Deer Research

Members of the Hunting Club at Ames Plantation are part of a large research project. They are integrally involved as they participate in the QDM program. Research findings are shared with the Membership throughout the hunting season and a complete report is given at the annual meeting in September. The information from this study may have bearing on deer management programs in Tennessee and also across the south.  The research is outlined below:

Introduction

The white-tailed deer is the most popular big game animal in Tennessee. Through restocking efforts and regulated hunting, white-tailed deer populations have rebounded from all-time lows in the early twentieth century to approximately 33 million animals in the US today. A major reason for this success was a restriction on the doe harvest, allowing only bucks to be killed during the hunting season. This process was expedited through extirpation of deer predators (e.g., mountain lions, red wolves, gray wolves, black bears, and bobcats) during the nineteenth century throughout most of the whitetail’s range, including Tennessee. As deer populations became re-established, states began to allow limited antlerless hunts. However, by the 1990s, deer populations were overabundant in many areas, especially in the South and Northeast. A continued restriction on doe harvest created skewed populations favoring does with few mature bucks. In Tennessee (and many other states), yearling (1½ years old) bucks consistently comprise the vast majority (60 – 80 percent) of the statewide buck harvest. Overpopulated deer herds with unbalanced sex ratios have created many human/deer conflicts, including forest and crop depredation, increased deer-vehicle collisions, habitat destruction (negatively affecting many wildlife species), and unnatural changes in the timing of reproduction and parturition, altering behavior and reduced fawn survival in some areas.

Quality deer management (QDM) is a management strategy that involves managing deer herds in a biologically and socially sound manner in accordance with the existing habitat conditions. The philosophy of QDM is not trophy deer management, where emphasis is placed on producing bucks with antlers large enough to qualify for the Boone and Crockett Record Book. QDM promotes managing deer populations below carrying capacity for a given area through an active doe harvest designed to lower the population to an acceptable level and even the sex ratio. In addition, a balanced age structure of both bucks and does is desired in order to maintain a socially sound herd where mature animals establish a hierarchical order that is important for reproductive ecology and genetic flow. This is accomplished by educating hunters to refrain from shooting young bucks and concentrate on killing an appropriate number of does. Hunters also keep detailed records on all deer killed and observed in a QDM program. This information is used to guide the progress of the management program and assess the quality of the herd. 

Also integral to QDM is an active habitat management program that concentrates on providing optimum nutrition to the deer herd throughout the year. Habitat management practices typically involve timber management, manipulating oldfield habitats, and establishing food plots. Other practices include supplemental feeding with grains and/or salt and other minerals. 

Although QDM has been implemented in many areas across the whitetail’s range, few scientific data have been collected to evaluate its success, especially before and after implementation. To complicate matters further, “QDM” is rarely practiced in the same manner in different areas. Most often, this is a result of differences in deer herd characteristics and/or differences in habitat quality, but in many cases, different managers have differing views of just what QDM entails and the correct approach to implement such a program. 

Considerable confusion also surrounds habitat management programs. There is a tremendous demand by hunters and other landowners for knowledge about food plots. Food plots get more publicity in the popular press than all other land management practices combined. Many marketing and advertising campaigns have confused hunters as to what should be planted and why. Sound data are needed to substantiate not only what is best nutritionally for white-tailed deer, but also what plantings deer prefer. Prescribed fire is promoted to enhance habitat conditions for small game and various songbirds, as well as improve forage availability and palatability for white-tailed deer. There is a lack of data, however, to support whether deer prefer previously burned areas for grazing/browsing. Another practice commonly promoted is fertilizing native vegetation for increased/improved browse/forage. While data have been collected that clearly show fertilization increases plant growth and nutrition, there is a lack of data to support the claim that fertilized vegetation—especially within closed-canopy forest stands—receives increased browsing pressure by deer. Various formulations of minerals and salt have been used to supplement the availability of minerals for deer. Few data have been collected, however, that show which formulations are preferred or used more often by deer, especially by sex and age class.

Another major consideration with any deer management program is hunter satisfaction, especially when mandated on public lands. In order for QDM to be successful, hunters must embrace the program and its approach. Usually, this level of satisfaction comes only with considerable education efforts.

The objective of this research is to determine the impact of Quality Deer Management (QDM) programs on several properties across Tennessee. Specifically, the impact of such programs on herd health and quality, as determined by density, sex ratio, age structure, average weights per age class, and antler characteristics, will be evaluated. In addition, several habitat management practices will be evaluated for their effectiveness in a QDM program. Finally, hunter satisfaction will be monitored to assess the program’s acceptance among sportsmen.

