The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Cleveland County deer hunters hit the field Saturday, muzzleloaders in tow, as Oklahoma’s muzzleloader season kicked off, running through Sunday.
By now, numerous bowhunters already have taken large, mature bucks across our state, with many now turning their interest to harvesting a few does for the freezer.
Deer hunting and management is the most popular form of hunting and wildlife management in Oklahoma and, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, deer hunting has an economic impact of more than $6 million.
According to the ODWC website, their statewide deer management goals continue to place emphasis on reducing harvest pressure on young bucks and increasing the harvest of does. With the continued fine tuning of hunting regulations and increasing public awareness of proper deer management, the Oklahoma deer herd will continue to flourish on both private and public lands.
In recent years, the ODWC, along with many other natural resource agencies and professionals, have encouraged hunters to harvest more antler-less deer and pass young bucks. Harvesting an adequate number of does decreases high-deer densities to healthier levels, balances buck-to-doe sex ratios and improves whole-herd health by improving the nutrition of remaining deer.
Most hunters today are passing young bucks to improve buck age structure in their areas. This practice provides huge benefits to the deer hunter/manager across our county and state. Allowing young bucks to reach mature age classes improves herd dynamics, social structure, rutting behavior, whole herd health and fawn recruitment and has tremendous hunter benefits.
For decades, some states managed deer herds in a manner that the majority of bucks harvested were one-and-a-half years old. White-tailed bucks don’t reach skeletal maturity until around four-and-a-half and grow their largest antlers from five-and-a-half to seven-and-a-half in most areas.
Most biologists refer to bucks one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half as immature, three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half as mid-age, and five-and-a-half or older as mature. Accurately aging wild, free-ranging bucks on the hoof is impossible without identifiable markings that make individuals easily distinguishable. Even as such, it is still important to estimate the age of bucks in the field and via digital trail cameras.
Most consider a buck five-and-a-half or older to be mature, yet few hunters have actually seen a truly mature buck. This is because mature bucks are rare in many areas of our state. Some states produce more older-age bucks than others — namely states like Iowa, Kansas, and Illinois etc.
The factors that allow bucks to reach mature age classes include — but are not limited to — hunting regulations, individual management goals, land size, hunter density and local mentality.
Not having older-age bucks in an area can be detrimental to a deer herd. Abundant research shows skewed sex ratios combined with young buck age structures may result in does not being bred until their second or third cycles. Second and third-cycle fawns may hit the ground in July and August compared with does bred on time, which fawn late April through June.
Fawns born in July and August begin life at a distinct disadvantage. Hot, dry conditions reduce habitat quality by the time they’re born. They have less time to grow before the onset of winter, and predation rates are often higher because the “saturation effect” of having abundant prey on the ground at the same time is lost. Having mature bucks in the population helps ensure the majority of does are bred during their first cycle, bringing about the benefits of an earlier, shorter fawning period.
Mature bucks are part of a natural deer herd. When a balanced buck age structure is achieved, it ensures the social and biological mechanisms shaping deer populations are allowed to function properly. The density, sex ratio and age structure of a deer herd should mimic a population regulated by natural predators. This natural condition provides for a nutritionally and socially healthy herd, and it is only achieved when mature bucks are present.
In addition to the biological benefits, mature bucks provide excellent recreational opportunities for hunters. Sightings or trail-cam photos of mature bucks motivate more hunters and keep them afield longer. In addition, more mature bucks equal more rubs and scrapes for hunters to find, and hunters witness behaviors like sparring and chasing more often, and success rates with rattling and calling deer are higher.
Some key points to remember: Whitetail populations evolved with mature bucks. It is natural and extremely important. The social order of deer herds works best with mature bucks, and young bucks’ health and growth can be enhanced by the presence of mature bucks.
Hunters today are interested in older, larger bucks. Therefore, hunting interest increases when mature bucks are present. So, the next time you pass that two-and-a-half-year-old buck, just know you did your part to improve the health of the deer herd as well as increase your chance of taking a mature buck in the future.
Oklahoma Cooperative Extension offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, disability or status as a veteran and is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
Heath Herje is an agriculture educator for Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service in Cleveland County. He also writes on wildlife issues. He can be reached at 321-4774.
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