High Fence Deer Management and Hunting

Question: ” We just purchased a 1,200 acre property we intend to use for high fenced deer management as well as for recreational hunting for our family. The property has a spring and the native deer herd has not been managed or even hunted since 2008. What should we do for for management to improve the deer herd? Since the hunting season just ended, we thought a good place to start would just be to put up a bunch of game cameras on trails and water then see what the deer population looks like. I suppose we will harvest some of the the older deer next season. What are your thoughts on managing deer within a high fence? What should we do first?

Deer Hunting Pros: Although there are many aspects to the management of a white-tailed deer population, the practices that must be implemented to reach the desired objectives are rather simple. First, I’d recommend that you start with understanding the deer carry capacity of the property. How many whitetail can the habitat found on the property support? This is paramount since the available browse, forbs and overall composition of the cover found on the land with dictate how many deer should ultimately be there. Either invite a deer biologist out to the property or at least talk to one that is familiar with the region where your property is located. This is the first thing you should do way before the deer hunting season for yourself, the property and the deer found there.

High Fence Deer Surveys

Next, take inventory of the deer population. The idea you had about using game cameras to survey the deer on the ranch is spot on. Place out as many game cameras as possible to survey as many parts of the ranch as possible. Place cameras on water, trails and roadways, since deer will often follow the path of least resistance. This will give you a great idea of buck to doe ratio. Do this as soon as possible since bucks can begin shedding their antlers within 6 to 8 weeks. Set cameras to take pictures every 5 minutes or so. You want to minimize taking photos of the same deer over and over since that will skew data. Plus, if you set out many (5-10) cameras you should get plenty of photos/data. I’d set up how ever many cameras you have then move them every 2 weeks. Do this for 4 weeks and you will have some good data on sex ratio, antler quality and age structure of the bucks on the property.

Annual surveys for deer are a must, so although the above survey will give you post-hunting season population data you will need to survey the herd once again in during the months of August and September. This is because the herd should (hopefully) increase with the addition of fawns during the summer. For your 1,200 acre high fenced property, I’d recommend estimating deer density using spotlight surveys and estimating herd composition (percent bucks, does and fawns) with randomly place game cameras as before.

High Fence Deer Management and Hunting

Deer Population Management

Once you have an idea of the carrying capacity of the ranch you can compare that to the survey data that estimated the number of deer on the property. If you have more deer than the property can support them selective harvest can get you to where the deer population needs to be. If there is room for additional deer then you will likely want to hold back on doe harvest although you can still remove post-mature deer and bucks deemed inferior during the hunting season. I’d also recommend that hunters collect stand count data during the hunting season to help firm up pre-season survey information.

There are different schools of thought when it comes to the ideal buck to doe ratio for deer population management. The “right” ratio depends on the property, the buck harvest goals and whether or not the property is high fence or low fence. From my experience, the buck to doe ratio needs to be close to 1:1 on high fence properties, maybe even skewed towards a few more bucks than does. This is especially true if you plan on supplementing the deer herd with high protein foods. Healthy deer herds are more prolific, meaning they will have more fawns than an unhealthy deer herd.

Too many does will get you in trouble in a hurry, especially on a high fence property. For example, let’s just say for simplicity that your 1,200 acre property can support 1 deer for every 12 acres, or roughly 100 deer. Now this number can be high or low depending on the property, but it gives me a chance to illustrate my point. A buck to doe ratio of 1:2 would mean you have about 33 bucks and 66 does. If there is a 50 percent fawn crop then you have 33 additional deer added to the population, about 16 bucks and 16 does. If you wanted to maintain the 1:2 ratio you would have to remove/harvest 16 bucks and 16 does. This is not necessarily bad on the doe side, but removing half the buck herd in a single year is not a good idea!

A 1:1 buck to doe ratio with a 50% fawn crop would equate to 50 bucks and 50 does on the property with 25 fawns produced, with the removal of about 12 bucks and 12 does. This would be much more palatable from a herd management stand point and would allow you to maintain good age structure within the buck segment of the population. Obviously, the fawn production/survival rate will also impact the number of deer that must be removed, since fawn survival can range from 0 to 150 percent. Camera surveys can estimate buck to doe ratio and fawn production to help you assess the situation and take the right course of action.

High Fence Food Supplementaion

It’s common practice for the owners of high fence properties to provide supplemental feeds for whitetail deer. This practice is a good idea and I encourage you to do so on your ranch, but while protein feeders help with body condition and corn feeders help with deer hunting and harvest, the reality is that native food (browse and forbs) availability is something that you should have a laser-like focus on. Why? The deer on your property do. They love it!

The biggest pitfall of providing supplemental feed to deer is the impact is has on the human brain. We begin to think that we can support an infinite number of animals on any property if all we do is pour more feed into the system. Don’t do it! Your management program will suffer. The deer will suffer, and the habitat found on the property will most definitely suffer. Why? Because the foods that you provide are merely supplemental, or at least they should be. Whitetail prefer native foods over the store-bought stuff. The natives are more palatable and at many times of the year they are far superior, often with twice the protein levels, to anything you can buy in a bag.

Native plants will ultimately determine the productivity, body size and antler size of the deer found within your high fence property. Ask anyone with a ranch that provides supplemental feed and they will tell you that they have better fawn crops and better bucks during the years that it rains. Rely on the native plants found there, implement management practices to improve the habitat for deer, keep the deer population at the appropriate level for the property and provide supplemental feeds to help them through the tough times (drought/summer/winter). If you maintain too many deer the the habitat will degrade and the tough times will be even tougher on both the deer and the plant communities.

Management and Hunting Goals, Objectives

Have a plan: Determine the goals and objectives of your high fence property as it relates to the management of deer and whitetail habitat. A goal is a broad general statement about what you want your ranch to be or how what you want to do with the deer herd. Objectives are measurable activities that have dates/deadlines associated with them. So though your goal maybe be to have the ranch to produce the highest quality bucks that it can, your objectives may include installing 6 protein feeders by June, getting the deer population at carrying capacity by 2016 or establishing a 1:1 buck to doe ratio by January 2017.

You must determine the ultimate goals of management on your property. Without a map you will be going in circles. Large deer and many deer typically go hand in hand. In short, determine what you want to do with the deer herd, find out more about the whitetail population and then figure out what management practices you need to implement to get there. Managing a deer herd within a high fence is hard work, but it’s not difficult.

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