Who is responsible for Deer Management?

By Jeff Beringer and Lonnie Hansen | October 2, 1997
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 1997

It's a common situation during summer, especially during a drought year. A landowner has some acreage that includes timber, pasture and a variety of row crops. He planted soybeans back by the timber, and the deer are eating them up. The farmer says "I enjoy having the deer around but their numbers are increasing and they are causing damage to my beans. You need to do something about this."

To assess the problem, a Conservation Department representative may visit the area and suggest solutions. Included in this visit is a discussion of deer management practices, most importantly harvest. Usually the question is asked, "How many deer hunters do you allow on your property and how many did they take last year?" All too often in these situations, no hunting is allowed or it is limited to just a few relatives or friends who take mostly bucks. Therein lies the problem.

Just as often, we receive complaints from landowners about a lack of deer on their property. Usually these landowners have purchased property because they enjoy hunting, but they are seeing fewer deer each deer season. Usually there are too many hunters and they are taking too many does each year. Deer densities are slowly decreasing. The common element in each of these situations is that landowners have a tremendous influence on deer densities on their properties.

Deer and other wildlife belong to the citizens of Missouri. The Conservation Department is responsible for stewardship of these important resources. We set regulations to ensure that the resources will be maintained at levels in the best interest of the public. This means having enough deer so people who enjoy hunting and watching deer have a reasonable opportunity, but not so many that deer problems get out-of-hand.

Deer hunting is essential in Missouri. When deer are not hunted, survival is high and deer numbers can rapidly increase. One research project in north central Missouri showed us that 95 out of 100 does living in unhunted areas survive each year. Under these conditions, a deer herd will quadruple in just 10 years.

Harvesting bucks has little influence on overall population size because one buck can mate with many females. There can be fewer bucks than does without affecting the number of young. Doe harvest, therefore, is the key to deer management.

Prior to the 1980s, deer management was relatively easy, because most landowners wanted more deer. Conservative seasons and harvests produced the desired results. As deer numbers have increased, however, they have reached or exceeded human tolerance levels in some parts of Missouri.

In these areas, control has become as important as protection. More liberal seasons have resulted, especially in northern Missouri, where densities are highest and deer cause more farming-related problems.

Because hunting is the primary influence on deer populations, and reproduction and natural mortality are generally consistent from year to year, management should be simple. To maintain a stable population we need to take enough deer during the hunting seasons that, when added to natural mortality, equals the number that are produced each year. In most of Missouri, this means we need to harvest around 20 percent of the does each year.

We use information from previous seasons to tell us approximately what proportion of hunters will be successful and the sex and age of the deer they will take. We then set quotas of any-deer and bonus permits in each unit to achieve the 20 percent harvest. This part is relatively easy and would work great if deer populations, numbers of hunters and harvest were evenly distributed across the state.

However, Missouri has diverse habitats and 93 percent of the state is in private ownership. As a result, the amount of hunting and deer taken vary from farm to farm. Therefore, deer "hot" and "cold" spots can develop. The Conservation Department sets deer season regulations that allow landowners to manage their deer populations through hunting. Whether that happens depends on the people who control access to property.

Liberal deer seasons in places where hunter access is limited will not have the desired effect. This includes land dedicated to farming operations and recreational ownerships.

In recent years more land has been purchased or leased for hunting deer. Often large ownerships/leases have few hunters and few does are taken as a result. Although those who oversee hunting on these sites usually want high deer populations, they can create problems for neighbors trying to farm if deer "spill out" onto surrounding farmland. Conversely, high doe harvests on smaller properties can create "cold spots" or low density areas where higher numbers are desired.

How many deer to take each hunting season is a difficult question. Of great importance is how the landowner feels about deer. Surveys show that most landowners enjoy having deer around. Some, however, would prefer not to compete with any deer for the crops they produce. Others are more willing to tolerate damage, or they own or lease the land for hunting purposes and would like to have large numbers of deer.

Most landowners are somewhere between. If the goal is to limit the number of deer, then the landowner should encourage as much hunting as is safe and require that hunters take does. If the goal is to increase the number of deer, then doe harvests should be reduced. However, the landowner should consider the consequences of having a lot of deer, not only on their own property but also on surrounding properties. Good stewardship includes consideration of your neighbors.

The actual number of deer to take will depend on the size and shape of the property, quality of habitat and conditions on surrounding properties. Size of land ownership will decide how much of a role outside factors may play in controlling deer. Deer often move over a square mile or more and, as a result, the ability to control them increases proportionally with ownership size. For example, a person with 40 acres will have less control over deer on his/her property than a person with 1,000 acres, especially if the deer do not use the smaller acreages during the hunting seasons.

The amount of hunting or other activity that occurs on adjacent properties is also important. If there is little hunting on land surrounding a property, it may be difficult to control deer numbers on that property. Conversely, if hunting pressure is high on surrounding properties, it may be difficult to produce more deer.

Quality of deer habitat and primary sources of food will control how much time deer spend on a property. Deer will shift movement patterns according to food distribution. For example, in a year with a good acorn crop, deer may select oak-hickory forests for foraging in the fall, instead of agricultural fields. Deer may favor agricultural fields other times of the year and in years of poor acorn production. These factors will influence deer use of a property during the hunting seasons.

Finally, the location of the property will affect how many deer to harvest each year. Deer densities and number of young tend to be highest in northern Missouri. Deer here can be cropped at a higher rate than in southern Missouri.

Land managers should keep track of deer taken during the hunting seasons and how deer populations seem to be responding. Hunting effort should correspond to what deer populations seem to be doing in relation to what is desired by the person who controls hunting access. The Conservation Department deer hunting regulations serve as a guide to harvest management, but each landowner must make decisions on a hunting program that best suits their needs. Truly, the land manager is the deer manager.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer