May 16, 2011
A stable herd, with an improving population of quality bucks, spells good news for Florida whitetail deer hunters.
Citrus groves and other agricultural areas often produce the best bucks.
For whitetail deer hunters, the good old days are here right now. In fact, according to the Boone and Crockett
Club, keeper of big-game hunting records for nearly a century, almost half of the total whitetail entries have been submitted since 1984, with almost 20 percent of them being submitted since 1992.
Those figures are, of course, nationwide. It takes an impressive whitetail to make the 200-class minimum required score, based on B&C's antler measurement system. Under even the best of circumstances Florida does not produce that grade of deer, and only one Florida buck has ever made the Boone and Crockett Registry. That doesn't mean, however, that things aren't looking up here as well.
“Traditionally, the average 10-point [antler tips] buck from the Northwest region will score in the 110- to 120-point range,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologist Arlo Kane, who has been working that region for 14 years. “But, for some reason I scored more 130 to 140 class bucks during the 2004/05 season than I have in past seasons.”
|Quality Hunts for the Public
|Not every hunter has access to well-managed private lands. But, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Special Opportunity hunts can provide that experience.Begun about eight years ago, the Special Opportunity areas are carefully selected based upon size, access, and only after a comprehensive herd survey determines the area has quality bucks.
Given their limited number and access restrictions, the FWC can establish management plans similar to those used by private hunt clubs. This may include a four point to a side antler rule, and the harvesting of does where required.
Hunters are selected via a lottery drawing and a special fee is required. Not all hunters will be drawn, as access is limited—just like a private hunt club.
Those who are selected may find the same quality experience James Stovall did in 1999 when he harvested a 200 point non-typical buck during a Special Opportunity archery hunt in Green Swamp.
For further information on Special Opportunity hunts, visit www.myfwc.com.
The Florida Panhandle is our state's top deer region, and the fact that it seems to be producing a better class of bucks is welcome news. On a statewide level, the whitetail situation is—at the very least—stable.
“We don't have published estimates as to the size of the statewide whitetail herd,” explained Dr. John Morgan, who until April of this year was the FWC state whitetail coordinator. “One of the reasons for that is because, unlike many other states, we don't have a statewide check system. Many Wildlife Management Areas do, but private lands don't.”
Morgan said the FWC does conduct an end-of-year survey by mail, to estimate the annual harvest and determine population trends. Those population trends are one of the best indicators of the health of the deer herd, he explained.
“Our surveys show us that for the last three years the estimated harvest has been steady at about 118,000 deer each year,” said Morgan. “During that same period the number of hunter days has remained very constant. That would indicate the statewide deer herd, overall, is very stable.”
In an age when habitat loss and increased development are among Florida's hottest topics, a stable deer herd that shows signs of actually producing better bucks may seem unlikely. However, there is a logical reason for it, and private landowners are playing a major role.
There has been a significant amount of research into whitetail deer management during the last 20 years. That data is easy to obtain, and private land managers are now gaining the knowledge they need to maximize the potential of the deer herds on their land. Basically, a buck can't develop a quality antler rack if it doesn't have the required nutrition to build its body. Even with a good diet, it takes time to develop the rack. Very few 2-year-old deer will have as impressive a rack as they will at age five or six.
Check station at a Wildlife Management Area records deer harvest data. This helps biologiests adjust reguatlions to improve the deer herd.
Nutrition and age structure are keys to producing quality racks. Genetics also plays a role, but among biologists there is some dispute as to how large a role it may play when private landowners undertake a herd management plan. An additional factor that has been somewhat controversial is working to achieve a more balanced ratio between bucks and does. In effect, this means harvesting more does and some traditional hunters balk at this approach. According to many biologists, however, they shouldn't.
“If you have ten does who have been bred you are likely to see half of the fawns be bucks and half of them does,” says Kane. “In a natural herd balance—in the absence of any hunting pressure—you are going to have a buck to doe ratio of somewhere around 1-to-1 to 1-to-2. Some bucks will die in fights with other bucks over breeding rights, so a 1-to-1 ratio wouldn't be as likely as a 1-to-2 ratio.”
Age is a key factor in producing quality racks, as the sheds in successive years from this buck at a research facility at Auburn University show. It was a good buck at 2.5 years, and an exceptional when it reached 4.5.
