy vibrant herd.

            Every piece of ground has a carrying capacity which is the total number of deer it can support. Ideally, your herd size will be significantly lower than the carrying capacity of your property. Overabundance of deer can result in heightened disease transmission (EHD, CWD), depletion of native flora and fauna, and human-related consequences such as heightened rates of Lyme disease and vehicular collisions. Managing deer populations after a timber harvest is crucial to support the regenerating tree sprouts and seedlings. An average adult deer can browse up to 12 pounds a day. In certain regions of Pennsylvania, the deer population reaches densities as high as 30 deer per square mile, exerting significant social pressure and feeding stress on the herd, often prompting mature bucks to relocate. Sex ratios in Pennsylvania are not 50% male (buck) to 50% female (doe). Some areas exhibit sex ratios as extreme as 1 buck for every 8 does. The local ratio of your deer herd could be better understood by consulting with a game commission biologist responsible for your area. Getting your ratio closer to 1:2 or 1:1 can be achieved by harvesting mature does. Harvesting doe allows you to create space on your property for bucks to establish themselves.

For many landowners with hunting property, the primary goal is to harvest mature bucks on their land. In 2002 Pennsylvania restructured antler restrictions to help the age structure of bucks. Prior to this, 75-90% of harvested bucks were yearlings. In most wildlife management units (WMU) a 3 point on one side antler restriction is required before a buck can be harvested. These antler restrictions have been successful in producing older bucks. This year a game commission study done at a butcher shop in northeastern PA showed that of 300 bucks harvested 80% were 2 ½ years old 10% were yearlings and only 10% were 3 ½ years old or older. As a landowner aiming to harvest big bucks on their property, its best to let them reach at least 3 ½ years of age. Peak antler growth in deer happens between the ages of 3 ½ to 6 ½ years old. However, it can be challenging to maintain bucks on your property for that duration. To retain bucks on your property until maturity, its essential to grasp the seasonal needs of deer and tailor your property to meet those needs.

Deer age class and antler growth. Age and antler growth can vary based on genetics.

             I will begin the discussion of seasonal needs of deer starting with the mating season. The mating season for whitetail deer occurs during fall, commonly referred to as the rut. For whitetail hunters, this period presents an unparalleled opportunity to venture into the woods. During this time, the deer have accumulated fat reserves from summer browsing, and the bucks are actively seeking does that are in heat. If your property happens to be densely populated with does, this presents an optimal chance to encounter a buck straying from its usual territory. Research indicates that bucks cover distances ranging from 2 to 5 miles daily during the rut, with some tracked individuals traversing as far as 200 miles throughout the rut. Typically, peak rut lasts for two weeks, making the considerable distances covered by these deer even more remarkable within such a brief timeframe. While hunting deer during the rut can be rewarding, landowners should aspire to maintain buck population year-round. Relying on the rut to bring bucks into your property is not advantageous. During early fall, deer maintain their browsing habits, but as the season progresses, as much as 70% of their diet can changes to the acorn crop. During a timber harvest mast producing oak trees could be left behind while removing competition allowing them to thrive and produce a much-needed food source. Standing cover is utilized as the temperature drops.

Regenerating oak stump sprout that was heavily browsed.

            During the winter the most critical requirements for deer are food and cover. Deer use brushy areas, switchgrass, and dense pine to escape the wind and snow. Tops from past timber harvests are utilized by deer as a source of cover. These areas provide thermal cover and hold higher temperatures than open hardwoods or fields. Deer have decreased activity in the winter which lowers their metabolism. This means they have adapted by suppressing their appetite because less food is available. Landowners might look at supplemental feed as an option to help deer get through tough winters.  However, supplemental feeding is not recommended by the game commission especially in CWD areas. Feeding deer during the winter is an option that requires a commitment. Once supplemental feeding is started it is important that you maintain feeding throughout the winter. Removing a food source that the deer have become reliant on will not only increase the chance of winter mortality but will also accelerate the browse consumption on incoming regeneration.

Browse line on cedar trees showing how high deer can reach. In overpopulated areas getting saplings over this height can be difficult.

            Spring allows deer to regain depleted body weight from the winter. The protein rich emerging vegetation is essential not only for bucks that are in the process of growing their antlers but also for does who will be having fawns around June. One way a landowner can ensure adequate nutrition is available on their property is by planting food plots. Food plots are typically 2-to-5-acre openings. The ground should be scarified, limed (2 tons per acre or more), fertilized, and seeded. These plots will provide nutrition to the developing bucks and the fawning does. This food source will also reduce the browse damage on emerging vegetation by giving the deer an alternate food source. Antler growth will be complete by August so this is the most important time for a buck’s nutrition.

Regeneration outside a deer fence vs inside of a deer fence.

            In the summer deer are building up fat to make it through the winter. Bucks can lose up to 20% of their body fat during the rut which is an added stressor on their ability to make it through the winter. Many different food sources can be planted during the summer to carry the deer over into fall and winter. Brassicas, soy beans, alfalfa or standing corn can provide deer with nutrition throughout the fall and even into early winter. In the summer bucks will generally be found in bachelor groups and will often feed during the night. Towards the end of summer and into early fall these bachelor groups will break up as competition for does begins. Once bucks lose their velvet in mid to late August these groups of bucks will break up and sometimes mild sparring can be observed. Does are feeding their fawns and have higher nutritional requirements as well this time of year.

Bachelor group of bucks feeding in a food plot.

            In conclusion this is very brief overview on whitetail management. Different properties have different management requirements that need to be met. Managing a property can be very time consuming and the results are often a direct result of how much time and money are put into the property. This provides a concise summary of a deer’s needs, and meeting these needs will result in an increased presence of bucks on your property.


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