For some states, like Arkansas and Kentucky, the high harvests this year broke records; but for others, like Missouri and Illinois, the harvests were some of the lowest in years. Blame it on hemorrhagic disease (EHD) or too many does being shot over the last few years, but the bottom line is that it is much BETTER to enter the next two months with LOW deer numbers than it is with HIGH deer numbers.
Though many hunters may complain about the low number of deer sightings from the past season, the fact that the herd is entering a period of time with the least amount of food available can be a blessing. White-tailed deer herds are very pliable. This means that they can be affected greatly by something like EHD one season, can bounce back within a few seasons. Much of this relies on us hunters to take initiative, and manipulate our harvests and management on a local-level. But it is also greatly affected by the native habitat; thus entering the next couple, nutritionally-stressed months with fewer individuals, particularly with the harsher winter much of the lower 48 is experiencing, is likely going to be a positive response next season.
Let’s break it down in a couple different ways.
If a deer herd typically has a higher density for its habitat entering a winter, it may see upwards of 10% mortality due to “winter kills.” However, in a year with epic cold temperatures, and snowfall after snowfall; the same herd may experience up to 25% winter kill. Not only that, but the deer pushing through the winter will likely be in worse shape entering the spring, requiring more “body-repair” nutrition, and for the bucks, a longer delay before putting nutrition toward growing antlers. The result? Likely smaller than average antlers the next hunting season.
Now take a deer herd that has lower than average deer numbers. There are more resources available per individual. That doesn’t mean the herd won’t experience any winter kills, but it surely would see less than if the herd was at a higher density. Those deer, particularly bucks, also come out in better body condition and can start directing resources to antler growth sooner. Next year, take a look at the 1 ½ year old age class of bucks (the most obvious class to show stress-effects), either on camera or harvested. Bucks from a higher density herd will likely be carrying smaller antlers (spikes and forks) than those from a lower density herd (basket rack with more than 4 points) because of the resources available per individual, especially in the areas experiencing harsh wintry conditions. So that’s one advantage.
The next comes in overall herd abundance, especially in terms of a “come back.” In many areas, average fawn survival will be 40-50%, depending on habitat cover and predation. In other words, if 100 fawns were born into a local herd, 40-50 would survive to add to the local population. In areas of high deer density, this tends to decrease for two primary reasons. First, like above, higher density leads to less resources per individually which can directly affect reproduction rates in the herd.
Second, with higher densities often comes skewed buck to doe ratios. Because breeding season is lengthened, so is the fawning season. When fawns are dropping over a lengthened period of time, there can be a greater predation effect. As opposed to the majority of the fawns coming in a tight timeframe, thus predators can only consume so many before the level of “catch difficulty” increases. On the opposite end, are the lower density herds. These populations may experience higher than average reproduction and survival rates. Therefore, although there were fewer individuals in the population to start, the herd is able to GROW at a much faster rate than the high density herd. Overtime the lower density herd will “bounce back” to what are considered average deer numbers.
It is important to manipulate the deer herd numbers during the hunting season, so they are at the level in which the habitat can support entering the highest nutritional stress period. This will ensure next year’s herd is healthy and bucks have a chance at showing their antler size potential. Even though deer harvests were low in states like Missouri and Illinois, it would not at all be surprising that during the next 2-3 seasons, those states are producing better than average bucks because there are more resources available to each deer…and in the end that is The Bottom Line for most hunters.