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“Feeding the Wild Deer”

By Staff | Nov 9, 2010

To the Editor:

Once again we are at that point of the season when it is time to get it in the bin and turn the ground black before Mother Nature turns it white. The time of the year when I receive, like so many of you, a mailing questionnaire from Des Moines asking me to log what I see during my hunting activities: numbers, sexes, ages etc. of what I encounter while sitting in a tree out in the wild. And like every year I make a note on it, something to the order of; “Take me off your mailing list until you start making laws that make sense not cents. Thank you.”

Let me try to clear up what I mean by my opening paragraph; and I need to say that my words only reflect my own thoughts and what I see around me, no one else! Mid winter, last season, my business associates, friends and family experienced public ridicule for our activities of putting out hay bales for the wild deer, during a harsh Iowa winter. What we saw were the herds leaving their natural wintering grounds traveling in search of food. Because we happen to have a high level of appreciation for these animals and actually desire to see how those unborn fawns that are growing in the wombs of those does turn out in a few years we made a decision to help them out a bit. The resulting article made it very clear that this sort of activity would actually hurt the animal due to hay being of poor nutritional value (true); and remove the natural instinct in the animal to fear man (silly). When I first read the article I questioned myself, “was I really doing the correct thing?” One phone call to a cervid nutritionist out of Pennsylvania that I often counsel with when it comes to the care of my own herd cleared it up real quick. I faxed him the article and told him how the wild herd was moving into a town to eat evergreen trees and chew on bark. Don’s return phone call and comment back to me went something like this: I heard how much snow you all are getting up there it has to be very hard on those does being this far along in their term (February). Hay is a poor source of nutrition as compared to a balanced diet, but it’s better than nothing and may give them the boost they need to not have to abort one or both fawns or even die themselves; and with the price of grain you don’t really have any other choice. Don’t let the article bother you, look at the deer, especially the fat reserves in the gut of one that you find dead and do what you feel is right within your financial bounds. Remember some will always get through, but it’s always a sad thing when a high population gets hit with a long hard winter.

The really sad thing is when you have a better understanding of the death order of a wild population of whitetail. See, the buck fawns, born the prior spring, but still with their mothers normally die first. Reason: about the time the combines are out taking their grocery stores and much of their cover away they are supposed to be eating about double daily consumption amounts in order to build up the fat supplies necessary to get through the winter. This happens to be the same time the breeding season kicks in and all the activities that go along with it. When the family group, mom/twin/buck fawn, leave the bedding area each day to feed the buck fawns curiosity gets the best of him. He sees older bucks sparring, rubbing and making scrapes; so goes over to watch those activities or smell things that draw his attention; taking time away from what he is actually supposed to be doing: filling his stomach. Soon he looks around and mom and twin sister are leaving and it’s time to go, so he goes back to the bedding area without a full stomach. Thus when it gets to be February he does not have the sufficient fat supplies to draw on and he dies in his sleep or gets hit by a car because he’s running around trying to find something to eat.

The mature bucks are the next to go. Reason: easy, they are actually involved in the rut. Which burns much of their body weight: fighting, searching for does and breeding activities, not to mention dodging hunters, vehicles and rival mature bucks antlers all at the same time. Resulting injuries that are nonfatal at the time will become fatal when they can’t find a food source sufficient enough to recover during the deep snow and ice periods. Next is the doe fawns, then the unborn fawns, lastly the adult does.

