5 Survey Methods for Deer Management

Deer Survey Techniques for Managing Whitetail Populations

It’s nearly impossible to manage a deer population without having some estimate of the number of deer in the area. Annual population estimates can provide valuable information such as herd composition, density and total estimated population. Information gathered from standardized survey techniques can help shape management actions for a property. Even something as basic as annual recruitment (fawn production) varies annually and recruitment is a direct measure of habitat and deer health. This can be measured with a minimal amount of survey effort.

Managing deer herd size alone can be a substantial part of habitat management on any property. After all, too many deer means increased browse utilization, decreased plant diversity, smaller-bodied deer, lower fawn survival and bucks that never reach their full potential for antler growth. In short, the plants and animals found on your hunting property can benefit greatly from you conducting annual surveys.

Deer Survey Techniques for Managing Whitetail Populations

1. Spotlight Surveys – This is the most commonly used method for estimating deer populations. Specifically, this survey technique works best for estimating deer density. It’s best applied to properties larger than 500 acres. It involves setting up a survey route that is (ideally) representative of the property, then conducting night counts at least 3 times prior to the hunting season and recording what you see. Get additional details about using spotlight surveys for deer.

2. Mobile Daylight Surveys – This survey method is often used in conjunction with the spotlight method to supplement herd composition estimates. During spotlight counts, deer are recorded as bucks, does fawns and unidentified deer. As it turns out, many of the deer seen at night are difficult to accurately identify. So although spotlight counts are good for estimating density, they can come up short for estimating the composition of the deer herd if only a small number of animals are identified. Mobile daylight surveys simply involve driving (truck/jeep/UTV) the property during daylight hours with a good pair of binoculars and recording the number of bucks, does and fawns that you see. This will supplement spotlight data (which estimates population size) with the composition of the herd.


3. Stand Counts – This method falls along the same idea as mobile daylight surveys and can be used to supplement spotlight counts, but may be used as a stand-alone technique on smaller properties. Stand count surveys will not estimate deer density, but this method can result in good herd composition estimates prior to or even during the deer hunting season. A lot of data about the deer population can be collected quickly when all stands on a property are filled. Find out more about using stand count surveys for estimating the composition of a deer herd.

4. Camera Surveys – Motion-activated game cameras are very handy devices. Because they work 24-7 they can collect a ton of remote data (photos) that can be used for a variety of things. The only caveat is that you must set the cameras to collect the data you want or you’ll just end up with a ton of pictures. Properly-used cameras provide herd composition estimates and can also estimate deer density. Find out more about using cameras for deer management and how to perform camera surveys for deer.

5. Aerial Surveys – This survey method is not practical for most hunters and land managers, but it makes sense for those managing large blocks of land upwards of 7,500 acres. It does not work well in heavily-forested areas because of limited visibility. Aerial surveys for deer are best performed over more open areas such as grassland-dominated habitats or those comprised of low-shrublands. Helicopters are typically used but small, fixed-winged planes are the right choice for really large properties since they are less expensive. I imagine unmanned drones will be another, less-expensive alternative for deer surveys shortly.

Using Survey Data

It’s important to understand your management goals so that surveys can be used to reach annual objectives. Although each method outlined can provide useful information for making decisions about harvest management, it’s imperative that managers understand the limitations of each. Some techniques can be used to estimate deer density and population size while others will provide composition data only.

Additionally, if surveys are used to estimate density/deer population then the manager needs to have some idea of the deer carrying capacity of the property before knowing whether to decrease or increase fall harvest based on survey results.

Surveys for herd composition estimate buck to doe ratio and fawn to doe ratio. Though this will not estimate total population size, this is information can be used for structuring annual harvest goals. If the buck to doe ratio is estimated to be 1:3 and the goal is 1:2 then more antlerless deer need to be removed. Also, if the habitat and deer herd appears healthy based on body weights then the number of adult deer harvested each year needs to roughly equal the number of fawns recruited into the population each year to keep the population stable. A high number of fawns means a more liberal fall harvest while fewer fawns equates to a more conservative one.


Survey Deer: Get Ready for Deer Season

Better Whitetail Deer Management through Deer Surveys

Most deer hunters start getting “the itch” by the time late summer rolls around. It’s during this time of year that those game camera photos really start to show hunters the potential of bucks on their ranch or hunting property. For the guys with ongoing white-tailed deer management programs it can be very, very exciting to see what those young bucks of years past have transformed themselves into. With the amount of rainfall we’ve received in Texas this year hunters should expect a really good year!

