College Football Playoffs of Deer Science

College football games should all be played at night so I can catch them after I’m back in deer camp.

Seriously, why must two of our nation’s greatest pastimes – deer hunting and college football – collide like they often do? On Saturday afternoons in fall, I know I can check the score on my smartphone while keeping my ears open for sounds of hoof steps in dry leaves. But I much prefer to return to camp after dark, build a fire, get the game on the radio, and listen while my partners and I enjoy a beverage, prepare supper and maybe pack a cooler with venison — interrupted at times to freeze, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, listening to hear if the receiver caught that Hail Mary in the end zone.

Before the rut nears or the Heisman race heats up, while you’re still reading sportswriter rankings of the top-10 quarterbacks, defenses or receivers, recall this: These teams represent educational institutions. Some of these institutions study deer. And some of them house both great football programs and great deer laboratories.

I’ve been covering collegiate whitetail research since around the last time Tennessee won an SEC Championship, long enough to write about great deer science conducted by student researchers who are now professors leading new students. I got the crazy idea to break into the press box, steal a sportswriter hat and have fun with a football-style analysis of current deer research. Hopefully you’ll have a little fun, too.

First, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should reveal I attended the University of Georgia (UGA). However, I graduated from the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism & Mass Communication, not the Daniel B. Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources, home of the UGA Deer Lab. Therefore, in the name of fairness, objectivity and journalistic ethics… Go Dawgs!

The Bed & Breakfast Bowl

Let’s go straight to the scrimmage line with a bowl prediction. If you want healthier, more abundant deer, you need to supply their bed and breakfast 365 days a year. Thus, research that advances our knowledge of deer habitat improvement is a critical area.

Texas A&M-Kingsville (TAMUK) regularly turns out quality habitat science, especially on techniques and plant species unique to the southwest. Mississippi State University (MSU) has amassed decades of work on the relationships between soil quality and deer, forest management techniques that promote deer forage, and the benefits of prescribed fire.

A third school, though, will collect this bowl trophy. Dr. Craig Harper runs a championship program in habitat research at the University of Tennessee (UT). As UT’s Extension Wildlife Specialist, Craig and his team focus their research on answering questions with a practical benefit for hunters and habitat managers: comparing food plot forages, studying the practical uses of herbicides, developing new techniques for managing early successional cover, and more. Craig has debunked a lot of habitat “wisdom” that once burdened the deer world. Does fertilizer make acorns sweeter or more abundant? (No). Can you use prescribed fire safely in hardwoods? (Yes). Because he worked as a wildlife technician with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission in between earning degrees at Western Carolina, UNC-Wilmington and Clemson, Craig has a passion for knowledge of use to hunters. As a result, the Volunteers rule habitat research.

The Tennessee Volunteers lead the nation in deer habitat research thanks to Dr. Craig Harper and his student-scientists, who focus their work on practical guidance for food plotters and forest managers. Here, Craig teaches a QDMA Deer Steward course on habitat management.

The Land Grant Advantage

The bigger, older, most prolific deer research programs are generally found at land grant universities – recipients of finances and acreage bestowed by federal grants. And at many of these larger schools, professors are incentivized to publish more research. However, unlike football, groundbreaking deer research can occur at any school where at least one student – a walk-on, if you will – has a scientific question they want to answer and a passion for their subject.

“Every now and then in football you have a school that’s not ranked go way up the ladder,” said Dr. Grant Woods, a private wildlife consultant. “Every now and then in the deer world we get a paradigm shift in our knowledge because someone did great science and didn’t have the advantage of shirt-tailing off decades of work. I get excited about that.”

Despite its long-term dominance of football, the Tide doesn’t roll into the whitetail’s range.

Grant was himself one of the few people to ever conduct deer research at Missouri State University, where he earned his master’s. He went on to earn his Ph.D. from Clemson. Neither school is among the giants of deer research (You can’t have it all, Tiger fans). At smaller programs where funding and resources are slim, a motivated student and a supportive professor willing to work outside their normal turf are required.

But not every big, land grant university has a deer research program. Other key ingredients include a supportive administration and an inspired, motivated professor who builds the program, constructs a team and seeks the funding to ensure the program’s continued success beyond that professor’s tenure.

College football is lucrative. Deer research is costly. A modern GPS tracking collar, like the one being attached to this buck by North Carolina State researchers, costs thousands (N.C. State actually borrowed this one from the University of Tennessee). This is why QDMA helps where it can by seeking grants and directing funds to studies with the potential to help deer hunters and protect whitetail populations.

