Does Culling Work in Free Range Whitetail Deer Management?


June 13, 2018 in AFM News

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Written by Matt Taylor, Certified Wildlife Biologist-American Forest Management, Inc. Groveton TX Office

 

It is no surprise that the Whitetail is King in North America.  The continued increase in whitetail deer hunting and management is fun to watch and has increased the quality of whitetail deer harvested each year.  According to Boone and Crockett Club, whitetail record book entries have increased 400% in the last 30 years.  This is a direct correlation to an increase in deer management objectives across the nation, as well as, increased numbers and popularity of America’s favorite ungulate.  The increase in quality organizations such as the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) and state game and fish regulations have made deer hunters better informed on how to manage their deer herds.  Access to information via the internet has also provided hunters and managers a quick and easy way to obtain quality information pertaining to whitetail deer management.  However, an increase in quality science based information is not the only information available online; uninformed and wrong information is also shared.  Outdated and conflicting information is misinterpreted as correct information and implemented in some cases.  At times, this makes it difficult for hunters to know what is accurate and what is false.  One of the most perpetuated and confusing topics is the implementation of “culling” when harvesting whitetail bucks.  “Culling” is the new buzz word and has become the most overused and misused term in deer hunting circles. It seems like everyone has an opinion on when to harvest certain bucks that may be less desirable to hunters.  In my personal experience and professional opinion as a Wildlife Biologist, the overuse/misuse of this practice of “culling” has been increasing every year.  I oversee over 400 industrial forest land hunting clubs and I am often asked the question, Does it work? by hunters.  Club members and managers worry themselves into a frenzy trying to determine whether they should implement a “culling program” or “cull” certain deer.  Well I have a simple and quick response to this question…it does not work. 

Typically hunting lease members and hunters are surprised by my opinion and often disagree. Many argue how it has worked for other ranches; although, rarely have evidence to support this reasoning.  Information, such as ranch harvest strategies, population dynamics, or any other detailed management data is typically not shared or unknown.  Rebuttals typically take several directions with many questions asked; What if inferior bucks breed and pass on those genes? Will the inferior bucks will ever grow into game worth harvesting? Will the bucks in question score well?  Most of the time culling programs simply over-harvest bucks and they are typically not mature at the age of harvest.  There is no advantage to this practice and, in most cases, hurts the buck segment of the herd.  

What if they breed and pass on their genes? This thought and argument is prolific throughout the whitetail deer’s range and is typically based on anecdotal hunter testimonies on how culling has worked for XYZ ranch but rarely based on actual science.  This thought process is not necessarily the hunters fault but usually based on outdated theories.  There was a time in the evolution of deer management (before the advent of GPS tracking collars and genetic testing) when managers felt like older mature bucks did the majority of the breeding during the rut each fall.  Most felt that large, dominate, and mature bucks were able to dominate the breeding cycle and prevent younger bucks from participating.  More recently peer-reviewed science-based studies have revealed that there is no evidence to support this theory.  Bucks in all age classes are able to breed with multiple does each and every year; therefore, dispersal of genetic material is occurring across the age/size gradient.  Another factor that most hunters forget or fail to realize is the immigration and emigration of juvenile bucks on properties.  Juvenile bucks tend to disperse, to prevent inbreeding, to seek less competition, and/or to search for better resources. So, managers and hunters usually end up feeling frustrated with lack of results when they attempt to manage their herd based on a static herd.  Therefore, when hunters/managers tell me they need to harvest certain deer before the deer breeds, I explain the deer has been breading since he was 1.5 old and in some case 0.5 years old.  So, in most cases hunters are deciding on whether to harvest a buck typically at 3.5 years old or older. Therefore, the “cull” buck they are wanting to prevent from breeding has been breeding multiple does for multiple years and passing along genetic material throughout this time.  This also doesn’t account for antler quality affected by other factors, such as, injuries or environmental factors. Harvesting a deer simply because hunters want to prevent the spread of a certain genetic antler trait is futile on low fence free range conditions and will become a very frustrating endeavor for deer hunters and deer managers. It simply doesn’t work.  If cull is the most overused and misused word in deer hunting, genetics is the second.  Most deer hunters and managers fail to understand that 50% of a buck’s genetic make-up is obtained by the doe and there is no way to tell what genes the doe possesses… good or bad.  >span class="eop"> 

The second most common reason for culling certain deer or starting a culling program is, That buck will never be anything special.  This determination is usually made when the buck is not mature and still has a lot of growing to do.  This typically leads to harvesting too many younger age class bucks without knowing or seeing their true potential.  There is no doubt that a percentage of bucks on a property will never reach monster status, however, if harvested too young hunters are eliminating all chances of full maturity.  We really have no way of what that buck has encountered or endured in a given year that may have led to less than desirable antler characteristics.  When in doubt, let him walk and see what happens, you may be pleasantly surprised.  Harvesting a mature whitetail is a great and difficult achievement regardless of his antler score.

Lastly, although not as prevalent, some deer hunters will harvest deer based on the number of points the buck has. This idea of thought is if all deer with the 6 points or less are harvested, the bigger bucks with greater than 6 points will thrive and the herd dynamic will change. This theory rarely, if ever, works on free range properties and tends to increase the number of immature bucks harvested on a property.  In East Texas, deer hunting leases and management have been going on for decades and some free range clubs have been “culling” deer based on the number of points a buck has at a certain age.  This typically occurs with 3.5+ year old 6 points or as some clubs call them “river bottom” six points.  One club established in the 1950’s has been harvesting these “cull” bucks for over 40 years and, to their frustration, continue to harvest these deer without evidence of any effect on antler point structure.  There is nothing wrong with harvesting bucks based on the number of points if they are mature. However, be aware that it will not entirely eliminate those antler characteristics from the property.  

What does this mean for hunters and lease managers trying to perform quality deer management on their property?  The best course of action is to manage your buck harvest based on age and numbers.  Only harvest mature deer off of your property regardless of the deer’s antler characteristics and only harvest the number of mature bucks your property can support.  Determine the carrying capacity of your land and adjust your harvest strategies to keep your herd within that carrying capacity. This will have to be achieved from an adequate antlerless harvest.  Control what you can, which is habitat and food.  Look into supplemental free choice feed stations, year round food plots, bedding cover and reduce pressure. Most importantly, understand that it takes time and that the percentage of bucks in a population will follow a bell shaped curve with the largest percentage of the bucks falling somewhere in the middle.  This means the highest percentage of your bucks will be in the 120” – 140” Boone and Crockett score range.  Celebrate when you grow a buck that exceeds this range but appreciate all harvested mature bucks.  Remember, what may be a “cull” to you or your hunters may be a trophy to others!

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