Georgia is blessed with a healthy white-tailed deer population that provides diverse recreational opportunities and generates significant economic vitality. However, Georgia’s white-tailed deer herd can present a variety of management challenges as we strive to maintain a sustainable deer population within appropriate biological, ecological, and sociological limits. Properly managing this important resource is critical.
Hunting is the primary tool for managing white-tailed deer and hunting has successfully reduced the statewide deer population from 1.4 million deer in the 1990s to close to 1 million today. This reduction decreased or stabilized the deer population across much of the state resulting in improved habitat conditions, healthier deer, and substantial increases in antler quality. Finally, this success is consistent with the goal established in Georgia’s Deer Management Plan.
Despite this statewide success, there are localized areas that may experience either overabundance or scarcity. Further complicating this issue is the scale at which deer density varies. There may be extreme variations in deer densities within a single county making this issue difficult or impossible to solve through regional or county level regulations on deer harvest. Thus, responsible deer management, individually or collectively, by landowners, hunting clubs and hunters is essential, especially regarding proper doe harvest rates.
It is the responsibility of hunters, clubs, and landowners to establish objectives to manage deer on the property they own, lease, or hunt. Georgia deer hunters, landowners and hunting clubs have differing management objectives. There is no statewide season and bag limit scenario that will satisfy these differing objectives. As such, Georgia’s current statewide regulations provide a framework for landowners and hunting clubs to use when establishing a harvest regime for their specific property(ies). This statewide framework is not site-specific and should never be viewed as such. However, statewide regulations do provide landowners and hunting clubs great flexibility to meet their deer management objectives.
When determining management objectives it is critical to consider property size, habitat conditions, and management of adjacent properties. Hunters often set deer management guidelines on the property they hunt through individual hunter bag limits that can, if hunter density is high, result in overharvest. For example, a 1,500 acre hunting club with 50 members has a density of 1 hunter per 30 acres. With a bag limit of 2 bucks and 3 does, overharvest is likely to occur. With this much hunting pressure, a harvest regime that is more restrictive is likely appropriate.
Considering deer harvest per land area can be an effective way to avoid an unwanted decline in deer density. General guidelines for appropriate doe harvest rates across much of Georgia are: one doe per 75 acres will decrease density, one doe per 150 acres will stabilize density, and one doe per 200 acres will increase density. Keep in mind that these guidelines may not be applicable in all areas of the state and are not a substitute for population monitoring and management, which are critical elements of any successful deer management program.
Technical assistance establishing a management program and biological advice is available to all Georgia hunters. Biologists with the state’s Wildlife Resources Division are available to provide technical guidance on managing deer herds or a private biologist can be hired to develop a management strategy and monitor deer harvest. However, biological recommendations are only as good as the information provided. Better and more extensive objective data result in better recommendations.
Effective deer management requires more work than simply killing deer. At a minimum, records should be kept on each deer harvested (i.e., sex, age, weight, antler measurements). Also, fetal data from late season harvested does and observational records (e.g., antlered bucks seen, does seen, and fawns seen) add greatly to the information used to generate advice and recommendations, although not generally required. Such data is used to establish baselines, monitor the population and adjust property-specific harvest strategies to achieve a desired goal. In many instances, a harvest strategy will be more restrictive than the statewide framework.
Decreases in deer sightings may not always mean a decrease in deer density. Deer movements and behavior are affected by hunting pressure, habitat conditions, predation, and weather. The best advice for deer hunters is to hunt where the deer are rather than where you want the deer to be. More often than not, rainy summers make it a good year to be a deer, but a bad year to be a deer hunter. Failure to adapt to deer movement and feeding patterns affected by abundant rainfall can cause some hunters to believe there is a serious decline in deer numbers in their area.
Wet growing seasons generally produce abundant natural forage and good acorn crops. Deer movement can be very limited when natural forage and acorns are abundant. Deer spend very little time, if any, in and around managed wildlife openings under these conditions. To be successful, hunters must spend more time hunting where the natural browse and acorns are located, or along travel routes leading to and from these natural feeding areas. Knowing the “when’s” and “where’s” of hunting a property makes for a more enjoyable hunting experience.
It is worth considering whether feeding deer is or has altered deer activity patterns, especially when combined with hunting pressure, so that deer are more nocturnal, move less frequently, and are less exposed to harvest. This practice may create a “welfare system” such that deer do not have to “work for a living” locating natural food sources. Thus, deer remain largely sedentary and hidden during legal shooting hours, and get their fill by feeding for a short period of time during the night. This can reduce the number of deer seen and the exposure of deer to harvest. Deer always adapt to their circumstances – hunters should too!
Statewide regulations provide a framework within which landowners and hunting clubs establish a harvest regime for the property they hunt. Either-sex days and bag limits are effective at protecting statewide and regional populations from over-harvest, but they cannot protect every single property from over-harvest. This is the reason site-specific, property-level deer management is critical to a successful deer management program. Ultimately, the solution rests in the hands of Georgia’s deer hunters and their willingness to practice voluntary restraint and responsible deer management.