“Traditional deer management,” Kane continues, “basically a bucks-only hunting strategy, creates an artificial herd structure that results in a very unbalanced sex ratio among the deer. This is not a natural situation and really creates a lot of stress among the younger bucks. These are 1- and 2-year-old deer that need to spend their first three years of life building their bodies before they can apply that nu
trition to their antlers. In a herd with a natural balance that is what they do because the older 4- to 6-year-old bucks—the dominant bucks—aren't going to let them do much breeding, so they aren't wasting any energy and can achieve their potential growth. When the herd is seriously unbalanced, and the older bucks harvested, those younger bucks will do the breeding and the resulting energy depletion and stress from fighting among themselves depletes their energy reserves to the point where they can't really recover and they stay constantly stressed. They can never really catch up with their normal growth, and never reach their potential.
“When you put the deer herd into a more natural balance,” Kane continued, “the younger bucks benefit because the dominant bucks won't let them breed and they can then put their energy into growing their bodies and antlers to become dominant bucks when the older ones pass on. It takes about three years for a young buck to reach his potential, and that's why you seldom see a quality deer below age 3 1/2 years of age. Those are the deer that will become the future dominant bucks, but only if they have a less stressful environment to reach that age.
“If you want a better class of bucks and a healthier deer herd you normally need to harvest more does in order to bring the sex ratio down. Unfortunately, that is not something you can do on many public lands where the actual harvest number can be rigidly controlled. Unless you can determine how many does need to be harvested, and stick to that number, you run the risk of damaging the deer herd. This is where private landowners and hunt clubs have made a significant contribution to the deer herd in my area. We can, and do, assist them in management plans that can tell them what harvest figures they need and they can control that.”
Hunt clubs in Northwest Florida have begun to embrace that management concept, and Kane notes that during the last season there were 683 individual clubs in his region that participated in the FWC's antlerless deer management program. That figure is about twice as many clubs as the rest of the state combined. When that is added to a management plan that places antler point restriction on bucks, thereby preventing the harvest of most 2-year-old deer, the quality of the deer improves. So too, do their numbers.
|And the Top Ten Are....
|Top ten Florida Wildlife Management Areas which have yielded the most deer over the past two seasons:• Ocala
• Big Cypress
• Bluewater Creek
• Three Lakes
• Joe Budd
• Camp BlandingTop ten counties, based upon the number of deer entered into the Florida Buck Registry during the last two years:
“There is no doubt in my mind that the deer herd in the Northwest region is expanding,” says Kane. “In addition to seeing better bucks, the number of deer depredation complaints we have received from agricultural interests over the last couple of years has skyrocketed, and that is a sure sign of an expanding whitetail population.”
Other regions of the state are not so blessed. But, some recent changes in regulations will benefit a number of areas.
“It takes the right combination of soil and nutrition to produce good deer,” explains Dr. Morgan, “and not all areas of the state have that. The Northwest is our best region, and about a third of our deer are harvested there. The inland counties along the spine of the state are also good habitat. The coastal regions and the South Region are not as productive. For example, we only have about 5,000 deer a year harvested in the South Region. But, we have made some regulation changes on some WMAs that we feel will improve those herds.”
A key change occurred during the 2004/05 season when selected WMAs began requiring three antler points (at least one inch in length) instead of the previous “forked horn” requirement.
Most Florida hunters associate quality bucks like this with one private lands. Bus some state management areas are developing the potential.
“For many years,” said Morgan, “we only had a 5-inch spike length rule as the minimum size, and that is still in effect in many areas. That was changed on some management areas to a forked horn rule that was in effect for a number of years and still is on some. But, what we found was that on WMAs that had the potential to produce good bucks the forked horn rule was only protecting about two-thirds of the yearlings. What we were doing was harvesting the yearlings with the best antler potential and leaving the average bucks. Still, that was a step in the right direction to improve the age structure of the deer and started the improvement trend we are seeing today. “
“Last season,” Morgan said, “we changed that regulation on selected WMAs to a three point on one side rule. That will protect about 90 percent of the yearlings. We found, through surveys, that the majority of hunters did support our efforts to improve the quality of the bucks. The three point rule will do that, since not every three point deer will be harvested each season. A good percentage won't be, and this will allow us to build the reservoir of better quality—dominant bucks—that will benefit the entire herd.”
Not all WMAs will see that change. Nor, is it necessarily desired.
“We have a diverse array of terrain throughout our state WMA system,” Morgan noted, “and a diverse array of hunters and hunting styles. The FWC tries to provide as broad an array of opportunities as possible to accommodate the desires of the hunters. This means that we will continue to have different regulations and season lengths on various WMAs so that if one doesn't appeal to a particular hunter, there will be one within driving distance that does. That is one of the nice things, in my opinion, about Florida, and I see no reason why the FWC can't continue to provide an array of options and a stable deer herd.” FS
First Published Florida Sportsman October 2005