Abundant rainfall throughout in the early part of the year combined with scattered, timely rains throughout the summer have kept much of the deer habitat green and growing. And as most of us in the Lone Star state know, rarely does the ground look green in Texas going into August. All that valuable precipitation has maintained the deer herd in good condition throughout what is typically the summer stress period—but not this year. Continue reading “Survey Deer: Get Ready for Deer Season”

Stand Counts for Surveying White-tailed Deer

Deer Management: Stands Counts to Survey Deer

From the looks of things, Spring has definitely sprung here in Central Texas! Browse plants are putting on new leafy growth and the moisture-rich soil is covered with high-protein forbs. It appears the white-tailed deer found in this part of the world be eating good for some time to come. Let’s just hope the all-important Spring rains come through for the deer habitat this year. So far, so good. Changing subjects now, and I know it’s a long time until deer survey season, but I recently learned of an interesting study taking place out of Texas State University. The research relates to conducting stand surveys to estimate white-tailed deer populations on individual ranches.

First, I’ve never been a huge fan of stand surveys for whitetail, primarily because I feel other deer survey techniques do a better job of estimating deer populations on individual properties. That being said, some properties just do not lend themselves to being surveyed any other way, so even a low-confidence estimate is better than no estimate at all. In the mentioned study, a high-fenced pasture with a known number of marked white-tailed deer was used. Five deer stands and 5 timed spin-feeders filled with corn were placed within the pasture and were located approximately 1/2 mile from one another, creating a hunting scenario similar to many Texas ranches where deer are hunted. Continue reading “Stand Counts for Surveying White-tailed Deer”

Late Summer: Time for Deer Surveys

When do you survey deer? Late summer! 

Late summer is not just a stress period for wildlife, its also the time of year to survey white-tailed deer! If you regularly perform surveys on your property, you know the importance of conducting annual population estimates. For those of you that do not, surveys allow deer managers to get a snapshot of the local deer population just prior to hunting season. Without this information, it’s difficult to make harvest recommendations that fall in line with your management objectives.

The first piece of data you need going into the fall is a deer density estimate, or how many acres are available for each deer.  In central Texas, where I am located, a good rule of thumb is to 8 to 10 acres of good deer habitat per deer. Free-choice supplemental feeding can drop that to about 6 acres per deer, but one thing to keep in mind is that typically as deer density goes up the quality of individual deer goes down.

The best way to estimate deer density is to perform spotlight surveys. The information collected during spotlight surveys not only includes the number of deer spotted during the census, but also the amount of acreage that was actually observed during the survey. For example, if you have a ranch that is 1,000 acres, you can visually see 200 acres during your census, and you count 20 deer, then you have 100 deer on your property. Without good visibility data the spotlight count data will be worthless. Continue reading “Late Summer: Time for Deer Surveys”

Conducting Aerial Surveys for White-tailed Deer

Conducting Aerial Surveys for White-tailed Deer

Aircraft, including both helicopter and airplanes, can be effectively used to obtain deer density, sex ratios, fawn survival, and deer distribution information in some portions of the US. Although more expensive to conduct than the spotlight and mobile deer surveys, the aerial survey does provide the necessary population data in a short time frame. This information can be utilized to provide harvest recommendations for the entire ranch, as well as individual pastures. So, does a helicopter survey make sense for your deer management program?

The helicopter survey is considered by some to be the most accurate census for determining populations on a given unit of land. However, the total number of deer recorded on helicopter surveys should not be considered a complete count of all deer. Studies indicate that accuracy of helicopter surveys in South Texas brushland is fairly consistent, but they can underestimate deer density by 60-70%!

As a result, the information gathered from this type of survey should be used only as population trend information and for the preparation of annual harvest recommendations with the understanding that the deer density figures are probably conservative.

Helicopter Surveys

For aerial surveys using a helicopter, surveys should start approximately 15 to 30 minutes after sunrise. On ranches with dense vegetation and/or hills, it is recommended to start at least an hour or more after sunrise due to shadows. Of course, the drawback to starting later is that deer movement is reduced — so you need to keep some of these factors in mind and make sure that survey techniques are consistent over time. Continue reading “Conducting Aerial Surveys for White-tailed Deer”