Information gathered should help property managers across the state and region better understand the relationships involved (deer management, habitat management, hunter management) in a QDM program. Findings will be applicable to both private managers and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) in their public lands deer management program. In addition, this information will be most useful when making recommendations for deer/crop depredation situations.

Cooperators

The study focuses on several properties, including: the 18,653-acre Ames Plantation in Fayette and Hardeman Counties; the Rocky River Hunting Club—a 4,800-acre private property in Sequatchie, Van Buren, and Warren Counties; the Jasper Mountain Hunting Club—a 8,588-acre private property in Marion County; the Myers Cove Hunting Club—a 2,431-acre private property in Warren County; the 79,700-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area in Cumberland and Morgan Counties; the 37,000-acre Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Roane and Anderson Counties; and the 2,500-acre Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Rhea County.

Ames Plantation

Deer hunting at Ames has followed statewide regulations for many years. However, in 2002, the Ames administration decided a QDM program should be implemented on the property. Data (i.e., sex, age, weight, evidence of lactation, number of antler points, inside spread, main beam length and diameter, and gross antler score) were collected from deer killed at Ames during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons to determine average characteristics among sex and age classes. Ames hunters collected observation data in order to begin an index to population level. A census of deer browse was collected in July of 2002 and 2003 to determine the relationship of the deer herd with available habitat. Additionally, hunter satisfaction was evaluated through surveys collected at the end of the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. In 2003, Ames Plantation began leasing hunting rights. 

Pre-treatment data has provided information necessary to recommend a sound antler restriction to protect bucks 2½ years old and younger. Beginning with the 2004 hunting season, a gross score of 110 inches of antler growth as measured by the Boone and Crockett scoring system has been used as the minimum requirement in order for a buck to be killed at Ames. The recommended doe harvest was determined to be 180 for the first year of QDM at Ames and 194 were taken. This was an excellent response from hunters and, if sightings, tracks, and crop damage are an indication, the deer herd has not been depressed by any noticeable margin. The sex ratio should better approach a natural form and sightings may disproportionally involve bucks, because the 1.5-year-old class was practically untouched in 2004-05. 

A check-in station was constructed prior to the 2002 season. All hunters were required to check-in their deer during the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons. Beginning with the 2004-05 season, hunters were required to check in and out before and after each hunt.

Rocky River HC, Jasper Mountain HC, and Myers Cove HC

Rocky River has operated under a QDM program since 2000. During this time, data (i.e., sex, age, weight, evidence of lactation, number of antler points, inside spread, main beam length and diameter, and gross antler score) have been collected on all deer killed. A gross score of 100 inches has been used as an antler restriction to protect bucks 2½ years old and younger. A deer census has been conducted each year using infrared-triggered cameras, while hunters have collected observation data to compare with the census. Jasper Mountain has been operating under a QDM program since 2001 and Myers Cove has been operating under a QDM program since 2003. Data have been collected at these properties just as they have at Rocky River.

Catoosa Wildlife Management Area (WMA)

Deer hunting has occurred at Catoosa since 1955. Data (sex, age, weight, evidence of lactation, number of antler points, and main beam length and diameter) were collected from deer since the first hunting seasons to determine average characteristics among sex and age classes. Browse surveys were collected for many years to determine a relationship of the deer herd with available habitat. Observation data were collected during several years to determine productivity (doe:fawn ratios) and sex ratios. Hunter satisfaction was evaluated continually throughout the years since 1955.

In the early 1990’s, hunters’ attitudes began to change about deer hunting on Tennessee’s WMAs. Hunters no longer needed to hunt a WMA to harvest a deer. From deer stocked in the 1970’s and 1980’s and continued population growth, hunters had ample opportunity to take deer in open county hunts across the state. As a result, Catoosa managers and biologists decided to implement a QDM program beginning with the 1998 hunting season. From data collected since 1955, it was decided to implement a 4-point to one side antler restriction to protect bucks 1½ years old and younger. The recommended doe harvest is determined each year.

QDM results on Catoosa appear to have been successful. Results are available from TWRA Region III in the Big Game Harvest Report. Many hunters have been supportive of QDM on Catoosa and often request similar management throughout the state. Catoosa continues to lead the state in WMA hunt applications.
 
