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How to Manage Whitetails on Private Lands: Part 6

Exploring the DMAP approach, and how it can be applied to private land management.

How to Manage Whitetails on Private Lands: Part 6

Managing wildlife isn’t possible without managing people. This can mean working cooperatively with neighbors, hunting club members or state agencies to make the most informed decisions regarding habitat and harvest. Working together to collect and share data, and being receptive to “teachable moments,” is something every deer hunter must embrace before real change can be enacted in a management program. (Photo by Dr. James C. Kroll)

I have been a college professor for 50 years, during which countless students have come to me for advice on a career in Wildlife Management. I often ask them why they want to be a wildlife biologist and have lost count of the number of times the answer is, “Well, I really don’t like people and would prefer to work with animals!” My response is, “You need to reconsider your career choice, then, since wildlife management is people management.”

I should know, since long ago I had to admit I was a “pathological introvert,” not really wanting to be around people myself! It wasn’t until I realized this, and took steps to train myself in communication skills, that I really became effective in my career! That said, we now turn to the third leg of the wildlife management stool, people management.

The “Father of Wildlife Management,” Aldo Leopold, clearly understood the need for involving people in the management process. He noted: “There are conflicting theories on how to bring the land, the means of payment, and the love of sport into productive relationship with each other. No one can confidently predict which theory is ‘best.’ The way to resolve differences is to bring all theories susceptible of local trial to the test of actual experience. The ‘best’ plan is the one most nearly mutually satisfactory to the three parties at interest, namely the landowner, the sportsman, and the general public. No other plan is likely to be actually used.”

Ironically, some 65 years later, I would be appointed by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin as its first “Deer Steward,” to deal with issues which had lost credibility for the state’s game agency! During our studies on how the deterioration of public trust had happened, we concluded that the people had been left out of the management paradigm! The agency had become fixated on “science,” adopting a commonly held professional belief that the people were not informed enough to be included in decision making!

Years before, two of my colleagues, Drs. David Guynn and Harry Jacobson, had come up with a brilliant solution to deer management on private and public lands in Mississippi. They called it the Deer Management Assistance Program, or DMAP. These two men have been life-long friends, and Dave was part of our team for the Wisconsin Project. We and other young biologists had formed the Southeast Deer Study Group, the purpose of which was to work cooperatively with other southern biologists to share the rapidly growing bank of knowledge about deer behavior, physiology and management.

At that time, the science of “human dimensions” was a stepchild in deer management, and Dave and Harry became the adoptive parents. I was quickly pulled into the group.

The genius of DMAP involved two tenets: 1. Involve the public in data collection and research studies; 2. Share this information as quickly as possible with the cooperators and other landowners and hunters. Mississippi State University’s wildlife department became the research arm of the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Department, and the university generated new information and made it available to the public through the Mississippi Extension Service. MWFP provided technical guidance to landowners wanting to manage their deer.

kroll-managing-whitetails-6-chart
This graph shows harvest data over a decade period (2011 to 2022) for one deer club which desired to increase average buck harvest age. Accomplishing this goal required harvesting more does and less immature bucks. (Graphic courtesy of Dr. James C. Kroll)

It is very difficult for a “layman” to argue with a management practice, when that person was actively involved in collecting the data that led to the practice. DMAP, and similar programs using other names, quickly spread across the South, but was slow to be adopted by agencies in northern states. I presume this is probably because northern agencies had been around a lot longer than the southern agencies.

The Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research at Stephen F. Austin State University was perfect for bringing this concept to Texas! We already had begun work with landowners. We tagged our program “The Cooperative White-tailed Deer Management Program.” We immediately applied what Dave and Harry had learned in Mississippi to hunting clubs and landowners in eastern Texas. Unfortunately, it would be many years before the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department adopted a similar program, now called the Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP).

Any such program requires a new type of biologist, modeled after the Agricultural Extension Agent system put into effect after the Great Depression. This biologist, often called the Technical Guidance Biologist, is tasked with helping landowners and hunting clubs establish goals, collect data and provide guidance in making management decisions. This requires a special person, since he/she must work directly with people. Thus, interpersonal communication skills and a love of people are mandatory!

Since DMAP is the model for sound deer management, I will shift my discussion to how you can apply what we have learned over the years to your unique situation. That last term is critical to success, unique situation. There is no such thing as a “cookbook” approach to deer management. Every piece of land is unique in some way; either the land itself is, or the people living and hunting on it are! Yes, the basic tenets are universal, but it’s the nuances that matter.

In the first five parts of this series, I focused mostly on goal setting, data collection and analysis, and the plan for implementation. Yet, how do you know if the plan is working? That’s where the DMAP approach can be applied to private land management.

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The data collection I discussed earlier is only as good as the analysis and timeliness of results. Over the years, several consultants and agencies have attempted to emulate the DMAP model and failed. Why? Because they did not provide timely feedback on what the data were telling you!

