There are many benefits for hunters in a Quality Deer Management program.
When a deer population is socially balanced, with roughly equal numbers of bucks and does, and with all ages of bucks represented, hunters witness the full range of social behaviors. “Bachelor groups” of bucks can be observed in summer. Rubs and scrapes are more common in the woods. Hunters witness more buck fights, see more bucks chasing does, and more often hear vocalizations like grunting. Calling techniques like rattling are more productive. Overall, the rut is more apparent and intense, leading to a more enjoyable hunting experience and higher hunting success.
Because these hunters see more bucks of all ages, they become skilled at understanding deer behavior and at judging deer age and antler quality in the field.
Other benefits include dramatically increased success at finding shed antlers, which also leads to greater knowledge of travel corridors, bedding areas and feeding habits. Working with habitat and planting food plots increases a hunter’s connection to the earth, to wildlife and the outdoors, and many QDM practitioners report happily that hunting becomes a year-round pursuit instead of being limited to hunting season. Some hunters have said that finding a fawn hiding safely in early successional growth established specifically for fawning cover, or capturing a trail-camera photo of a mature buck using a newly designated “sanctuary,” was as rewarding as their most successful hunt. There are also benefits from hunting healthier deer, including heavier body weights.
Of course, there is also the benefit of having a better chance of seeing and harvesting a mature buck, because more are present. Given good nutrition and other benefits that are part of a socially balanced deer population, bucks can express their full antler potential in each year of their life. In today’s North American hunting culture, antlers are the most common and easily visible symbol of hunting achievement, but in a QDM program, many other rewards and benefits are equally cherished.
The minimum goal for all QDM programs is to protect most or all 1½-year-old (or “yearling”) bucks. If you have never killed a 2½-year-old buck and would be happy with this achievement first, this is where you should begin. Once this goal is met, you may wish to begin protecting 2½-year-old bucks as well, while trying to harvest a 3½-year-old… and so on. As long as you progressively improve the “age structure” of bucks (or the numbers of bucks in each age class), then the definition of a “quality” buck should be determined by your personal goals. However, you should also clearly understand the consequences of your goals – if you harvest 2½-year-old bucks, they will not become 3½-year-olds.
In a group of hunters with varying levels of experience, buck-harvest goals should be determined by the lowest level of experience in the group, or they should be a compromise between low and high. If buck-harvest goals are set far above the experience level of most hunters in the group, these hunters are likely to be dissatisfied with their QDM experience.
The most important thing is to set harvest goals that are realistic and appropriate for the deer population. If your definition of a “quality” buck is far above what the habitat and region are likely to produce, you will be disappointed. If you start with the expectation of harvesting mature bucks when there are none in the local population, you will be disappointed. After all, it takes 3½ years to produce a 3½-year-old buck.
QDM should be fun, and by starting with realistic goals and working your way up, you ensure plenty of fun along the way.
The biology of QDM never fails. If the yearling bucks in a population are protected during hunting season, most of them will survive to age 2½ – as surely as pouring water into a bucket will eventually fill the bucket.
However, there can be “holes in the bucket.” When you are not seeing the deer you hoped to see under QDM, look for the holes in your bucket. Some common “holes” include:
- Neighbors harvesting yearling bucks when you are managing a small property (Patch this hole by starting a QDM Cooperative in your neighborhood).
- Habitat quality being too low to produce the size buck you are hoping to see (Patch this hole by increasing and improving natural forages, planting food plots, reducing deer density if needed, etc.)
- Buck-harvest goals being higher than what the soils, habitat and deer population are likely to produce in your region, even if you improve the habitat (Patch this hole by working with a local wildlife biologist to set realistic harvest goals).
Under Quality Deer Management, your goal is to build age structure, meaning you want to increase the numbers of bucks in older age classes. To achieve this goal, age is the best criteria to use when harvesting bucks; set an appropriate age-based harvest rule based on local herd conditions, hunter experience level, and hunter desires. The starting point is protecting most or all yearling bucks and harvesting bucks 2 1/2 or older, then adjust your target age upwards as you advance.
