NEW ORLEANS – So you're a member of a Louisiana deer-hunting club, and your harvest numbers are down. You and your lease mates used to see deer on just about every hunt, but now you're excited if you run across a decent-sized track.
What's the smartest thing to do at that point?
If your lease is like just about every other in the state, your fellow hunters will begin to push for tighter restrictions on doe harvest because, after all, more does mean more fawns, which means better deer hunting in the future.
Well, according to the Quality Deer Management Association, that may be the absolute worst thing you can do. The organization published an article authored by John Donoughe and Mike Wolf that demonstrates the best course of action when deer numbers decline is often to blast away at the critters.
Seems counterproductive and, at a minimum, counterintuitive, but some knowledgeable deer researchers have demonstrated remarkable improvements in herd size and health by implementing the strategy.
It's germane now since the calendar has turned to August and Louisiana hunters are beginning to improve their woods and set their regulations and strategies for the rapidly approaching season.
The authors admit their strategy is seldom a popular one, particularly with veteran hunters who remember when deer numbers were a fraction of what they are today.
"For decades, traditional hunters have resisted the message of wildlife biologists: When habitat condition is poor, the number of deer often needs to be reduced and maintained at a low level," the authors state. "Only after the habitat improves should deer populations be permitted to rebound."
The problem is that deer will literally eat themselves out of house and home. Their numbers often balloon beyond healthy carrying capacity, and the land simply can't sustain them. Over time, these outsized populations so degrade the habitat that it cannot recover without removing the pressure.
Overbrowsing is often easily spotted by a trained deer biologist, but it can easily be missed by unknowledgeable hunters. They look around and see plenty of green in the woods, and reason there must be plenty for the deer to eat.
But biologists know which plants within a specific tract are desirable, which are undesirable and which are completely unpalatable. They conduct browse surveys to determine the impacts of deer on each within certain transects on the property. If desirable browse is mostly untouched, they know there's some growth potential available in the herd. If the undesirable stuff is heavily browsed, however, they know the population really needs to be whacked.
According to the authors, there are five degrees of browsing: not browsed, light (less than 50 percent of stems browsed), moderate (more than 50 percent of stems browsed), heavy (severely hedged, taller than 6 inches) and severe (severely hedged, 6 inches or shorter).
"If you've ever watched unspooked deer browse in good forested habitat, you've witnessed one of nature's most delicate dances," the authors write. "Deer will feed along slowly, typically into the wind. Their heads bob as they snip off the end buds of trees and shrubs. Their near-constant forward movement distributes browse impact over the landscape. As a deer moves along, nipping an end bud here and there, the impact on individual trees is negligible.
"In degraded habitats, available browse is nearly nonexistent. When a deer finds a morsel within reach, the hungry deer stops and eats every available bud. The result to the tree can be death or 'hedging' -- a disfiguring result of repeated browsing."
Plants that are sustaining heavy or severe browsing can't regenerate enough to feed the population, and they won't do so until the browsing pressure is removed. That's most effectively accomplished at the end of hunters' gun barrels.
"In such conditions, the habitat can get locked in a downward spiral unless managers take corrective action," the authors write. "This may include intensive forest management and providing supplemental forage in addition to judicious antlerless harvests."
Therein lies the rub. Few hunters are studied enough to understand the link between habitat degradation and declining populations. They try to reduce the harvest, which actually has the opposite effect than intended.
For Louisiana hunters, there are two resources that can help. First, biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will often come out and conduct browse surveys on large tracts in the state. The biologists can make very educated guesses about how close your herd is to your land's carrying capacity, and can further recommend what type of harvest protocol your club should implement to meet your management objectives. Everybody wants to grow 160-inch bucks, and lots of them, but that may not be realistic on your tract. The biologists will tell you what IS realistic.
Secondly, every Louisiana hunter should acquire the Checklist of Woody & Herbaceous Deer Food Plants of Louisiana written by former Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Deer Study Leader David Moreland. The book discusses virtually every plant consumed by deer in Louisiana, and includes photos to help identify them. Use it in your tract of woods, and you'll see things you had never noticed before.
The book is available through LDWF.