TWRA is committed to good game management; and hunter attitudes and their expectations may not be consistent. As such, and with a large land-base across Tennessee, QDM will be complicated to implement statewide. However, the research can demonstrate QDM results on the type of grounds listed above and the conditions associated with each. These results will apply most closely on private lands, although the two necessary conditions for older deer to manifest any sort of antler characteristics may vary from place to place: i.e., habitat and genetics. TWRA may benefit from the research with increased insight to help landowners manage their land and also to evaluate the future course of deer hunting in Tennessee.

Oak Ridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA)

The Oak Ridge WMA is open to public deer hunting though all hunters must be selected through a random drawing. Approximately 3,075 hunters are selected to hunt on the area during three hunts held each year. The hunts are held in November and December and each lasts for two days. Because of safety issues, Oak Ridge is divided into archery-only hunting zones and gun hunting zones. Slightly less than half of the hunters selected are assigned to the gun hunting zones. 
Deer hunting has occurred on Oak Ridge since 1985 with the exception of the 2000 season when Oak Ridge was closed for national security reasons. In 2003, a QDM program was implemented. Under this program, antlered bucks must have at least four one-inch antler points on one side of their rack or have an outside antler spread of 15 or more inches to be legal for harvest. Through the area’s one check station, data (i.e., sex, age, weight, number of antler points, main beam length, and diameter) have been collected on 99 percent of all deer harvested.

Yuchi Wildlife Management Area (WMA)

Yuchi Refuge is also open to public deer hunting and, like Oak Ridge WMA, all hunters must be selected through a random drawing, with the exception of one hunt that is open to handicapped hunters only. Approximately 450 hunters are selected to hunt on the area during the six quota hunts held each year. The hunts are held from September to November and each hunt lasts for two days. 
Prior to 2000, the area was in private ownership and deer hunting was allowed during statewide deer season with no public access. In 2000, Yuchi Refuge was purchased by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and has been open to public hunting since. A QDM program was established in 2003. Under this program, the area has an antlered buck harvest restriction that is the same as for Oak Ridge WMA. Through the area’s one check station, data (i.e., sex, age, weight, number of antler points, main beam length and diameter) have been collected on 99 percent of all deer harvested since 2000.

Deer census and hunter observations

A deer census was conducted on Ames, Rocky River, Jasper Mountain, and Myer’s Cove using infrared-triggered cameras. One bait station will be positioned per 160 acres. Deer will be attracted to bait stations with salt and shelled corn. Cameras will be in position for 2 weeks after 1 week of pre-baiting. The deer census will be conducted between mid-July and mid-September. 

Hunters on Ames, Rocky River, Jasper Mountain, and Myer’s Cover fill out observation cards after each hunt and turn the cards in at the respective check-in station immediately after each hunt. Data (number of deer, sex, age) from observation cards will be compared to the camera census for each property. A voluntary system was used the first year of the program at Ames and resulted in a total of 18 observation cards for the season. After the sign-in policy was established the next year, over 1,800 cards were returned. These cards contain immensely valuable information.

The impact of QDM

Effect of various antler restrictions on antler characteristics

The proportion of bucks killed within each age class will be compared between study sites and private lands without antler restrictions within respective counties. The proportion of bucks killed under the targeted age class will be evaluated on each study area. Main beam length and diameter, spread, number of points, and gross antler score will be compared by age class among bucks killed at each study site and private lands without antler restrictions within respective counties. Personnel with the TWRA and students from the UT Chapter of The Wildlife Society will collect data from deer killed on non-QDM private lands at check-in stations located in the counties of the study areas.

Effect of QDM on sex ratio harvested, average weight per sex and age class, and lactation

The sex ratio of the deer harvest as well as weights per sex and age class and evidence of lactation are determined from kill record sheets at each of the study sites. These data will be compared between study sites and with those from deer killed on non-QDM private lands, collected at check-in stations in the counties of the study areas on various dates through the season determined by the TWRA.

Effect of QDM on deer visibility

Hunters at Ames, Rocky River, Jasper Mountain, and Myers Cove will record the number and type of deer sighted per hunting trip. Trends over time in deer density and sex ratio will be compared to deer census data collected by infrared-triggered cameras on each property.

Effect on hunter satisfaction

At each study site, hunters will be surveyed to determine their level of satisfaction with the various types of QDM restrictions. All hunters at Ames, Rocky River, Jasper Mountain, and Myers Cove will be surveyed at the close of the deer season. A survey will be mailed after the season to hunters drawn to hunt at Catoosa, Oak Ridge, and Yuchi.