However, this is not the most practical rule, especially when you are starting out, because it is more difficult to learn to judge the age of live bucks than it is to count antler points or estimate inside spread. The problem with antler-based rules is that there is much overlap in antler points, spread and size across age classes. For example, some yearling bucks may be eligible for harvest under a “points-on-a-side” rule, while some mature bucks may not be eligible for harvest under “inside spread” rules because they have narrow spreads.
Therefore, if you elect to go with an antler-based rule to start with, until the hunters in your group are more confident and skilled with judging age, make sure your antler rule is designed to protect all yearling bucks. Also, design an antler-based rule so that it does not protect adult deer that could be enjoyed by hunters. It is best to consult with a local wildlife biologist to get advice on designing an antler-based harvest rule that is suited to your local deer population. Contact your state wildlife agency for guidance.
This is a technique that is only recommended in the most advanced deer management programs with extensive acreage, highly experienced hunters or professionally trained managers, and an actual surplus of adult bucks – situations that are extremely rare in North America. And in no free-roaming situation does this technique affect genetics, for better or worse.
There is much confusion and debate surrounding this question, but scientific research is clear – QDM programs are better off harvesting only the bucks that meet age criteria and allowing as many bucks as possible to reach older age classes and contribute to a complete buck age structure.
One of the most exciting challenges of hunting a quality-managed population is matching wits with a mature buck. A buck that has survived many seasons may be very difficult to harvest, even during the rut.
These deer are not un-killable, but they are certainly capable of patterning hunters, as research has shown. If mature bucks are present but you never see them while hunting, examine your own patterns to see if you are a predictable hunter. Are you hunting the same stand every time? Do you ride an ATV or pickup all the way to your stand? Are you constantly “bumping” and “spooking” deer as you pass through food plots, bedding areas and other prime habitat on your way to your stand? Do you pay attention to wind direction and select stand locations accordingly?
Research has shown on both public and private land that deer, especially older bucks, frequent the areas with the lowest hunting pressure. Sometimes, hunting a site that has never been hunted before – even if you don’t think of it as a good area – can change your fortunes quickly.
Yes. Under QDM, doe harvest is a tool for balancing the population with the local habitat’s capacity to support healthy deer. In some cases, the deer population equals or is less than the number of deer that can be supported in healthy condition by the habitat. In these cases, few or no female deer should be harvested. A number of methods are available for determining an appropriate doe-harvest goal. Read this article for further guidance.
It’s true a dead doe will not have any more fawns. But in a QDM program, hunters are managing to improve a deer population, not individual deer. Therefore, what happens to an individual deer – even if it seems counterproductive – is often not counterproductive to the progress of the population. For example, just because one mature buck gets killed on a highway – an outcome you didn’t want – does not mean the end of your QDM success.
Doe harvest is recommended when a deer population exceeds the carrying capacity of the habitat. Under these conditions, deer health is not optimal, and as a result, does will produce fewer fawns on average, and fewer of those fawns on average will survive to enter the fall population – as documented by research. Fawn output is low. However, once that population is reduced through doe harvest, deer health increases, and so does fawn output. More does produce twins or even triplets, and more of these fawns survive until fall. Thus, a healthy population that is in balance with its habitat will produce more fawns than a larger population of unhealthy deer.
So, in the big population picture, harvesting an appropriate number of does actually contributes to greater fawn production – including more buck fawns.
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QDMA does not believe there is a specific doe:buck ratio you should aim for. A more balanced sex ratio is a natural result of your other QDM efforts. As you protect yearling bucks and more of them survive to older age classes, numbers of bucks in the population will rise, bringing the doe:buck ratio closer toward balance. If doe harvest is necessary to help maintain balance between deer density and habitat quality where you hunt, this will also help bring the doe:buck ratio closer toward balance. Well-managed herds can easily have less than two adult does per adult buck. There are many misunderstandings among hunters about doe:buck ratios. Read this article for a detailed look at the reality of doe:buck ratios.
Not necessarily. A critical fact to remember about deer is that fawn production and fawn survival increase as herd health increases (assuming other factors, especially predators, are not significantly impacting fawn survival). As you reduce deer density and increase habitat quality, overall deer health will increase, and so will fawn production and survival. If you skip a year of doe harvest under these conditions, a deer population can quickly leap back above carrying capacity.
When herd and habitat indicators point to a balanced deer population, you may be able to reduce doe harvest to a “maintenance” level. Your harvest and observation data will allow you to make these fine-tuning adjustments.