Recruiting & Transfers

At times we might cry over the loss of a great athlete who leaves college early for the NFL Draft or fear the retirement or transfer of a great coach. But in general, college athletes and coaches are more anchored than their counterparts in the deer world. Tracing the movements of deer researchers from university to university is about as difficult as finding a buck in his home range during the rut without a GPS collar. Many of the nation’s most well known deer scientists earned their many degrees at as many different schools. UGA’s Dr. Karl V. Miller, for example, went from Penn State to Ohio State to UGA to collect all his degrees. Dr. Duane Diefenbach got to Penn State by way of Washington State University, the University of Maine, and UGA. All this cross-pollination of research institutions is a good thing for deer research and – ultimately – deer hunters.

The Signpost Communications Bowl

There’s little point in scientific discovery if the information is rarely shared outside the ivory towers of academia. This game is a showcase for programs that use modern digital communication to pass their knowledge to deer hunters.

Penn State brings a strong offense to this field. Their enormous, ongoing Deer-Forest Study – which is tracking deer and forest health on large public hunting areas in Pennsylvania – includes built-in tools for keeping hunters informed of the project in real time. Online updates are posted regularly on the Deer-Forest Blog, including inside looks at the daily lives of deer researchers. A Twitter account, e-mail newsletter, videos and webinars add to their yardage.

Collegiate deer research today is dominated by Southern schools. But it’s important to understand the ball game is played a little differently in the North.

But the Nittany Lions face an opponent with a devastating passing game. The Bulldogs of the MSU Deer Lab produce their own educational podcast called Deer University, create videos for their YouTube channel, post informative blogs, and maintain active social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Their audiences and reach surpass that of many for-profit outdoor communicators. They even have mobile apps! Moreover, their content is crafted with hunters in mind and aimed at helping them improve hunting success, herd management and habitat.

Head coach Dr. Steve Demarais runs a great program, but it’s his offensive coordinator, Dr. Bronson Strickland, who earned this invite (and who was recently named QDMA’s Professional Deer Manager of the Year). As Mississippi’s Extension Wildlife Specialist, it’s Bronson’s job to put reliable information in the hands of the state’s hunters. The winner of this one is not in doubt. Hail State! (The one in Mississippi.)

Hunting’s Heisman

If there’s an equivalent for collegiate athletes of deer science, it’s the Outstanding Student Presentation Award at the Southeast Deer Study Group (SEDSG) meeting. No other event provides a larger exposition of student deer research from around the nation. Since 1996, the leader with the most of these trophies is UGA with 10, followed closely by MSU with eight. Texas A&M-College Station holds three, and one each belongs to Penn State, Tennessee and Texas Tech.

Texas Tech is noteworthy here. That 1996 award, the first ever, went to Billy Lambert Jr., who studied protein requirements in fawns. Today, Billy is a private lands biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Back then, his professor at Texas Tech was Steve Demarais, who in 1997 returned to his alma mater and continued Dr. Harry Jacobson’s work of building the powerhouse at MSU.

In addition to the live presentation award, since 2010 an award has been given for the best student poster. TAMUK leads this group with four, MSU and the University of Delaware have two each, Texas A&M-College Station has one, and UGA recently scored its first.

Speaking of Delaware, though small, this program turns out the best current deer research in the Colonial Athletic Association, like the fawn-survival work by Justin Dion and yearling-buck survival study by Dr. Jacob Haus featured in recent issues of Quality Whitetails. Their coach, Dr. Jake Bowman, is a product of MSU.

Editor’s Note: This section has been updated to correct an error in award distribution between the Kingsville and College Station campuses of Texas A&M University.

The most recent “Heisman” winner for deer research is Moriah Boggess (right) of Mississippi State University, shown here with his former MSU professor Dr. Marcus Lashley. Moriah’s master’s research focuses on prescribed fire, deer density and tick abundance.

The Whitetail Watch List

Despite its long-term dominance of football, the Tide doesn’t roll into the whitetail’s range. If not for Auburn, there would be no mention of the Yellowhammer State in this article. Somebody needs to take Saban hunting. We need every new hunter we can recruit, and as a Dawg fan I’d love to see him spend time in the woods on fall Saturdays.

