• Practicing Quality Deer Management

    As October wanes into November, legions of hunters across Grey and Bruce Counties surely have deer on their minds. In just a few days, our local rifle season will open for whitetails, and local bow seasons are already underway. As usual, hunters will be heading into the woods and fields with hopes of harvesting a mature buck, perhaps even the deer of a lifetime.

    Big whitetails cause great excitement in the deer hunting crowds. The harvest of a healthy, big-bodied, heavy-racked buck is often considered the epitome of deer hunting. Yes, a large majority of hunters aim to fill the freezer during deer season with succulent venison, but the idea of harvesting a large buck is often just as intriguing, and the freezer fills quickly with such an animal. Big deer are elusive, like ghosts for many hunters. I have friends who have hunted and successfully harvested for years without wrapping a tag around a mature whitetail buck antler.

    Scientifically speaking, big, mature whitetail bucks are some of nature’s finest creations. The animal has incredible senses, eyes, ears and nose, all working in a fashion that makes our human senses pale in comparison. The animal is a survivor, striving toward the chance to procreate during the rut, the short and intense breeding season of November. During the rut, whitetail bucks let down their guard, often ignoring their survival senses in the name of “love”. This makes them easier prey during daylight shooting hours.

    In Ontario, especially our portion of the province, the annual buck harvest during the fall deer seasons is generally comprised of majority of young bucks, deer ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 years of age. These young deer are often considered reckless in their pursuit of happiness and end up finding their way to the meat pole. In order for a whitetail buck to reach maturity (3.5 years or more) it must evade the sights of hunters and stay on the “down-low” during the busiest times of the fall hunting season.

    In our region of Ontario, it would be safe to say large, mature whitetail bucks make up a small portion of the harvest and a small portion of the whitetail population overall. Why, one may ask? Tag allocations for hunters are generally buck only. Meaning an over-the-counter tag allows the hunter to harvest an antlered buck. Antlerless tags, on the other hand, are draw-based and allow the hunter to harvest a doe instead of a buck. This tends to lead to a harvest more heavily based on buck kills, allowing fewer males of the species to reach maturity.

    Managing a stable population in a deer herd requires the Ministry of Natural Resources to conduct population and harvest estimates and makes use of hunter interaction through survey submissions. With this information the Ministry creates tag allocations in different Wildlife Management Units across the province. The goal is to have hunter-harvest as the main tool to manage the population. In essence, the MNR manages the hunters, which in turn manage the population. Does it work? Yes. For the most part, deer numbers in our region of the province are stable, ideally kept just below the carrying capacity of the environment. We can see that locally as well, with favorable antlerless tag allocations and annual harvest of nearly equal proportions of antlered and antlerless deer. To further combat expanding deer populations in certain WMUs, the MNR can allocate “additional tags” which some of our local units have in an “antlerless form”. Ideally, this helps maintain closer buck to doe ratios in the population. But, managing for stable deer populations is not the same as managing for healthy ones.

    The MNR cannot control buck harvest like they can with the allocation of antlerless seals. With a general deer tag in a hunter’s pocket, he is allowed to harvest practically any buck with a set of antlers. This does not prevent the harvest of young bucks in the population, which just happen to be the most common deer walking around with a set of antlers. Therefore, these deer see some of the highest harvest rates based on the total number of bucks killed each year. Every young buck killed during hunting season results in one less buck becoming a mature specimen in the population. In order to see and harvest more mature bucks, the “management of bucks” falls into the hands of the hunters. Passing on yearling and 2.5 year old antlered deer will allow them to achieve mature status, which coincides with bigger antlers. However, trying to change the mentality of hunters is much more difficult than allocating tags.

    Times are changings though, and the idea of Quality Deer Management has been taking hold over the past decade across North America. The basics of Quality Deer Management focus on a few keys things: habitat management, herd management, hunter management, and herd monitoring. Biologists in North America have devised this formula with the idea that careful management in these four categories would produce the healthiest deer populations. It is important to note that QDM does NOT equate to trophy deer management, and while large bucks are a by-product of the system, its purpose is to contribute to healthy deer herds on a macro or micro scale.

    Our local habitat is not an issue. Our local deer are blessed with high quality food sources in the existence of ample agricultural crops, apples, winter browse, etc. Our herd and hunter management is. The protection of young bucks is the key. Balancing sex ratios in a deer herd through the harvest of does results in more mature bucks, enhanced harvest opportunities, and a more pronounced and intense rutting season; but letting young deer walk during the season in favor of filling a doe tag is a tough decision for many local hunters to make. It is important to acknowledge that this decision is one that will result in larger numbers of mature bucks to harvest down the road.

    There is nothing wrong with the fact that yearling bucks account for a large portion of our local harvest each year. A young buck makes an excellent candidate for the grill, slow cooker, and pan, but those doing the harvesting need to realize that it becomes one less buck to reach its full potential. When a hunter asks “why haven’t I shot a big mature whitetail lately?” the answer isn’t hard to find. Having a more balanced age structure among the bucks in the deer population creates a healthier herd overall. The basics of QDM work, if given the opportunity to succeed. It is not a formula that works instantly however. It is a mentality that needs to be adopted and practiced for some time before results are noticed, say three, four or five years down the road when the age structure of your local deer herd begins to change.

    Many local hunters dream of shooting a big, heavy racked buck that will find a place on the wall. The truth is, it is up to the “hunters” to make the possibility of filling a tag with a mature buck a reality. Whether you are a landowner, hunt on a friend’s property, or ply Crown Land, the decisions you make when filling a tag have a direct effect on the deer you harvest next season. Opting to fill a doe tag instead of harvesting a young buck is a far better option if your goals are to see and shoot more mature bucks at the locations you hunt in the future. This is a proven fact, and one that becomes much more realistic when like-minded hunters begin to practice QDM.

    Many hunters fear that if they pass on a young buck, it may cross onto neighboring properties and be harvested by the next hunter. This is totally possible, but as more hunters become familiar with the basics of management practices and whitetail biology the more they will be apt to let the young deer pass as well. Local hunters who own large portions of good whitetail property can attest to the fact that this approach works. The outstanding buck Chatsworth resident Devon Shute harvested last week in an example. The animal green scores at over 180 antler inches, a true giant in antler size for a mature buck and a harvest which was only possible with his approach to deer hunting. Providing key habitat, and food sources on his modest sized rural property and allowing young bucks to reach maturity were major steps in laying the foundations for the growth of a monster whitetail. His patience paid off.

    Local whitetail enthusiast, Chris Phair, is a Quality Deer Management Association member and student of the QDM regime. The Bruce County native and local taxidermist knows a thing or two about the benefits of practicing QDM. Over the past decade Phair has seen a vast improvement in the age structure of the deer herds he hunts. Chris states “We have seen how preparing and implementing a QDM management plan can significantly improve the quality of your deer herd. We consistently see more deer, healthier deer and a mix of age classes which provides more mature bucks for harvest.”

    Deer season is a great tradition in our area. Grey and Bruce have a history of producing excellent opportunities to fill a deer tag. Our region also has the ability to produce some outstanding whitetail bucks, but only if they get the chance to make it to maturity. Consider making QDM practices part of your hunting repertoire. Whether it be planting food plots, harvesting more does, or letting young bucks walk, the reality of shooting more mature deer lies in the choices you make as a hunter an not necessarily with the MNR. For more information on the vast topic that is QDM, visit www.qdma.ca. Happy hunting!
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