Removing antlerless deer from the population is an important component of a sound wildlife management plan. But which does should you remove and when is the best time to do it?
Ask a wildlife biologist “Which is the right doe to shoot?” and he’s likely to say, “The one that’s closest to you.” It’s a bit of an inside joke among wildlife managers but as is usually the case with us scientist types, there’s a certain thread of seriousness to it. If your goal is to reduce the deer population then any doe will do. Still, there are ways to fine-tune your efforts to fit specific goals and circumstances.
As most deer hunters know, antlerless deer are the foundation of every whitetail population and therefore any associated management plan. But before you can figure out how to proceed you need to know where you’re starting from. In my previous article (Advanced Trail Cam Techniques: Conduct Your Own Deer Survey) I discussed a rather simple way to use trail cameras and feed stations to conduct a census of your deer herd. It’s a more thorough and accurate assessment, but there are simpler and easier ways to figure out where your herd is in relation to its habitat.
One way to determine your deer herd/habitat relationship is a browse survey. By noting the presence or absence of certain preferred food plant species, and to what degree they’re being browsed, you can get an idea how much pressure your herd is putting on the available habitat. However, because this technique requires adept plant identification skills and following certain specific protocols, the average landowner would be best off hiring a consulting biologist for the task.
Measuring yearling antler beam diameter (YABD) is another way biologists assess herd health. Years of research have demonstrated a direct correlation between YABD and carrying capacity. Average YABDs of 15-16 millimeters or less generally indicate that the population is exceeding the carrying capacity. The 17-19 mm range indicates deer are near carrying capacity. When average YABD exceeds 20 mm, it’s a good indication that deer are below the carrying capacity and there is ample nutrition.
Though it’s far less scientific and accurate, you can still get a rough idea of deer numbers and age and sex ratio simply by adding Logs to your Saved Locations in your HuntStand app each time you hunt. Some info you’ll have to go back and decipher for each entry, but HuntStand also has a helpful function that will instantly compile the buck:doe ratio for all of your personal logs.
Which Does Should Be Targeted? Several factors may influence which doe you should shoot, and they can vary with circumstances and specific objectives. Again, if your population is too high removing any doe helps. However, removing mature, healthy individuals has the greatest short- and long-term effect because they have the greatest reproductive potential.
Research shows that does typically reach breeding age as yearlings—during their second autumn—and most often give birth to a singlet fawn. However, in areas of high nutrition they may breed as fawns. For instance, researchers in Iowa found more than 70 percent of the doe fawns are bred, while studies in the Southeast found only between 10 and 40 percent reportedly breed, and less than 16 percent of doe fawns likely breed in the Llano Basin of Texas. In subsequent years, beginning with a doe’s third autumn, it’s more common to produce twins and even triplets. In one study on supplementally fed deer in a Michigan enclosure, 14 percent of mature does had triplets.
Within your HuntStand app Hunting Logs you can also record the number and ratio of does with fawns seen at each stand, in your Saved Locations. Over time this provides an index to productivity—how many fawns are being produced.
If your herd is about where you want it and you’d like to keep it that way you still need to remove some does each year. In this instance, you might want to target those with the lowest reproductive potential: doe fawns too young to breed, or over-mature does. Doing so does not come without its risks.
Shooting fawns carries the risk of accidentally harvesting a button buck (see above). A certain amount of buck fawn mortality is acceptable, but try to keep it to a minimum, especially if you want to improve sex and age ratios. (Hint: Never shoot the first deer on a food plot as it’s more than likely a button buck).
Still, you’re better off targeting young deer because the “old dry doe” is largely a myth. Captive deer have been recorded breeding and successfully raising fawns into their teens, far longer than most deer live in the wild.
How Old Is That Doe? In order to successfully target young deer, you need to be able to differentiate adult does from fawns, and there are several ways. One of the best is the relative shortness of a fawn’s face/nose compared to its head. A fawn’s forehead and nose will appear much shorter (similar to an 8-ounce soda bottle) in comparison to the adult doe’s head (similar to a 16-ounce soda bottle). Of course, it’s much easier to compare if both young and adult are present, such as in the photo above. Another is body shape. Fawns have short, square bodies, short necks and less muscle development. Adult does have larger, rectangular-shaped bodies, long necks and swaying backs or sagging bellies.
Where To Cull Does. If you want to know which locations offer the best odds of producing does, simply go back to your HuntStand app Logs again, and see which are the most-consistent producers of doe sightings. But first, a couple words of caution. Removing does may have a short-term effect of discouraging deer activity in the immediate vicinity. Avoid culling on food plots or around your best rut stands.
When To Cull Does. Deciding when is the best time to remove does also depends on your baseline and objectives. Again, if your numbers are too high the simple answer is: whenever you can. If you’re trying to maintain or allow slow growth, you want to remove deer during the fall hunting season, first because it’s the only time we can, and second, because it will mean relatively more available food for surviving deer during the period of lowest nutrition (winter).
Though there’s a subtle difference, you can refine this approach even more by considering energy balance. If you remove does prior to the rut, less energy has been expended by both does and bucks toward the next generation. Wait until after the rut, and both sexes have expended a lot more energy that will never be realized by the birth of new fawns. Besides, fewer available does means more competition among bucks, which can produce a shorter, more-intense rut that most hunters find more desirable
Editor’s Note: The author is a certified wildlife biologist with B.S. and M.S. degrees in wildlife biology. He has served as a biological consultant to several publications focused on white-tailed deer and conducted research on some of the first controlled deer hunts in the northeastern U.S.