Year of the Deer Volume 1: Introduction and February/March
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If a deer’s condition, requirements, and priorities remained constant throughout the year, managing a deer herd would be a piece of cake. However, as deer managers we know that the practice of herd management is far from simple. Between the complex tangles of the ever changing environment a whitetail inhabits to the annual anatomical phenomena, a year in a deer’s life can be grueling. As managers, our job is to be able to understand the many different aspects of a whitetail’s annual journey, not just the 5 month hunting season, and create a plan of action to maintain a balance between H3: Herd, Hunter, and Habitat.
In this series of writings, we’ll cover each month of the year from deer herd, deer hunter, and deer habitat perspectives. Since these are articles and not a book, there will often be points that are not mentioned. That does not mean they are not important, however, due to article length constraints only so much can be said. The points mentioned are to give you a general understanding of what is going on with a deer herd and its habitat throughout the year, while also including the view of a deer hunter which is nearly all of us. Burning questions may be answered and new ones may spark. The whitetail’s range will be divided into two general regions: North and South (See Figure 1). The Midwest region will be included in the North, although we may mention it separately, and we will often refer to the South as either Mid-South or Deep South.
This article is meant to deliver a broad view of the annual fluctuations in a “whitetail’s world.” As many of us know, managing a herd is a “balancing act.” Using the monthly information revealed, we’ll wrap up by demonstrating the science behind hunting season timing and annual fluctuations in population size from a biologist’s point of view.
FEBRUARY and MARCH
By the time February rolls around, most deer seasons are in the past, even though some deer herds in the South, particularly those with skewed adult buck to doe ratios
will continue to breed through February and potentially into March. Most hunters have now begun to focus on new challenges like turkeys, but for most serious deer managers, February and March start a new chapter in the management plan…helping my deer make it through until green-up. Across the whitetail’s range, deer have to work to find quality food sources during this time period. Again, this is where food plots become a valuable supplement to native habitat management. However, many of the cool season annuals planted for harvest opportunities are not going to cut it. Choices such as perennial clover or chicory, or corn or soybean left standing will provide deer with precious carbohydrates and/or protein needed to create energy and repair depleted muscles following the Rut. The more high quality nutrition bucks have access to during the winter, the less nutrition they have to put towards body maintenance come spring green-up. In turn, they will put the protein received from new growth plants in the spring straight towards antler development (longer antler growing season can mean larger antlers). During this time of year, many native plants are experiencing a great amount of deer browsing pressure. It’s not uncommon to stroll through the woods in late February and early March, and see noticeable browsing evidence on nearly every woody plant from eye-level height down. This is why it is so critical to manage native habitat during the rest of the year. Food plots are a supplement to the native habitat, and although great, will never replace the native habitat as a deer’s number one food source. If deer are relying solely on your food plots, then your native habitat has probably received permanent damage because there are too many deer in the area.
The North and Midwest experience highest winter kills during the months of February and March. March? Yes, although most think March is the exit of winter (even though some record snow falls have occurred during this month), it is also the last month in the winter succession with very little food, again emphasizing the importance of high quality native habitat. Bucks in the North and South are shedding (cast) their antlers due to lowering levels of testosterone. In some areas bucks will hold their antlers long into April. There are several possibilities to why this occurs from an “out of whack” buck to doe ratio, where does that have not been bred yet are continuing to come into estrous late in the season to just plain out he didn’t knock them off yet (See our blog on The Shed Effect). Soon after losing his antlers, a buck will heal over the open wound at the pedicle — the beginnings of his new set of antlers.
Deer Manager’s Actions Checklist:
- Hinge cuts to bring more browse to deer-level
- Supplemental Feeding (check local regulations)
- Shed Hunting…who made it through?
- Prescribed Burning
- Tree Planting
Next Volume: Year of the Deer — April and May (Coming April 2014)
Originally published at www.buckadvisor.com on February 4, 2014.