Deer management is challenging, but attempting to manage deer on small acreage can be down right frustrating. And when I say small acreage, I am referring to properties from 500 acres on down. Simply said, it is very difficult to manage white-tailed deer on small ranches because neighboring properties have a large influence on an area’s deer population. Game-fenced ranches are a different story. But even if you own or hunt small acreage, do not give up just yet. There are still a few things you can do to manage and improve deer in your area.
Question: “I am a new hunter who has access to a small (85 acre) piece of property in Edwards County, Texas. I want to improve the quality of deer on the land that I hunt. Due to the very rocky terrain, food plots are out. I also need information on estrus cycles and need to know if the second and third cycle can degrade the quality of offspring. This land has a large number of 2-3 year old spikes and the buck to doe ratio is about 1 to 10. I am seeking any and all information to improve quality of deer.”
First of all, food plots are great if the land will support them, but they are neither necessary for good deer management, nor a cure-all for poor habitat. Food plots are most important for managers attempting to support deer populations above the carrying capacity of the deer habitat found on their property. Obviously, any supplemental food that can be provided will help deer on a given ranch, but the first goal of any deer management program should be good habitat management. Here is one thing to remember about food plots, especially spring food plots: When you really need them, they will not grow. When they grow, you probably do not need them.
After providing good deer habitat, the next goal of any manager should be to estimate the current deer population. Deer surveys can determine the number of acres of habitat available for each deer. After the deer density is estimated, the manager can determine herd composition and harvest goals. Now, this is where you need to think outside of the property because habitat management and deer surveys will only get you so far. The next component of your small acreage deer management program is harvest management.
I mentioned earlier that it is very difficult to manage deer on less than 500 acres because of the influence of neighboring properties. Small acreage managers must keep in mind that deer have annual home ranges that average about 600 acres or more in size. More often than not, the number one reason management programs fall short is because of heavy harvest pressure on young and middle-aged bucks on neighboring lands. The premature harvest of good, young bucks by neighbors is a morale killer of any ranch’s management program and prevents most landowners or leasees from even attempting any type of deer management.
Although I first mentioned what a small ranch should do to benefit white-tailed deer, the most important step outside of providing good habitat and estimating deer numbers is to contact neighboring ranches. This is good for many reasons and may determine if a small acreage ranch even wants to attempt to manage deer. First, tell surrounding property owners that you are interested in improving the quality of deer. Most land owners are not opposed to better deer. Secondly, ask if they lease out their land or hunt it themselves. If the landowner hunts the property themselves, ask if they would be interested in forming a wildlife cooperative whereby both properties could be managed under a single management program. If the landowner leases out the hunting rights, ask for information so that you can contact the lease coordinator. Most hunters that lease together already have some type of deer harvest rules in place. Simple modifications of harvest strategies may be all that is needed to improve the quality of the area’s deer herd.
Many hunters blame “the neighbors” for shooting everything that walks, so they themselves shoot young bucks believing that if they do not, their neighbors will. This often is not the case, but merely only a way to justify their actions. Communication between neighboring ranches can get everyone on the same page. Most landowners want better quality deer and are open to forming a wildlife management cooperative, but some will have no interest in deer management or simply will not want to be restricted in any way on their property. If this is the case, there is nothing you can do except to continue to contact the owners of the other ranches surrounding your property. It only takes one neighbor with similar goals to increase the area under management by 2 to 20 times.
Many of the issues facing deer management on small acreage ranches have been addressed above. Although the list of issues and solutions is not all-encompassing, the biggest issue is overcoming the lack of land size. Ideally, the best way to manage deer on small properties is to join with neighboring ranches to form wildlife management cooperatives, also known as wildlife management associations. This groups smaller properties into a larger unit and allows for a single, comprehensive management program. Although not a perfect system for overall deer herd management, wildlife cooperatives do provide the best avenue for harvest management on small acreage ranches. I will address the remainder of the readers question in an article later this week.