QDM is about maximizing deer sighting rates for hunters while also maximizing deer health through balance with carrying capacity. Seeing the most deer, even if it means exceeding carrying capacity, sacrificing deer health, and causing damage to the habitat, is not compatible with QDM, nor is it an ethical or responsible goal.
Keep in mind that carrying capacity is not a fixed point. It can be increased through improvements such as prescribed fire, food plots and timber stand management, allowing a greater number of deer to be supported.
However, there is also a “social” carrying capacity to consider, such as the amount of crop damage a nearby farmer will tolerate before taking action, or the number of deer/vehicle collisions that local motorists will tolerate before demanding relief. The QDM philosophy seeks to avoid exceeding social as well as biological carrying capacity.
Not necessarily. Sighting rates by hunters are usually not a reliable indicator of deer density. For example, research has documented that sighting rates drop in years with exceptionally heavy acorn crops – most likely because food is abundant and deer do not need to move far to feed. Other factors such as weather and hunting pressure play roles. In short, it is possible to have a stable or even rising deer population and see fewer deer while hunting than you did last year. Therefore, do not assume you need to shoot fewer does. If you are collecting harvest and observation data and/or conducting trail-camera surveys (all part of the Herd Monitoring “Cornerstone”), then your complete set of data will provide reliable clues about the actual deer density and appropriate doe-harvest goals. As always, consult with a local wildlife biologist if you need guidance.
When a group of hunters is trying to meet a doe-harvest goal, mistakes will be made. In most cases this is an honest mistake, and in most cases it won’t have any noticeable impact on your QDM success. QDMA recommends that button bucks make up 10 percent or less of your antlerless deer harvest.
Punishment in this situation could have unintended consequences. First, it could take the fun out of hunting for someone who just made an honest mistake. Second, it could be a deterrent to harvesting does. Hunters may be too cautious or too reluctant to pull the trigger because they want to avoid the punishment.
Instead, take proactive steps to educate your hunters about methods for identifying button bucks in the field. Provide incentives and rewards for those hunters who do not kill any button bucks rather than punishments for those who do. This puts positive emphasis on success rather than negative emphasis on mistakes.
Yes. The QDMA supports allowing youth and new hunters to take any buck regardless of age or antler quality. Biologically speaking, the occasional harvest of a yearling buck, or other buck that does not meet a program’s harvest goal, will have little or no impact on the program’s overall success, assuming that all other appropriate QDM goals are being met.
However, this is also a question of quantity. If your club or hunting group has numerous youth hunters on relatively small acreage, and all of them kill a yearling buck in the same year, expect this to have a noticeable impact on buck age structure and future hunting success. If this describes your situation, set a reasonable limit on the number of young bucks that will be allowed per season.
No. One of the “Cornerstones” of QDM is providing quality habitat by ensuring adequate cover and forage for deer. Food plots are only one technique for improving habitat. Existing, naturally occurring plants can also be manipulated to provide improved forage and cover. Techniques include low-cost options like prescribed fire, fertilization, and “daylighting” – or using a chainsaw to admit sunlight into new areas and increase forage and cover at the same time. Browse the Habitat Improvement articles on this site for more information.
No. Many successful QDM programs have been built, and exist today, on leased land, public lands, and other lands not managed directly by the landowner. Almost all aspects of QDM, especially herd management, can be conducted on any lands. While habitat improvement options may be limited – such as limited opportunities for food plots – there are still many options available. And even though hunters on public or leased lands may be limited compared to private landowners, they still have the opportunity to improve the deer population and deer hunting through QDM.
There is no minimum acreage. Even hunters with access to as little as 20 or fewer acres can make their property the most attractive habitat for deer in the neighborhood through offering quality forage and cover. However, unless QDM is common in the neighborhood, hunters on small acreage will be limited in their ability to manage population factors, such as deer density, adult sex ratio, or buck age structure. This is where QDM Cooperatives enter the picture.
A QDM Cooperative is an informal agreement between multiple landowners, lease holders and hunters to practice QDM across property boundaries. As the average size of recreational hunting tracts has decreased in recent years, QDM Cooperatives have become more prevalent. For more on QDM Cooperatives, click here.