So it all comes down to this: when a population of animals exists that at the moment of conception there is a 50% chance that the resulting baby turns out male or female, which whitetail deer are. You either have to leave that population alone and let nature take its course in maintaining herd health. Or if you choose to take animals out of the herd, it is critical that you take them out at an even ratio: one doe for every buck. This makes sense when you think about what happens if you don’t. So the folks in Des Moines who have voted on hunting legalities for the last several years have had a very difficult task because the “somewhat controllable” tool that they use to influence the population of deer is the hunter. 90% of the deer hunting society want what? Right – – bucks and the bigger (antler size) the better. So for years we (yes I’ve done it myself for years by pulling the trigger or letting the string go on a large mature buck too many times) have been taking bucks out of the herd at a very uneven rate as compared to does. Resulting in a very hindered gene pool. It is called breeding them down. Let me explain. It is nature’s way that the largest, strongest, healthiest buck fight for the right to pass on his genetics. They fight with weapons that they grow on the tops of their heads for the right to control the doe group; many times risking their own life to do so. One of the most amazing things I’ve learned about the deer is that very fact; I compare the awesomeness of that fact to the waterfowl migration each spring and fall. An animal that has perfectly honed senses that are developed to do one thing: keep him alive and behaviors that are developed to do one thing: keep him alive; are thrown out the window during the rut due to his individual instinctual drive to ensure that the next generation happens. The power of nature is fantastic when realized. So during breeding season the males runs around during day light hours, very uncharacteristic, and dangerous because they put themselves at risk to hunters, as well as, vehicle mishaps at a ten fold rate as compared to normal behaviors. So after we shoot many of the larger bucks or hit them on the highway what is left to breed; well whatever is left: and do that for 50 years and what do we have: a group of deer that due to circumstances not of their own choice that are – bred down to a lower genetic level than what would have naturally happened if left alone.

Now compare that to what deer breeders have been doing for many years: breeding them up. What we do is look at our mature bucks and choose the one with the largest bone structure, muscle mass, healthiest etc. and we put him in with the doe groups in October and November. Incidentally antler size is a side affect; although traits of antler development are genetic; size really goes back to health and body size. So the rule of thumb is: feed them and give them a few years (age is a huge issue) so they can reach their body structure potential and they will put up large antler growth. It takes a solid vertebral structure and neck muscling to carry around ten pounds of antler for nine months. Another aside: we have also been breeding up the does, our eyes aren’t only on the boys; studies show that the female genetics are actually more important than the male side in terms of individual offspring health.

I have to wrap this up for now as time is of the essence and there is a tractor and wagon that needs my attention. I’ll leave you with a few things to consider:

Does is make sense/cents to have a special doe season in late January when the largest deer in that group when looked at through the sites of a gun just may be a buck that has lost his antlers early due to a stressful rutting season???

Does it make sense that when the food plots run out of nutritional value, which this year the ones that I’ve looked at did not produce even close to potential, due to all the rain this growing season, that the starving herd will penetrate as deep as Harrison Park if we have a winter even near the severity of last???

Does it make sense that we should even look at deer as a valued resource; or all wildlife for that matter?

Does it make sense that hunting should be viewed by the public as an honorable sport? After all it is derived from a time when our forefathers had to hunt and gather in order to ensure the survival of their own families during harsh winters of the past. Pre-grocery store times.

Does it make sense that we humans must realize that being at the top of the food chain requires a tremendous amount of responsibility? Likewise the hunter owes a tremendous amount of respect to the pursued, after all they give their lives for our sport. . . it comes down to ethics, very important element of all this!

Whitetail are amazing animals, not only to look at but also their instinctual behaviors – very intriguing, awesome actually, developed through what way is really no matter of concern; rather years of evolution vs. possibly a couple steps higher in power as far as the designer. They, as all wildlife, deserve a certain level of attention. “Are we doing the correct thing?”

I noticed due to diminishing pheasant populations that the powers-to-be loosened the restriction on releasing pen raised birds this year. Very interesting.

One final thought. Does it makes sense that when the powers-to be, realize what deer breeders have accomplished and contemplate a futuristic style of thinking that they come up with a plan to send a group a sharp shooters into a large hunting area and put down a portion of the existing whitetail population and replace it with some of ours that this could be a positive change. I truly believe that the first state that does this experiences a remarkable influx in tourism into that area from the hunting community. It makes all the cents in the world to me.

A deer friend,

(signed) Roger Berkland

Emmetsburg, IA