It was a typical early-November morning in the bow stand. The sun seemed to hesitate a few moments as it climbed and woke the earth, the last leaves rattled on their branches, and anticipation of the morning’s hunt filled my mind.
A buck responded to my brief blows on the grunt call and rattling sequence. I could hear his quick footsteps in the leaves before I had even finished the mock fight. He approached just 15 yards upwind of me and crossed into a wide shooting lane. Then he walked downwind, turned and gradually left the way he came. While I had ample opportunity, and he had respectable headgear, he was not the deer I was after. I estimated he was only 3 1/2 years old and knew he had potential to grow larger antlers. I just smiled and thought to myself, just try that next year!
I am lucky I can be so confident that a 3 1/2-year old buck will make it through rifle season and be around to be hunted next year. I am definitely blessed to be able to hunt the area I do, but it also takes work. We spend a lot of time on habitat work that plays an important role in keeping deer within the boundaries of the farm. It allows us to make a lot of the decisions about which deer are harvested. But managing the habitat is only part of the work we do for better deer hunting.
We understand that a 240-acre farm will not hold deer within its boundaries no matter how much habitat work we do. Deer are mobile animals, which makes it difficult for any one landowner to manage them. The home range of an adult doe can range from 400-600 acres, while an adult buck’s home range can easily exceed 640 acres, particularly during the rut. Unlike quail, which can be managed effectively with a 40-acre tract of land, deer walk across 40 acres like it’s your living room. Most landowners believe all they can do is make their little piece of heaven as attractive to deer as possible and hope they will spend enough time on their farm to influence which bucks are harvested and which ones are allowed to grow older. The larger the farm, the easier that task becomes, but even large tracts of land (more than 500 acres) are affected by what happens on neighboring farms.
This is not news. Most deer hunters know that we are affected by what happens on neighboring farms. We often cringe when we hear a gunshot from nearby, wondering if that was the demise of the great buck we were after. We become possessive of bucks we’ve seen or photographed on trail cameras, and we sometimes become secretive about large bucks because we don’t want someone else hunting for them. I have a different solution, and it might even outweigh the habitat improvements you’ve made for deer. The best thing you can do to improve your local deer herd is talking. Communicating with neighbors can make a huge impact on what you see during your hunts.
I have had the privilege of working in Macon, Randolph and Shelby counties as a private land conservationist for the Department of Conservation for the past eight years. I have seen a lot of different farms and visited with many different landowners. Each farm is unique in its soils, cover types and the ground that it borders. In the same way, the management of each farm and the farms around it is unique.
While farms across the state vary widely, the people who own them have a lot in common.
Sure, there are tall, short, young and old landowners, and they come from different backgrounds and lifestyles, but their interests and reasons for owning a farm are often similar. Most recreational landowners want plentiful wildlife for hunting or viewing. While there are a lot of landowners who are driven by small game (such as quail and rabbits) or natural community management (such as prairies or savannas), most recreational landowners are primarily motivated by white-tailed deer. This common interest can be a valuable tool. Even if your neighbor has a completely different philosophy of deer management than you, just knowing that you both have a keen interest in deer is a good foundation for moving forward. So introduce yourself. You don’t even need to mention deer if you don’t want to—just be friendly. It will take time, but your goal is to foster a good relationship between neighbors so that you can discuss farm management and hunting successes.
Once you’re talking, it’s easy to identify common goals. Just don’t expect everyone to have the same ones (especially not at first). When everyone is working toward those common goals, we call that a conservation cooperative. I call it better and more enjoyable hunting for everyone involved!
You’ll discover big benefits whether you want to formally consider your neighborhood a conservation co-op or not. However, there are some important things to remember when getting started.
You’ll need common goals, not identical goals. You and your neighbor both want to hunt mature bucks, but your definitions of “mature” may be different. One person may think a 2 1/2-year-old buck is a trophy, while another wants them 4 ½ years or older. That difference does not mean they will not benefit from cooperation. Trying to force specific goals will be counter-productive. Realize that even though your goals are not identical, you do have common goals (more mature bucks), and you can work toward them.
Be realistic. The deer population in an area is seldom driven by what happens on a single farm. I often hear people say a co-op will not work in their neighborhood because one neighbor has no interest in changing what he or she harvests. While it is very easy to blame an “uncooperative neighbor” for a declining deer population or a lack of mature bucks, that is rarely the case. The impacts of one landowner harvesting immature bucks or numerous does can be minimized so long as others adjust their personal harvest expectations to meet the overall goal of the neighborhood. By working together you can develop harvest goals that fit your population and improve everyone’s hunting.
Good things take time. Do not expect to be able to introduce yourself to the neighbors and change the way they manage their farm in a single visit. Think of success coming over the course of years, not months. Don’t give up because you don’t see a change in the first year or two. Keep the communication lines open and the rewards will come.
A nonparticipating landowner does not doom your co-op. Rarely do you get 100-percent participation right out of the gate. Often people are comfortable with what they have and worry a co-op would mean someone else telling them what to do. Keep communication open with everyone in the co-op area and the benefits will become obvious to everyone.
Have fun. The reason you are interested in a co-op is because you are passionate about deer and want to enjoy the results (good deer hunting). Neighborhood gatherings, sharing hunting stories and making new friends are fun, too. If you look at the co-op as work, it will fail. Keep it fun and it will grow.
Combining People and Tactics
Forming a successful neighborhood co-op is up to individual landowners. The Department of Conservation regulates deer harvest to maintain a sustainable deer herd, but cannot form and maintain good relationships among neighbors or regulate to meet everyone’s personal goals. Right now landowners have maximum flexibility in what they harvest, which allows you to manage the deer herd to meet your goals. By communicating with your neighbors you can better understand the local dynamics of the deer populations and the impacts that localized harvest has on the population.
While managing the trigger is a big part of the success of a co-op, habitat management yields big benefits as well. Many landowners are working with 100 acres or less. While you can see large benefits from managing the habitat on these smaller tracts of land, that benefit is magnified if the neighbors are managing their farms, too. Several neighbors working together can provide more food, cover, fawning cover, etc., that will increase the amount of time deer spend in your neighborhood and potentially increase the carrying capacity of the land.
Conservation co-ops can be successful for other species of wildlife, too. Turkeys, quail, rabbits and even waterfowl management can be more successful when you are working on a larger scale. You find success with landowners managing with different species in mind. If your interest is deer and your neighbor is a quail enthusiast, his quail management can help your deer herd and your deer management can help his quail population.
If you and your neighbors would like help forming a neighborhood co-op for deer or other wildlife species, contact your local private land conservationist (see Page 3 for regional phone numbers). While we cannot build and maintain neighborhood relationships for you, we can help by providing technical assistance on habitat improvement projects, providing management workshops and training, and possibly other assistance such as determining appropriate deer harvest to meet your common goals. In the meantime, fire up the grill and start working on those relationships with your newest friends. Before you know it you might get to enjoy not shooting a great buck, too!