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Habitat Herd Land Management Rut Tactics

NAW Debate: Why the Rut Ain’t What it Used to Be

by Dr. James C. Kroll   |  October 29th, 2013 1

Unless you’ve been on deployment in the Middle East or on an Antarctic expedition for the last few years, you’ve probably noticed the whitetail rut has become a bit “strange.”

Throughout my roughly 45-year career as a biologist, I’ve seen it’s common for folks to complain about hunting conditions. But recently, the complaints have been piling up at an alarming rate. There’s a lot of confusion and concern about what’s going on with the whitetail rut, and understandably so.

In light of what seems to be a “new normal,” I think it’s time we take a closer look at how things are these days, and why. My goal is to help you understand and deal with deer breeding behaviors that deviate significantly from normal, so you can be prepared for whatever scenario you end up facing in your own woods.

What’s Normal?
Consult a dictionary, and you’ll see “normal” defined as something along the lines of “conforming to a standard; usual, typical or expected.” For biologists, though, “normal” has a somewhat different meaning. We see “normal” occurrences as a distribution of a biological phenomenon, expressed as a bell-shaped curve. The peak of this curve represents the “average,” with decreasing frequency of occurrence to the right and left of the peak. The farther you move from the peak of the curve, the less likely the phenomenon is to be observed.

For example, if we could capture all mature whitetail bucks in the U.S. and graph their gross antler scores in 10-inch categories, we’d see that the average would be about 130 inches. Of course, deer would be scattered all up and down the graph, but the majority would score pretty close to 130.  Way to the left of average we’d find a very few bucks scoring a meager 50 inches…while far to the right would be the kind of giants you read features on in this magazine.

We’ve learned over the years that it’s possible to shift the average score, moving the peak of the curve toward one of its tails. Whitetail management in the last two decades has tended to move the curve to the right on well-managed properties. Unfortunately, excessive hunting pressure on bucks in some poorly managed areas has shifted the curve to the left.

It’s really no different when discussing the biological events associated with whitetail breeding. There’s an “average” date for when does in a given population are bred, and most mating occurs around that time. But there also are cases well to both sides of the peak. And the more stressed and/or imbalanced the herd is, the more elongated the rut curve is.

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