THE PROS AND CONS OF SHOOTING DOES
This is a very involved topic that really takes a lot of explaining. I will do my best to summarize here, but I am sure I will not cover all the dynamics of this issue.
This blog came about because of a question I received on the Ask Winke part of the site. The deeper I got into the answer, the more I realized this was going to be more like a blog than a short answer. The visitor asked how he could tell if he had too many does, when was the best time to remove them and whether shooting the does would affect the buck hunting on his property. That opens a big can of worms.
How to Decide if you Have too Many Deer
There are ways to get a very accurate count on the number of bucks and does on your property by using trail cameras. Here is a link to a method endorsed by the QDMA. We did this on my farm one winter and the results were very similar to what I had guessed from many hours spent hunting the place.
So while the survey is very useful, you can often get close to the same results based on experience if you are on the property enough. I focused on three things to decide whether I had too many deer. First was habitat and crop damage. Second was the hunting experience and the third was the buck to doe ratio. Next, I will cover each of these factors.
Habitat and Crop Damage: I wanted to be able to improve the habitat on my property, which meant that I couldn’t have the deer eating everything as soon as it poked out of the ground. Browse is not a given. It is a crop like any other, and if the deer hammer it year after year before it gets a chance to grow and spread its seeds, it will eventually disappear, possibly forever.
Managing habitat, for this reason, also requires managing the deer themselves.
I needed time for young oak trees, for example, to get tall enough that the deer weren’t nipping them off every spring. I also wanted the underbrush to flourish in the areas where we did timber stand improvement. I wanted to produce lots of browse back in the timber so the deer didn’t hammer my food plots and ag fields.
If you have too many deer, it is hard to change the habitat. You can see their effect most easily in the form of browse lines that appear along the edges of open fields.
Browse lines are a distinct line where the deer have eaten everything they can reach. It looks like someone came along and cut the branches off about four feet off the ground all the way around the opening. The deer did that. Browse lines are a caution flag that you probably have too many deer.
I also wanted a realistic number of acres of food plots to support the deer through the winter. Winter is when they need help the most for overall health. If you have too many deer (or too few food plot acres – there is a balance) your food sources will be gone well before the winter ends. I tried to supply as much food as was reasonably possible, but you can only spend so much on food plots before you feel like you are wasting money.
If that is still not enough food to prevent long term damage to browse and heavy pressure on ag fields, it is time to shave the deer numbers back to fit within that food supply.
The Hunting Experience: I want my hunting to be both enjoyable and challenging, which means that I can’t have a deer behind every bush but I do need to see at least some each time I go out. While most people think it is awesome to see tons of deer, that eventually gets old. The adrenaline rush goes away and you start to take the deer for granted. You don’t enjoy each encounter the way you did when you were hunting areas with less deer.
So, it is possible to have too many deer just from the standpoint of maintaining the integrity and challenge of hunting. This may not seem like a priority to most people, but I have hunted places (like the Black Hills of Wyoming and the Milk River in Montana, for example, and even some spots in the Midwest) where there are so many deer that it doesn’t feel like hunting. It is fun for a change of pace, but I don’t want my properties to be like that.
Plus, if you have too many deer, it can be really tough to get to and from stands without constantly bumping into them and setting off a stampede that all but ends your hope of maintaining the element of surprise.
Buck to Doe Ratio: We are looking at the number of bucks versus the number of does. My goal is always to have as many adult bucks as adult does on the farm. That may not be realistic in some states – and some neighborhoods – because the other hunters in the area are pounding bucks and not shooting does. In those areas, a better goal might be something like three does for each buck. The idea is to balance the sex ratio as much as possible.
There are two advantages to a balanced (or nearly balanced) ratio. First, the rut is over in one or two cycles and that results in less stress for the bucks. If they are still working to breed does into a third cycle, it is hard on them. The idea is to get the rut over as quickly as possible. The second benefit of a fast rut is the fact that you will see more buck activity because the bucks have to compete (travel) more to find the next doe.
The Most Important Factor: Of these three elements, the most important one is maintaining the deer numbers within the limits of the food supply. If there are so many deer that you can’t grow browse and food plots, you have too many deer (or you need to improve the habitat and other food sources).
How Many to Shoot
It is really hard to shoot enough does to actually bring the population down noticeably if your neighbors aren’t also shooting them. If you decide you have too many deer but you are the only one in the area shooting does, you can shoot as many as possible and not shoot too many. That is the sobering reality of this challenge. It can be really hard to single-handedly get ahead of the growth curve. You will need help from your neighbors to make any real difference unless you own a lot of land.
There is also a more scientific answer to the question of how many to shoot. You need to shoot roughly 25% of your adult does each year to keep the herd from growing. If you want to bring it down, you need to shoot more than 25%. You can estimate your number and then try to shoot 25% of that number, but just realize that there will be some that spill in from the neighboring properties during the off-season and you will have to start over again – especially if you have the best food sources around.
As I mentioned, it can be a real battle if you are the only one shooting does.
When to Shoot Them
Strictly from a genetic and biological standpoint, it is best to shoot them before the rut. That way you reduce the number of does that need to be bred, which also incrementally reduces the amount of stress on the bucks. Also, in theory, if you shoot them all before the rut you are not shooting any does that were bred by your best bucks.
Unfortunately, it is really hard to shoot a good number of does before the rut. You will get some, for sure, but if your target number is more than just a handful, you are going to have to shoot them all season long in order to hit the number. So, that is my answer. You keep shooting them until you hit your number. It is better to do that, in order to keep the herd in check, than to stop shooting them when the rut starts and fall short of the target number of does harvested.
Whether Shooting Does will Affect Buck Hunting
There are many factors, way too many to get into here. But, the short answer is maybe shooting them will hurt your buck hunting. If you have a small property, and you shoot most of the does off it, the local bucks probably won’t spend as much time there during the rut. But if you have a medium sized property and there are still doe family groups around during the rut, you shouldn’t see much difference in your buck hunting.
Now if you have a big property and shoot lots of does you may think the bucks will leave during the rut. That has not been my experience. Just realize that they don’t know what is happening outside their ranges. If the doe numbers drop within their range, they just travel more in that range. They don’t suddenly enlarge their range – at least I never saw that even though we flipped the buck to doe ratio and actually had more bucks than does for several years.
But, if there are more does in one part of their range than in other parts, they will naturally spend more time (but not all their time) rutting in those areas that have the most does. So, the question is not whether they will leave, it is more related to the range of the bucks and what is happening in each part of that range.
If their entire range is on your property, you won’t see much change in buck numbers. But if bucks are ranging on and off the property you may see some difference in the number of bucks during the rut if you shoot a high number of does.
This next part has some real benefit for people trying manage high deer numbers. There is more to buck hunting than just the rut. I have seen that when you significantly drop your doe numbers in areas that have too many you encourage more bucks to stay on your property. Bucks will disperse and fringe out from high density areas. I guess they don’t like crowds, especially as they get older. The real dispersal seems to come at age 2 and then more slowly after that.
But, disperse they do and you will keep more bucks around if your overall deer density is not super high.
It goes with the old saying that nature abhors a vacuum. By removing a good number of does, you create a vacuum. In this case, the vacuum fills with bucks. Some may leave during the rut, for sure, but you will have more in the early and late season than you would if the property is full of does. Again, this only works in areas with high overall deer numbers.
In my experience, you really need to make extreme changes to the herd before you will notice a difference in the number of bucks during the rut. If you are just shooting 25% of your does each year you should not see any difference in the rut and this is a good, comfortable level of doe harvest in most areas with solid deer numbers. Good luck.