Quality Deer Management at Ames might be mistaken for Trophy Management, but the differences between the two programs are quite distinct.
The Ames’ QDM program has two primary goals for the deer herd. The first is to reasonably balance the sex ratio and the second is to develop an age hierarchy within the buck population.
Balancing the sex ratio is a foundational requirement if QDM is to produce the results that most hunters want. Hunters want to see a larger number of older bucks in the herd and have them living in the conditions where they are able to demonstrate full antler potential. If younger bucks are protected, then it follows that there will be more bucks in the herd. If food resources are limited, and they always are, then something has to give or everyone suffers.
Most deer populations across the south are out of kilter, almost without exception having considerably more does than bucks. To be able to balance the sex ratio, does must be killed and the number that is required varies from one property to another. Balancing the sex ratio achieves two basic things:
1) It lowers the overall population and releases food resources to the residual population. A doe can consume 1.6 tons of food annually. Our doe goal can be 180 does removed per year, representing 288 tons of browse released to the residual herd. In a very direct relationship food intake, especially expressed as protein, contributes to a healthy herd and maximum antler growth. Additional food resources also contribute to better fawn recruitment. Well-fed and healthy does are much more likely to successfully breed earlier in life, give birth to twins and manage their fawns better.
2) It shortens and intensifies the rut. With an increased number of bucks and fewer does, the remaining does are bred sooner in the fall and winter season. An early-bred doe will give birth to an early-born fawn. A fawn hitting the ground early in the summer will have the advantage of highly available, succulent browse. A fawn born in late summer or early fall will have no such advantage. In studies conducted at Mississippi State University early-born buck fawns always had some forking in their antlers as yearlings. Fawns born in the late summer season were always spikes the first year and on average never caught up to their early-born brethren. Indeed, a spike may be carrying the best genes in the herd; he just got a late start on life and will never be able to show full potential.
Also, with a shortened breeding and fawning season, a lot of fawns are born in a short time frame. This is an anti-predator adaptation, referred to as prey saturation, where the key is safety in numbers. In a “natural” population, one where lions and wolves and bears roam, the sex ratio would be kept relatively balanced with the pressure of ordinary predation. Because the sex ratio would be balanced fawns would hit the ground more or less together. With a sex ratio out of whack, the result is to spread the birthing season out over the course of the whole summer and load the local smorgasbord for the sharp-toothed crowd, like waiters running back and forth to the kitchen all summer long. By placing resources on the ground so quickly that the predators are much less efficient, the result is that more fawns live past the first few days when they are most vulnerable. Keeping the sex ratio balanced is a true form of coyote control ... or at least coyote predation.
A shorter rut also takes pressure off of the bucks. The mating season is extremely stressful and during the late winter season, when food resources are low, a prolonged rut can de-condition bucks to the point where they might manifest the rigors with less than optimum health, body size and antler development.
Creating an age hierarchy among the buck population is important for several reasons.
1) Older bucks are better able to withstand the rigors of the rut. Having them in the population essentially protects the 1-year-old bucks by forcing them to take a lesser role; and that has direct implications for how a young buck enters his second season of life. By avoiding some of the rutting stresses in his first year of life, he enters his second year better able to build both body frame and rack.
2) Of course, for most hunters a major reason is that older bucks also mean larger bucks. This brings us to consider how trophy management differs from QDM.
The goal of the Ames QDM program is to protect all bucks until they reach 3-years of age, a point where they have achieved a significant portion of their physical maturity, and are exhibiting a high amount of behavioral and avoidance maturity. In a trophy program bucks are kept until they have reached full physical maturity or demonstrate a juvenile: mature correlation indicating that even at full physical maturity they will never achieve the antler growth needed for the program’s goals. At that point they might be designated as a “management buck.” In a trophy program, as much as is possible individual bucks are identified, then followed through-out life, and get their ticket punched with a bullet when they reach full physical potential.
To achieve the goal at Ames, there must be some trait that can be recognized among bucks to differentiate shooters from the bucks that are younger than 3-years-old. The best of all situations would be to use the body characteristics to separate age classes. However, these are subtle, especially between 3 and 4-year-old bucks. Instead, bucks with 125 inches of antler, as determined by the Boone and Crockett scoring system, is a reasonable way to protect bucks less than 3-years-old. The rule protects all yearlings and more than 95% of the 2-year-old bucks.
As opposed to Trophy Management, where almost no buck is killed until he has shown all he can show; any buck at Ames that is sporting 125 inches of antler or is 4-or-more-years-old is a shooter … if he shows. Yet, by his 4th year a buck is hard to come up with. By his 5th year, avoidance maturity has reached a point where he is very nearly no longer available, indeed, perhaps no longer known; and any animal that has reached that age, regardless of antlers, is a trophy simply by virtue of having won the chess matches for so long. At that age, he has every expectation of continuing as the master. But every master makes mistakes.
Most bucks, like individuals in any population, are “average,” and as a result many 3-year-old bucks will not sport 125 inches of antler. But some will and many bucks will by the time they are four.
There is a tendency to focus on the “showy” parts of a QDM program with expectations for every rustle in the leaves to mean a trophy buck in the tracks. This will not be the case. But one of the subtle and less understood amenities is simply being in the woods where older bucks are present in relatively high numbers. These bucks change the dynamics of the hunting experience. The older bucks, regardless of antler size, add excitement and provide the opportunity for a range of observations that cannot be seen when the herd is largely comprised of younger, very immature animals.
For hunters involved in a QDM program like Ames, where the goals are science based and kept in focus, hunters become more than just visitors to the forest, they become managers … essentially they are practicing ecologists; and as a result the big buck that they let walk away does not represent a disappointment but a celebration in an investment that is paying dividends. Hunters at Ames no longer talk about the 8-point that they saw. Instead they tell of the 110 that came and went, the 135 where they could not get a shot, or the 6-point that they feel sure is 4-years-of-age. They are stewards of the herd and the experience.
Ultimately, the return on QDM program’s investment is the sense of satisfaction of having been a part of providing the reasonable expectations that each member enjoys, it is the sense of having been a part of building it, with the impressive buck who walks away from any member providing the thread of a common ideal as he walks away from all members. He’ll be there next year.