Deer Herds Aided by Selective Antlerless Harvests

Deer Herds Aided by Selective Antlerless Harvests

Properly applied, an antlerless deer license is an effective and efficient deer population management tool. The selective taking of antlerless deer produces a healthier deer population with an enhanced buck-to-doe ratio and quality bucks. Please note the first two words of this paragraph: properly applied.

It is hunters who actually manage wildlife populations, not wildlife management bureaucrats. To manage whitetail wisely, we must be fully informed about their innate natural history and reproductive dynamics.

Deer populations are managed via the license-controlled harvests of antlerless deer. Please note that “antlerless” does not necessarily mean female, but rather any deer without visible antlers. The ultimate goal of a hunter in possession of an antlerless license is meat on the table. Therefore, why pull the trigger on a small, immature deer. Select a large adult antlerless deer. It’s also a wise deer management decision, and here’s why.

A vitally important trait of deer reproduction dynamics is the natural fact that a doe fawn born in the spring will be bred at six months of age and will produce a single fawn on or near her first birthday. Her first pregnancy will produce a single fawn that will almost certainly be a male. The probability of that first fawn being a buck is ultra-high—virtually a sure thing. This is true in captive and wild deer herds. Subsequent fawnings by adult doe deer normally produce twins, occasionally triplets. Twin fawns can include both sexes or twin does, but rarely twin bucks. Adult does are obviously larger than their immature offspring. These multiple births enlarge the overall deer herd and increase their feeding impact on the habitat.

A large, mature doe puts more venison on the hunter’s table, helps control the overall deer population and permits young-of-the-year deer to survive. That permits the button buck to mature into an antlered buck and the doe fawn to produce a single buck fawn in the spring. Selective antlerless deer harvest is a win-win for hunters. We need only take a closer look to evaluate the target before applying knowledgeable trigger-finger deer management.

Remember that an adult doe may be accompanied by a single male fawn, her first-born buck. She is the correct candidate for your antlerless deer tag because her next pregnancy may produce twin fawns.

"Selective harvest of antlerless deer is a wise management practice that maintains the deer population in balance with habitat conditions, while enhancing the buck-to-doe ratio."The informed hunter will notice that fawns appear to have short, stubby noses compared to the long noses of adult deer. A button buck’s head appears flat between his ears even though the actual buttons may not be visible. Does have noticeably rounded heads. These traits are noticeable to a discerning eye.

In many states, antler restrictions require deer hunters to scrutinize and evaluate the legal status of their intended quarry before pulling the trigger on a buck. Such regulations have proven highly beneficial to increasing the quality of local buck populations. It is reasonable to encourage the antlerless deer hunter to be similarly selective. In actuality, selective doe harvests can have a greater impact on a deer herd than selective buck harvests.

Consider this true story of deer management success that astounded a local community and was quickly adopted by neighbors of the particular Pennsylvania farm. Several years ago, while working as a wildlife professional, I explained this deer harvest strategy to a young farmer who had taken control of the family farm following his father’s sudden illness. He killed every deer possible, not just on the family farm but on adjacent leased lands. Such unlimited killing of deer is legal in the state within the parameters of preventing crop damage.

He’d killed all ages of deer with a special affinity for bucks, regardless of antler size. His actions made him unpopular with neighbors who complained of poor deer hunting. Strangely enough, he too complained about the poor quality of the bucks on his farm and blamed hunters on the public hunting land that bordered it.

Eventually, a confrontation occurred and we had several talks about deer reproductive habits, the rate at which whitetail bucks mature and the most efficient method of controlling crop damage on his farmland. This young man seized upon this new knowledge and applied it with precision. From then on, the only crop-killed deer he turned over to authorities were adult does—no bucks and no fawns.

In addition, he restricted his family and guest hunters to taking only eight-point-or-better bucks and enforced this by banning hunting privileges for anyone who violated the rule. Three years later, his cousin killed a record archery buck on the farm. The young farmer also took two trophy bucks.

Five years into his adult-doe-only crop kill strategy, he stopped me on the street to give me a video tape. “Remember those talks we had?” he asked. “Well, I’ve been doing what we talked about for five years. Take that home and look at it and see what I’ve got on the farm now.”

The video was astounding. From the elevated roof of one of the farm’s implement sheds, he’d filmed the deer coming into his rich alfalfa field as daylight faded to a moonless September night. The first deer to enter the field was a very respectable six-point. It was followed by successive bucks and a few does. At nearly full darkness, three truly exceptional bucks joined the group, making a total of 22 bucks—17 of which were legal according to the state’s antler point-restriction laws.

The following day, I invited the young farmer to accompany me to the next meeting of the local Conservation District’s Deer Damage Committee comprised of farmers, sportsmen, politicians, wildlife officials, Conservation District Board members and an occasional guest speaker. Its mission: to discuss deer management needs based upon local conditions and present their views to the state’s wildlife governing agency.

Nearly everyone there recognized this farmer and seemed curious as to why someone with his reputation for excessive deer killing had been invited to address the group. Prior to introducing him as my guest, I played his unique video. The room fell silent until one incredulous farmer questioned loudly: “Okay, where the heck is this—out west somewhere? It sure as heck isn’t around here!”

At the end of the video, the young farmer stood and said proudly, “That’s my farm—just last week.” Responding to a flood of questions, he eagerly described his five-year program that had produced a bounty of quality deer. When he described how substantially deer-related crop damage on his farm had been reduced in the process, his fellow farmers were skeptical. But he answered every question positively and invited the group to visit his farm for proof.

In short order, neighboring property owners followed his lead. Their success spilled over into the adjoining public land where hunters consistently take quality bucks. The key to this success is keeping the doe herd young by specifically harvesting the adult does and avoiding fawn kills. Selective harvest of antlerless deer is a wise management practice that maintains the deer population in balance with habitat conditions, while enhancing the buck-to-doe ratio.

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About the Author
With over 30 years of experience in photography, wildlife and conservation and the hunting and shooting sports, Flanigan is a full-time freelance contributing writer and photographer who is published in numerous outdoor publications including Field and StreamNorth American Whitetail and Game and Fish Publications. He has won multiple awards for his contribution to informing the general public of hunters’ vital role in wildlife conservation, including the Pennsylvania Writers Association’s (POWA) First Place Excellence in Craft award in the “Wildlife Conservation Partnership” category for his article, “The Role of the Hunter and the Gun in Wildlife Conservation,” and the First Place Talbot Denmead Memorial Award for Best on Conservation and/or the Environment for his article “Who Really Cares About Conservation?” To learn more about Tim Flanigan, visit his website at