Lisenbee: It’s important for hunters to make does a priority

Len Lisenbee
Daily Messanger

Every year before the hunting season, many hunters ask why there is a need to hunt female deer, more commonly called does.

Lisenbee

After all, it is the does that produce bucks and more does, and that ensures the deer herd will continue to be well-populated. What these hunters fail to understand is that the number of bucks in any deer herd is relatively immaterial. Controlling the number of does, the producers of new generations of deer, that is the only logical way to control the overall deer population.

One common question I have often been asked is how fast the population of a deer herd would increase if hunting does were eliminated. There is no exact answer to that question because there are simply too many variables to consider. The amount of predation from black bears, coyotes, other predators and feral or free-roaming dogs varies from one area to another, as does the quality of the habitat that a deer herd relies on for its survival.

Lots of predation or marginal habitat would both serve to suppress population growth.

Does produce more deer, so that needs to be the focus on management of herds.

However, Michigan State University did two studies to determine how fast a deer herd would increase if all hunting and predation were removed from a control area with very good deer habitat. They used the 1,146 acre George Reserve in southern Michigan because it was totally enclosed with a deer-proof and predator-proof 12-foot high fence. And the habitat inside was managed to ensure it was the very best available.

The first study, done in 1928–1933, began with just six deer placed inside the enclosure. In just six years that small herd mushroomed to 162 deer.

In a 1975–1980 study on the same enclosed habitat a herd of 10 deer increased to 212 in a similar six-year period. Those two studies are the best scientific indicators of exactly how fast a deer herd is capable of increasing when hunting has been stopped, regardless of the reasons for stopping it.

On average deer habitat, a yearling doe, if bred, will have a single fawn while more mature does will probably have a single fawn or twins. On excellent deer habitat, it is possible for a fawn born in May to have a fawn on or around her first birthday. A yearling doe on that same range may have twins, and many mature does will probably have triplets.

And does are capable of producing fawns for an average of six years each if they live a normal life on normal habitat and are not removed from the herd by one factor or another.

The real sticking point among deer hunters is that the Department of Environmental Conservation, in general, does not manage for the maximum number of deer that any particular parcel of habitat can support. Instead, their management goals are for a population far below that figure.

If a section of habitat is capable of producing eight or 10 bucks per square mile, they might manage it for three to five bucks per square mile by increasing or decreasing the number of does that are harvested.

But the DEC has good reasons for not managing for maximum deer production in most deer management units. Some wildlife managers have called the most important reason the “Cultural Carrying Capacity” (CCC) to differentiate it from the biological carrying capacity (BCC).

An area that has a BCC of 20 deer per square mile may be kept at only eight deer per square mile to prevent or reduce damage to the wildlife habitat, farm crops, commercial forests, nursery stock and homeowner shrubs and lawns.

At the same time, remote or extremely rural areas with prime habitat are still kept substantially below the BCC to prevent overbrowsing. Hunters are the primary predators on most deer herds, and if they do not remove enough deer in any particular area then too many will be left.

If that number of survivors is above what the habitat can support, then damage occurs as the deer compete for the available food. Overbrowsing causes alterations in plant species composition, distribution and abundance. And in virtually every overbrowsing situation the smaller, weaker deer will not be able to compete. In many cases, they will instead starve to death.

The DEC has an impossible job to do, and it rarely gets the recognition it deserves for a job well done. No one can fully understand the complicated nature of the balancing act required to keep both sportsmen’s groups and agricultural interests from complaining that they are not being treated fairly.

Throw in other interested parties such as automobile insurance companies and private landowners and the political soup gets even thicker.

And yet the DEC has managed to achieve a fairly good balance among all interested parties. And N.Y. hunters have one of the best big game hunting situations available anywhere in the country.