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The Second Season

Hunting does and other antlerless deer helps keep both the herd and the habitat healthy.

Article by Bob Zaiglin/Photos by Grady Allen

PARTICULARLY IN THE HILL COUNTRY-the place one biologist calls “the deer factory in the world”-deer overpopulation is a continuing problem. That’s why anterless hunting was first begun there in the 1960’s. “The only real way to get deer numbers under control is through the female,” explains Bill Armstrong, a TPWD biologist on the Kerr Wildlife Management Area. “If you have 100 bucks and 100 does and have a 100 percent fawn crop, you will have 100 fawns born. If you have 50 bucks and 100 does, you will have 100 fawns born. If you have 10 bucks and 100 does you will still have 100 fawns born. The female is the reproductive unit, so you must control doe numbers.”

The Female Factor

It’s obvious that the earlier in the season a deer is removed, the more forage will be left for the remaining deer. Often, though, hunters focused on bucks don’t want to hunt does early in the season for fear of spooking bucks into hiding.

If hunters do take does early in the season, what effect will it have on the fawns of does taken? In a 1986 study on captive deer at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, “Effect of Early Weaning on 180-day Body Measurements on White-tailed Deer,” Donnie Harmel and J.D. Williams found that body weight and other physical measurements at 180 days of age did not differ between groups of fawns artificially weaned at 60 and 90 days of age and those left with their dams.

In a 1988 study of wild deer I co-authored with Steve Demarais, “Physical Development of Orphaned White-tailed Deer in Southern Texas,” we also found that on well-managed landholdings providing quality deer habitat, there are minimal, if any, negative effects on physical development of orphaned fawns. However, this study did find that orphaned fawns occupied smaller home ranges than unorphaned fawns. This put orphaned fawns at a disadvantage in their search for food, water and cover from predators. While none of the unorphaned fawns in the study died, 21 percent of the orphaned fawns did not survive. This finding supported delaying hunting does until late in the season in order to improve fawn survival.

Another factor favoring a late doe season is that fall weather patterns can make it difficult to take does early in the season. Fall temperatures can be hot, and deer may not move much during daylight hours. Fall rains can also create ideal range conditions, reducing deer activity because deer do not have to move much to find food.

Because of poor hunting efficiency early in the season and the probable lower survival rate of orphaned fawns as shown by the 1988 study, the antlerless and spike season was set to follow the end of the regular hunting season. Not all counties have an antlerless and spike season; consult the current Outdoor Annual for details.

In addition to antlerless deer, which generally means does, spike bucks (which have no forked antlers due to poor nutrition and genetics) are also legal to take during the late season. Many people once objected to shooting spikes, arguing that they often developed better antlers as they grew older. However, studies on the Kerr WMA show that bucks that are spikes during their first year will always have antlers inferior to bucks sporting forked antlers their first year. Hunters wishing to put meat in the freezer can target spikes in the late season, using unfilled buck tags from the earlier season.

“Deer Eat”

“Old-time game wardens can tell you stories about almost having to back out of rooms with guns drawn when the hunting of does was first proposed in the Hill Country,” says Armstrong. Ranchers accustomed to protecting their domestic broodstock simply couldn’t accept the notion that removing female deer from the population was a good idea. And hunters, as a rule, prefer to bring home a buck instead of a doe.

Research on the Kerr and other WMAs, as well as on private property, has since proven the wisdom of targeting antlerless deer. It has taken time, but the practice has been accepted by hunters and landowners interested in managing for quality deer and protecting the habitat.

As wildlife manager for several large ranches in South and Central Texas, I spend a considerable portion of my time surveying deer herds and establishing harvest quotas. By obtaining accurate population data and removing the correct number of anterless deer from the herd, I come closer to achieving one of my management objectives — the production of a healthy deer herd in balance with the natural environment.

“Deer eat.” Armstrong starts off every presentation at Kerr WMA field days for landowners with that simple statement. Its apparent simplicity belies its complexity. Deer herds should be maintained below the carrying capacity of the land in order to ensure all deer an adequate amount of nutritious native forage. Each deer consumes more than half a ton of forage a year. Thus, for every 10 deer removed from your ranch or lease, you save in excess of five tons of native vegetation for remaining deer.

This increased food supply can play a role in the survival of older-age bucks following the rut. Obviously, a reduction in doe numbers increases competition between bucks for breeding privileges, forcing them to enter the post-rut in poor physical condition. But while fewer does means less mating opportunity, there’s a benefit for bucks: more food. Taking an adequate number of does off the land should balance any downside by allowing the bucks ample natural forage.

Matching Wits With Does

Because deer herds often have more does than bucks, hunting antlerless deer can be easy the first season or two. This is particularly true when you are hunting does on a lightly hunted parcel of land. However, the more often and the harder does are hunted, the more wary they become. Each succeeding season, does become smarter and harder to find. They are no longer unafraid, and they become rather wild and reclusive. This is one of the reasons few mature does are observed on well-managed ranches. They are fast learners and quickly begin to employ their inherent survival instincts. If you think a buck is smart, you simply haven’t tried to match wits with a 6-year-old doe that has survived five intensive doe hunting seasons. In addition to surviving herself, a doe must raise a fawn, sometimes two. The survival skills she develops while protecting her own life and that of her fawns makes a mature doe harder to hunt than any buck.

Antlerless and spike hunting can be a family affair. It is particularly enjoyable for youngsters, many of whom take a doe or spike as their first deer, partly because does are abundant and inexpensive to hunt. Ideally, they will continue this tradition as adults, thereby helping to assure the continued success of white-tailed deer in Texas. O

Bob Zaiglin is a certified wildlife biologist and wildlife manager for Harrison Interests, Ltd. A Uvalde resident, he received the Texas Game Warden Association’s Conservationist of the Year award in 1985.

Tools for Managing Deer Herds

Deer herd managers have many more tools at their disposal today than existed just a few years ago. The number of private landowners, lessees and hunting clubs cognizant of the benefits derived from antlerless and spike deer harvest is at an all-time high. So influential has this constituency become that Texas Parks and Wildlife staff and commissioners continually address issues like establishing liberal antlerless deer harvests and extended seasons.

Over the last few years, Managed Land Deer permits (MLDs), the Landowner Assisted Management Permit System (LAMPS), and Antlerless Deer Control Permits (ADCPs) have been established in order to assist land managers in managing deer herds. The MLD permit allows landowners with a TPWD-approved management plan to extend the gun hunting of deer during October and late January and allows larger limits with the use of bonus tags. LAMPS allows landowners in East Texas to harvest antlerless deer in buck-only counties. The ADCPs give land managers the ability to designate individuals to remove surplus antlerless deer, including spikes, from the Saturday nearest Sept. 30 through the last day of any open season in a given county.

New antler regulations introduced in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lavaca, Lee and Washington counties beginning with the 2002-2003 season may encourage more hunters to target does in those counties by making it illegal to take bucks with fewer than six points on at least one side or an inside spread less than 13 inches. Designed to protect young bucks from overharvest, the regulations will remain in place for three years to allow biologists to evaluate their effectiveness. For more information, see “That Eight-Pointer May Not Be Legal” on page 11 of the August 2002 issue, or go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/oak_prairie/experimental_antler_regs/

Finally, a special antlerless and spike season for muzzleloaders only in some deer-rich counties allows hunters one more opportunity to spend time in the outdoors and benefit the environment by taking surplus animals.

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