Food plot evaluation

This project will test both warm- and cool-season plantings in replicated plots at Ames, Rocky River, Catoosa, and Oak Ridge to determine plants most suitable for food plots in terms of germination, growth and production, resistance to grazing, nutritional quality, and timing of availability. These data will be used to recommend desirable mixtures for food plots. Twenty 0.10-acre cells have been established at each site. Each cell contains a “seasonal” exclusion cage, 4 feet square, made of chicken wire to monitor growth through the growing season. In addition, each cell contains 3 “mobile” exclusion cages, 2 feet square, to monitor growth and deer preference at the end of each month. Forage clipped from the mobile cages is compared to that from 3 randomly-selected uncaged spots, 2 feet square, in each cell. Clipped forage material is then dried and sent to the forage lab at UT for nutritional analysis. The 20 forages that have been used in the food plot experiment include those listed below.

Cool-season legumes (8)
ladino clover (perennial)
red clover (perennial)
berseem clover (annual)
crimson clover (annual)
arrowleaf clover (annual)
alfalfa (perennial)
Austrian winter peas (annual)
birdsfoot trefoil (perennial)

Cool-season grasses (4)
oats (annual)
wheat (annual)
orchardgrass (perennial)
ryegrass (annual)

Cool-season forbs (2)
chicory (perennial)
dwarf essex rape (annual)

Warm-season legumes (6)
iron-clay cowpeas (annual)
lablab (annual)
soybeans (annual)
Quail Haven re-seeding soybeans (annual)
alyceclover (annual)
American jointvetch (annual)

Cool-season plots have been established in late summer 2004. Perennial cool-season plots will be maintained and managed through fall 2006. Warm-season plots were established in late spring 2005 and will be again in 2006. Annual cool-season plots will be planted in late summer 2005. 
The quantity of forage consumed and deer preference will be related to deer density. The number of deer using each field are estimated by placing an infrared-triggered camera (baited like a census camera) just inside the woods on each side of the field (4 cameras total) during late August/early September. These numbers at Ames and Rocky River will be compared to the overall deer census.

Effect of burning and fertilization on browse quantity and quality

Naturally occurring browse in hardwood forest stands will be sampled for biomass and quality at Ames and Rocky River during July 2004 and 2005. Previously unburned hardwood stands have been selected. Sixteen 100-yard transects have been established at each site. Browse is measured and collected along 4 sections, every 25 yards, 5 yards in length, 4 feet in width and 4 feet in height. Woody browse is measured and collected by species. Herbaceous forage is measured and collected by family. Pre-treatment data have been collected in 2004. Eight sites were burned during February/March 2005. Four sites have been fertilized (according to soil test to raise P and K levels to high and with 60 pounds of N added per acre) in the burned areas and 4 sites were fertilized in the unburned areas. Four transects were established in unburned/unfertilized stands, 4 in unburned/fertilized stands, 4 in burned/unfertilized stands, and 4 in burned/fertilized stands. Samples will be dried, weighed, and analyzed for crude protein and acid detergent fiber. Data will be compared to determine if burning and/or fertilization actually attracts additional browsing pressure and/or increases browse quality. 

Soil samples have been collected in each area at 2 inches and 6 inches deep prior to and after burning and fertilization. This will be conducted each season (spring, summer, fall, winter) in each area throughout the study to determine the impact of burning and fertilization on soil fertility.

Preference and use of various mineral formulations

Finally, various mineral formulations are being compared using replicated sites monitored by infrared-triggered cameras at Ames and Rocky River. Four mineral stations have been identified. There is 1 station per 150 acres (4 stations – 600 acres total). At each station (the middle of each 150-acre block), 4 minerals have been positioned in a square, 50 yards apart. Infrared-triggered cameras placed approximately 15 feet from the mineral with a marker denoting station and mineral identification another 15 feet beyond the mineral, 30 feet from the camera, monitor minerals. Minerals were put in place by 1 June 2004 and were monitored for 60 days, beginning June 8. Minerals are replenished as necessary. The 4 mineral supplements are: Co-op Coarse Ground Trace Mineral salt, Co-op Whitetail Deer Mineral Mix, Deer Cain, and Biologic Whitetail Addiction.

The number of deer, sex ratio, and fawns per doe using each mineral station are evaluated from the pictures generated. Preference for a mineral mixture is determined from the photographs. In addition, time of use (day/night, early summer/mid-summer) will be evaluated to determine if there is a preferred period when deer use these sites.
The Ames Plantation provides a rich environment for forest and ecological research due to the size and diversity of sites and forest stands. The University of Tennessee Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries conducts for weeks of their Forestry Camp...