Under Dr. Steve Ditchkoff, Auburn has steadily contributed a lot of important deer knowledge for years. Now, the Tigers are cranking things up a notch or two with the recent addition of Dr. Will Gulsby to the coaching staff. Will earned his master’s and Ph.D. at UGA, and he’s an experienced communicator who has been writing for QDMA audiences and other outlets since he was studying coyote predation of fawns as a grad student.

Auburn university’s 430-acre deer research facility in Alabama is one of the largest of its kind among schools that study whitetails. Monet Gomes (top,left) captured this buck at the facility with the help of fellow wildlife students Jessica Colbaugh, Sarah Cain and Elizabeth Hancock. Monet is studying testosterone cycles in bucks throughout rut phases.

Another school that recently landed a big recruit is Virginia Tech, which produced renowned deer researchers like Harry Jacobson, now retired from MSU, and Dr. Dave Guynn, now retired from Clemson, among others. Since those days, the Hokies have maintained a modest output of deer research. Dr. Mike Cherry – another Karl Miller protege from UGA – is now in charge.

Looking further down the road, my eye is now on the University of Florida. The Gators have just landed a huge recruiting win. Dr. Marcus Lashley has left the MSU Deer Lab to jump-start Florida’s deer program. Marcus earned his bachelor’s at North Carolina State, his master’s at UT, and his Ph.D. at MSU. He’s shown a passion for useful, cutting-edge deer habitat research – think of “mineral stumps” and “bow-range burning.” Much as I hate a Gator, deer hunters benefit when more schools have active deer labs. Like Will and Mike, Marcus carries the spark of big-name programs to a new school’s staff.

The NFL Draft

Student deer researchers “go pro” in a number of ways, such as private consulting and wildlife agency biology. Some rise to become agency Deer Project Leaders – the statewide chief in charge of deer hunting and management. We asked Deer Project Leaders in every whitetail state to tell us where they earned their degrees. Most had multiple degrees from different colleges, so I tallied the total number of degrees contributed by various schools: 40 different schools were responsible for 65 degrees held by the 34 Deer Project Leaders who responded. They collectively hold 34 bachelor’s, 26 master’s and five Ph.D.s.

UGA is in the lead with eight degrees dispersed among five Deer Project Leaders. The University of New Hampshire contributed four degrees among three leaders. Contributing three degrees each were Auburn, N.C. State (two of which were doctorates), Penn State and Utah State (one doctorate). Two degrees each were attributed to seven schools: Brigham Young, Florida, Iowa State, Eastern Kentucky, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, MSU and Ohio State. The remaining 27 schools contributed one degree each. Much like in the NFL, it takes a lot of college teams to fuel professional deer biology.

The Big-10 Conference

It’s a fact you can see in the numbers: Collegiate deer research today is dominated by Southern schools. But it’s important to understand the ball game is played a little differently in the North. Much of past deer research was conducted by state wildlife agencies who had the need, the funding and the facilities. John Ozoga, the prolific deer researcher from Michigan, now retired, was not an academic scientist but an employee of Michigan DNR.

“Deer management was born in the North,” said Karl Miller. “They were 50 years ahead of us in deer restoration, but because of their hunter and deer numbers and the amount of hunting that takes place on public land, agencies had to approach deer management differently. A lot more of their biologists were actually research biologists. Down here, more agency research is funneled though the schools.”

Lately, state and federal agencies are collaborating more with major northern universities to answer big questions. Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Gophers are now playing important roles in CWD research given their proximity to outbreak areas affecting their own deer herds. Collaboration now occurring throughout the Big-10 – and including prion disease experts at Cornell, Case Western Reserve and Colorado State – may end up being some of the most important work happening today where the future of whitetails is concerned.

Two other schools in the Big-10 are clearly bound for the conference championship, though. Michigan State, led by Dr. Bill Porter, focuses on big-picture issues that are reshaping conservation, such as changing land-use patterns, emerging diseases, and climate. Bill’s students were well into a major study of deer population dynamics in suburban Meridian Township when, in 2015, CWD was discovered there. Researchers shifted gears and redirected the study to look at deer movements and population dynamics in a CWD area and learn the most effective methods for managing the outbreak.

“That has enabled us to put GPS collars on 180 deer to date, and we’ll reach 250 this fall,” said Bill. “So, some of the most exciting stuff I’ve done in my career is happening right now. I’m sorry it’s CWD, because we’re up against some really serious problems, but we are in a position to make huge contributions to the science of managing CWD in deer.”

