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By Dick Scorzafava

As we all search for that ever elusive gagger buck, we pass through various phases of hunting.  From the novice who enters the woods just hoping to initially see a buck, let alone harvest one to the serious trophy hunter who is not in search of any buck but the buck.  Many hunters do not consider taking an antlerless deer.  But harvesting a doe can be an exciting challenge to a novice hunter and a gratifying experience to the more experienced hunter.  Not only can bagging a doe be a rewarding and educational hunt as well as an important herd management tool.

Many people as well as many hunters are laboring under the misconception that killing females diminishes the reproductive capabilities of the herd.  They feel additionally that the general population will suffer if females are part of the annual harvest.  Biologists point out that it is sound wildlife management to reduce surplus female numbers of any big game herd.

I spoke with the Executive Director of the Quality Deer Management Association, Brian Murphy, to get his views on the benefits of harvesting does. Brian has specialized in white-tailed deer for over 15 years and has published more than 10 technical papers and 40 popular articles on white-tailed deer.  He is a Wildlife Biologist with degrees in Wildlife Management from Texas Tech University and The University of Georgia, and is recognized nationally as a leader in this field.

Brian stated that one of the most important aspects of QDM (Quality Deer Management) is harvesting an adequate number of adult does. Hunters usually are too conservative when harvesting does which results in not achieving  the full benefits of QDM.  There are positive benefits to harvesting does in a herd, and they include the following:

To Balance the Adult Sex Ratio:  When hunters are only harvesting the bucks in a herd, the ratio of bucks to does becomes unbalanced favoring the does.  In some extreme situations there could be as many as 10 does to each mature buck.  Areas that practice QDM strive to achieve 2 to 3 does per buck or even lower.  In a very well managed herd of deer a 1:1 sex ratio can be attained.

To Reduce Herd Density:  Deer herds are at record levels across most of the country, and in many areas there are more deer than the habitat can support. In areas of high deer densities the habitat gets deteriorated which results in lower body weights and poor antler growth.  Does are the reproductive segment of the herd.  The only way to achieve and maintain the optimum number of deer for an area is to harvest them.

To Reduce Yearling Buck Dispersal:  We have learned from research that over 80% of all yearling bucks are booted out of the areas they were born by their mothers when they are 6-18 months old.  These immature bucks are forced to move from the areas of their birth, sometimes moving over several miles while they search for a new home.  On their trek they get harassed by many other mature does.  If the number of does in a given area is kept at the correct level it will decrease the amount of immature bucks that are forced to  move long distances from their birth areas.  This will allow more of these immature bucks to stay closer to there birth area, where they could some day be harvested by hunters in that area.

To Increase Reproduction and Fawn Recruitment:  By harvesting an adequate number of does, a deer herd will be properly balanced with its habitat.  The result, will be that the remaining does in the herd will be in much better physical condition.  This will then enable these does to reproduce at a greater rate, thus increasing the number of fawns that are recruited in the herd.  This means that a lower total number of breeding does in excellent condition will produce more fawns than a large number of them in poor condition.

To Increase the Intensity of the Rut:  Biologists have learned from extensive research that maintaining a well balanced adult sex ratio in a herd greatly increases the intensity of the rut.  “ What happened to the rut this season?”  How many times have you heard or asked that question?  In most instances the lack of rutting activity on the area you are hunting is caused by the lack of mature bucks or too many does, or both.  A deer herd with a balanced sex ratio having good numbers of mature bucks, will exhibit much greater rutting activity.  For the hunter, this means that  hunting tactics such as grunting and rattling are much more effective.

Most deer hunters that understand the need to harvest does wait until it’s late in the season to harvest them.  The need to harvest does is important.  Equally important is the time of the year that they are harvested.  The mature does in the herd should be harvested as early in season as possible, as long as the fawns can survive on their own.   Usually that is 45-60 days after birth.  In most states the archery season opener is 60-90 days after the peak of fawning.  This means that fawn survival during the archery seasons is usually not a problem.  Generally speaking if a fawn has prominent white spots you should not harvest its mother.  There are several important reasons  for the early harvesting of does.

To Achieve Your Doe Harvest Quota:  In most areas where the hunters wait until late in the season to harvest the does they typically never achieve the doe harvest goal for that area.  Does do not react to hunting pressure any differently than a buck, which means as the season progresses they become much harder to locate so more difficult to kill.

To Improve the Sex Ratio prior to the Rut:  Does have an estrus or heat cycle once every 28 days beginning in the fall until they are bred.  So the more does that are harvested prior to the breeding season,  means more of the does that are remaining will be bred on their first estrus cycle.  If the herd has a good supply of mature bucks, over 85% of the does will be bred and conceive on their first estrus period and not cycle again.  In a herd that has too many does, 30-40% of the does will cycle at least twice before they conceive.  When these does miss a cycle it means that their fawns will be born a month later than they should.  Fawns that are born late have a lower survival rate,  lower weaning weights, and typically develop into lower quality adults.

To Reduce the Chance of Harvesting Button Bucks:  Many hunters have a concern that they could mistakenly shoot a button buck when trying to harvest a female.   This concern is justified as these button bucks are the mature bucks of the future.  But early in the hunting season it is quite  easy to determine the difference by their size, button bucks are much smaller than an adult doe.  This greatly reduces the chances of harvesting them in error.  As the season progresses there is much less difference in size and a hunter could be more apt to make that mistake.

To Reduce Deer Density Before Forage Becomes Limited:  Harvesting does early in the season makes sense if your goal is to reduce the total number of deer in the herd.  On average an adult deer eats approximately 36 pounds of forage a week.  Each doe that is removed, leaves that much forage for the remaining deer which allows them to winter over in better condition.  This is very important in areas where the fall and winter food supplies are limited or during years with poor mast crops.

To Increase Buck Movements During the Rut:  Research has shown that the better the buck to doe ratio is, the more bucks will have to move more during the rut in search of a receptive doe.  In areas with unlimited does per buck,  the bucks will not have to move far to find a mate.  When you consider that buck movement is directly related to hunter success, and you have increased buck activity, then it follows that more hunters will have an opportunity to harvest a white-tailed deer .

Sound herd management aside,  hunting a doe can be just as exciting and challenging as a buck.  Don’t forget that those very same instinctive behaviors that we find so finely honed in the buck  are just as evident in does.  In fact, a doe may be even more alert and cautious when one realizes that for most  of her adult life she has not only her survival to safeguard, but that of her fawns.  It is the mothering of the fawns that teaches the rudiments of instinctive behavior and survival.  Later in their lives young deer learn from their experiences but initially they follow momma’s lead.  So you should enjoy the excitement and fulfillment of having pursued an elusive enigma and emerged harvesting a white-tailed deer.

The Quality Deer Management Association is a national non-profit wildlife organization dedicated to ensuring ethical hunting, sound deer management, and better relationships among hunters,  non-hunters, and biologists through education. The QDMA currently has approximately 10,000 members in 47 states and 5 foreign countries including over 500 wildlife professionals, far more than any other organization dedicated to white-tailed deer. For more information on the QDMA call  800-209-DEER (3337) or visit their web site: www.qdma.com.

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