The year 1999 probably wasn’t one many hunters considered significant from a deer management perspective, but it sure was to me. It was the first year on record that more antlerless deer were harvested nationwide than antlered bucks. This represented a monumental turning point following decades of buck-dominated harvests that had produced record deer herds heavily skewed toward does and few bucks surviving beyond their first set of headgear. Thankfully, much progress has been made during the past decade and most hunters today realize that doe harvest is necessary in many areas, yet many questions remain.
When during the hunting season to harvest does is an important consideration. In most cases, the earlier the better – for many reasons. One benefit is the reduction of mistakenly-harvested buck fawns due to the dramatic size difference between adult does and fawns early in the season. As the season progresses, fawns, especially buck fawns, begin resembling adult does which makes mistakes more likely.
Harvesting does early also increases nutrition for the remaining animals. For example, since the average deer consumes around six pounds of forage per day, harvesting 10 does two months earlier than normal would save 3,600 pounds of forage (10 does X 6 lbs/day X 60 days). That’s more forage than most one-acre food plots produce during the same period. This extra forage can be extremely important during the critical late-winter stress period.
Early doe harvest also helps balance the sex ratio of the herd before the rut and can increase the number of does that breed on their first estrous (heat) cycle. This creates a healthier, more consistent fawn crop. It also reduces the energy expended by bucks because they don’t waste precious energy chasing and breeding does that will only be harvested later.
Another important benefit of harvesting does early is to ensure that your annual harvest goal is achieved. Too often, hunters wait until late in the season to begin harvesting does and fail to meet their goal. Like bucks, does react to hunting pressure by changing their movement patterns, especially during daylight - even where they are not harvested early in the season. Also, hunter interest and participation often begin to wane late in the season. The rut is over, the weather is lousy, and some already have venison in the freezer. Even those trying to harvest does often become less careful toward the end of the season and make poor harvest decisions. This increases the number of button bucks and/or small-antlered yearling bucks in the harvest – both mistaken for does. Another concern, especially in states with very late hunting seasons, is the harvest of mature bucks that have already cast their antlers. Few things cause more frustration than mistakenly harvesting a buck that had already cast its antlers after it had been passed several times during the season.
Despite the numerous benefits of removing does early, harvesting does accompanied by young fawns should be carefully considered. Typically, whitetail fawns are weanable 60 to 90 days after birth. Hunting seasons are set with this in mind. As such, the majority of fawns, except those born extremely late, are easily of weanable age by the beginning of hunting season.
Two studies have produced conflicting results regarding survival of orphaned fawns. A Georgia study concluded that orphaned male fawns actually had higher survival rates than those left with their mothers. This was because fewer dispersed from their birth area, which is commonly associated with maternal aggression. These fawns remained in familiar territory and survived at higher rates. In contrast, a Texas study concluded that fawns orphaned during November had lower survival rates – likely due to increased coyote predation. In addition to differences in predator abundance in these two studies, the average age of fawns at time of orphaning also differed. The fawns in the Texas study were four to five months old while most fawns in the Georgia study were at least six months old.
Given these two studies, I suggest harvesting does early in the hunting season, except in areas with extremely high predator populations or extremely late breeding periods resulting in fawns being less than 60 days old at the beginning of hunting season. How can you determine a fawn is old enough to survive if you harvest its mother? In most cases, these fawns will exceed 40 pounds live weight and their spots will either be gone or very indistinct. If in doubt, let the doe walk.
The number of does that should be taken from a given property depends on many factors including property size, property shape, habitat quality, management goals, deer density, herd sex ratio, herd productivity, and management practices on adjacent properties. Given the complexity of this subject, it is highly recommended that you seek advice from a wildlife biologist familiar with your area. Within a few years, you can generally establish a baseline harvest level that can be adjusted as needed in relation to changes in habitat quality or seasonal conditions.
Throughout much of the whitetail’s range, deer densities range from 20 to 50 per square mile. In these areas, the harvest of one doe per 50 to 200 acres is generally required to maintain herds in a healthy condition. Within this range, most managers recommend a harvest rate of around one doe per 75 to 150 acres. However, in highly productive areas or if herd reduction is necessary, more aggressive harvests may be required. In contrast, in low-density herds or in low quality habitats, more conservative harvest rates, or even no doe harvest, may be justified.
Which does to harvest – fawns, yearlings, or adults – is another important consideration. In general, I recommend harvesting the first doe that offers an ethical shot. This is because in some areas it is difficult to harvest enough does and every opportunity wasted only compounds this situation. When multiple does are present, I recommend harvesting a large, adult doe. As previously noted, this will greatly reduce the number of buck fawns harvested by mistake due to differences in body size and shape. Another reason is because adult does are the most reproductive segment of the herd. Thus, harvesting adult does lowers the population faster than harvesting fawns or yearlings, which either don’t breed or produce fewer fawns.
Without question, most hunters today, especially bowhunters, no longer consider does the “Sacred Cows” of yesteryear. They have embraced their role in deer management and deer herds (and their freezers) have benefited. Just keep in mind that like most aspects of deer management, the when, how many, and which ones of doe management are site specific. But, hopefully, this edition of Whitetail Science will help you resolve your doe management dilemmas.
Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.QDMA.com). He also has been an avid bowhunter for the past 30 years.