Football pads would be best, but hockey goalie masks were adequate protection for these Penn State student scientists who had to enter traps and carefully subdue non-tranquilized, wild deer for collaring and data collection.

The other school in this playoff you know from the Signpost Communications Bowl. This year is Duane Diefenbach’s 20th with Penn State. Like other deer programs in the Big-10, Penn State’s deer research mission is to help partner agencies answer important management questions. Those partners include the USGS, Pennsylvania Game Commission and the Bureau of Forestry. Though these partners help steer the agenda, the resulting knowledge helps deer hunters. Much of what we know about yearling-buck dispersal comes from Penn State. Dr. Eric Long’s work in this area earned him his Ph.D. plus the 2005 Outstanding Student Presentation at SEDSG, the only time a school outside the South has won. While their Deer-Forest Study is aimed at integrating deer and forest management at the state level, Penn State’s GPS collars have revealed a lot about deer movement behaviors on State Game Lands, fawn survival, forest management, and much more. There’s no question in my mind, given the history of the program and its current work, the Nittany Lions lead the Big-10 conference.

Javelina Nation

South Texas is its own realm when it comes to deer hunting, and there’s a university that dominates this corner of the whitetail world. Texas A&M-Kingsville is not a Power 5 team. It’s not even in Division I. Yet, this smaller school competes on a level with the best Power 5 programs in the nation in deer research.

Part of that is due to a generous grant that established the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute in 1981 and ongoing generous contributions and support from Texas landowners with an interest in whitetails. Part is due to the leadership of pioneering deer scientists like Dr. Charlie DeYoung (now retired), Dr. David Hewitt (now the Executive Director of CKWRI), Charlie’s son Dr. Randy DeYoung, and the team of researchers they’ve built.

Given the financial support from within Texas and the need to serve Lone Star deer hunters, the flavor of research coming out of Kingsville has always been distinctly Texan, but there are still plenty of lessons for eastern deer hunters in their work. They’ve shown us that culling to improve antler quality doesn’t work, that supplemental feed helps but can’t replace natural forage, that the average buck sires relatively few fawns in its lifetime, and antler size is not a good predictor of that breeding success – or of the antler size of those fawns. Antler size by age class, jawbone aging, home-range and core-area size, rut movements and behaviors – much of our practical understanding of whitetail behavior comes from work done by Javelinas. No other school in Texas can play with them on this field, and certainly no other school of this size is having such an impact on whitetail knowledge.

A button buck gets a GPS collar for a movement study in the agricultural Midwest. Kyle Kossel and Matthew Springer (right) were students at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, a school that has produced a relatively large amount of deer research for its small size. Matthew earned his Ph.D. with this study and is now assistant Extension professor of wildlife management at the University of Kentucky.

The Coaches Poll

Deer researchers strive to get their results “published,” but that doesn’t mean in a hunting magazine or blog. It means published in a scientific journal after passing “peer review.” High marks in peer review is like ranking high in the coaches poll. It’s no surprise when your own coach tells the world you’ve got a great team, right? But when the coaches of competing teams say you’ve got a great team, that’s significant. When a deer study passes peer review for journal publication, it means scientists from other schools gave it thumbs up.

Special Teams

Who wouldn’t love a bowl game between schools that excel on special teams, focusing their deer research in specific regions or topics?

In his 28 years at South Dakota State, Dr. Jonathan Jenks and his students have amassed what is probably the second longest list of published research on whitetails in the United States, filling in our knowledge of deer nutrition, genetics, movements and population dynamics in the Black Hills and Northern Great Plains of South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota.

Dr. Bill Mautz (now retired) and his successor Dr. Peter Pekins at the University of New Hampshire taught us what we know about how whitetails survive harsh winters when food is scarce and temperatures plunge, information that can help shape habitat management goals in the North. You know two of Peter’s master’s students who contributed to the winter-survival studies, QDMA’s own Conservation Department leaders, Kip Adams and Matt Ross.

National Championship

To compete for the title of deer research champion requires a program with a storied history, powerhouse leadership, top-notch recruiting and consistent achievement over decades – “legacy” programs that do not rise or fade with the career of one professor. In this category, very few schools can run with the big dogs. To be more specific, the Bulldogs. Objectively, it’s tough to argue that any other schools in the nation stand out like the deer labs at MSU and UGA.

I’ve already shown you MSU’s modern communications under Steve Demarais and Bronson Strickland, but the history of this program goes back to the 1970s, when Harry Jacobson, Dave Guynn and their students did the work that established the nation’s first DMAP pilot project. Their model has been adopted around the nation in 16 states and counting, providing benefits for the state agencies and tens of thousands of deer hunters who participate. This achievement alone deserves Hall of Fame recognition (Harry and Dave earned Career Achievement Awards from the Southeast Deer Study Group in 1998 and 1999 respectively). But that only begins a long list of contributions from the MSU Deer Lab, almost all of it applicable to deer hunters: buck breeding success, how soil type is connected to deer body and antler size, the genetic implications of deer restocking, impacts of timber management on deer habitat, selective buck harvest and much more. They were first to discover multiple paternity – “twin” sets of fawns with different buck fathers. Few other schools have maintained the quantity and quality of deer research output or are on a trajectory to continue dominating it for years to come like MSU.

Few? I’ll just say it: only one.

UGA’s Deer Lab also harkens back to the 1970s and was led early on by Dr. R. Larry Marchinton, who strapped the first-ever radio telemetry collar on a deer before releasing and tracking it. He earned his master’s from the University of Florida with that project before moving to Auburn for his Ph.D. Then at UGA, Larry coached a long list of students who went on to have significant impacts on deer hunting, including QDMA’s founder Joe Hamilton and the heir to Larry’s headset, Karl Miller. The strongest, most successful programs are those that build teams and legacies that endure despite changes in the staff lineup, and Larry, Karl and Dr. Bob Warren (now retired) built that at UGA. Karl is the undisputed champion of whitetail research: No other whitetail scientist has published more peer-reviewed scientific studies of wildlife – 193 plus 15 more in process, for a total of 208, most of them focusing on deer.

UGA specializes in the physiology of whitetails: vision and hearing, rut behaviors, vocalizations, rub and scrape communication, glands, digestion, nutrition, fawn development and survival. Karl earned his own Ph.D. from UGA in 1985 by studying rubs and scrapes. UGA studies of herd management and hunter-harvest decisions guided the early proponents of Quality Deer Management. Karl and his doctoral candidate John Kilgo were first to propose and examine eastern coyotes as a serious predator of fawns. UGA students have studied whitetails all over the nation, from Pennsylvania to the Florida Everglades. Currently, a massive UGA study on National Forest land in the Appalachian Mountains, directed by Dr. Gino D’Angelo, seeks the cause of declining deer harvest on public hunting land.

Karl will retire soon, which is the equivalent of the departure of a coach like Nick Saban. Filling those shoes will be difficult, but there’s a deep roster of experienced faculty at this school as well as former students of Karl’s – he has successfully advised 19 Ph.D candidates and 57 master’s students, including QDMA CEO Brian Murphy – not to mention faculty at other schools who will try out for this chair.

Okay, prognostication time. I thought about dodging this and predicting a victory for the Southeastern Conference, but where’s the fun in that? Though it’s a very difficult call, I think I’ve built an objective case for the current National Champions of deer research – the University of Georgia. If I get hate-mail for this, I guess that’s the price of putting on a sportswriter’s hat. One thing is certain: MSU has been closing the gap rapidly in the last few years, and Karl’s departure could be MSU’s opportunity to pull into the lead.

The Real Winners

Press box security just spotted me, and it’s time for me to return to my tailgate. Looking at deer research through this window has been fun, but here’s the reality check. There is no head-to-head competition among these schools. On the contrary, there’s collaboration and cooperation, sharing of resources, and many long-lasting, personal friendships that go far beyond the boundaries of campuses or tenures. A lot of these scientists even hunt together.

If you want “the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat,” switch the football game back on. In the real world of collegiate deer research, whitetails win. Deer hunters win. Education wins. Wildlife conservation wins. No one ever loses.

What a wonderful thing in a game with no off-season!

Collaboration, not competition, is the reality in collegiate deer research. Here, Dr. Karl Miller of the University of Georgia (right) restrains a buck while Dr. Dave Hewitt of Texas A&M-Kingsville collects data. UGA annually assisted TAMUK with buck capture and data collection in a large Texas study, a way for faculty and students at different schools to meet, help and learn from each other.

Author’s Note: Special thanks to QDMA intern Nathan Cranata for his assistance with fact-gathering on colleges attended by Deer Project Leaders. Thanks also to Tony Waller of the Waiting Since Last Saturday podcast for his input.


About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA's Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.