Our approach to private land management has been first to acknowledge and make clear that you do not manage a deer herd; instead, you fine-tune it. You set a definable and measurable goal, collect data that will tell how the deer herd and habitat have responded, then make necessary changes and adjustments to improve management.

kroll-managing-whitetails-6-buck
If hunters want to take older bucks, they must first learn to pass immature deer. This is a good example of how “people management” relates to deer management. (Photo by Berry Medley, Shutterstock)

To explain further, let’s look at a simple, often-requested aspect of deer management: age structure adjustment. Can I safely say that older bucks are more likely to have larger antlers? Yes, there are exceptions, of course, but in general that is true. So, if your goal is to have a buck segment made up of older animals, how do you know it’s happening? Early on, we train owners, members, managers and hunters how to age deer using either jawbones or tooth sectioning (the former is most practical). Yes, there is some error in the procedure, but in general it’s a good way to age the deer you harvest, especially if you use age classes.

Now, let’s look at an example. We were approached by a hunting club unhappy with the quality of bucks taken each season over several years. They asked us what to do, and we surprised them a bit. We just asked them to collect a jawbone from every deer harvested. And then, we constructed them a check-station, complete with all the tools they needed, including a recordbook. The club voted to come down hard on anyone not adhering to the one and only club rule — pull the jawbone and record data on every deer you kill!

During the first three years, members mostly followed the data collection rule. We worked with them on habitat, food plots and continued to analyze their harvest. The season was over in December, so we always provided them with the analysis of data by the first of February. The attached graphs show some of the historic data the club collected over a 12-year period.

Each year, we sent them their updated graphs and sat down with the members to discuss the results. Most importantly, we also included the average data for clubs in their geographic area. That way, they could compare their herd data with other landowners.

When club members saw how different their data were from other clubs combined, they asked why they were not like the others? Then we had them exactly where we wanted, in a “teachable moment!” We pointed out they were killing too many young bucks, and barely any does, which accounted for the disparity in average age between bucks and does. We also showed them their lactation rate (percentage in milk) was way below the average club, meaning they had too many does.

They reluctantly agreed to increase doe harvest for the first time ever the third season! We also suggested they pass up young bucks, and again they agreed reluctantly to try, with no success. The fourth year, lactation rate increased somewhat (19 to 23 percent), but average buck age remained the same. It was then they asked about voluntary antler restrictions.

The decision was to impose a 14-inch outside spread limit, which is about where their bucks held their ears. You can see the results in the fifth season. This does not mean the buck segment was older, just that the harvest was older. Encouraged by the response they were getting from increased doe harvest, they decided to increase doe harvest again. The fifth season lactation rate doubled from their third year (42 percent vs. 19 percent); then the next year it tripled (63 percent vs 19 percent).

kroll-managing-whitetails-6-hero
Record keeping and data collection is paramount to deer management. The author works with ranches, clubs and private landowners across the continent to improve their deer land year after year. (Photo by Dr. James C. Kroll)

The club continued doe harvest at a higher level and caught up with the other clubs for lactation rate three years later. You can see what I mean by “fine-tuning” a deer herd! The harvest has to fit what is going on specific to your property and management program.

Another strategy regarding people management can be illustrated by our early work managing the Diamond H Ranch near Laredo, Texas, back in the 1970s and 80s. I was approached by one of my wildlife students, Mark Ellett, and asked if I could help him with a project his dad was doing. It turned out, his father was an attorney for a man named H.H. Coffield, who had died, leaving behind the 10,000-acre Diamond H Ranch.

Having no heirs, Mr. Coffield had left his ranch to some charities, but had made an interesting stipulation! It seems for many years, Mr. Coffield had hosted two hunting events at the ranch, in which his friends and several well-known men were invited to hunt white-tailed deer and quail. If I relayed the list of guests, you might be impressed. But I won’t!

It seems Mr. Coffield knew full well in 20 years, most of the old guests would have passed away; so, his stipulation was that the ranch would be managed and hunted by the two groups for 20 years. Then it would be sold, and the proceeds would be distributed to the charities. Being fiscally responsible, Mark’s dad wanted to satisfy Mr. Coffield’s request, but also wanted to increase the value of the ranch to maximize the return to the charities.

That is where I would figure in! My job would be to make the ranch one of the best trophy whitetail ranches in Texas by the time it was sold. The ranch lay right in the “Golden Triangle” of South Texas, where as many Boone & Crockett bucks have been killed as anywhere on earth; so my job should be somewhat easy. Well, not so fast! I was told they would do anything I asked, but we could not tell the guests what they could and couldn’t shoot. Now, that created a problem...

After many conversations with Mark, I came up with what I thought would be a workable plan. Since they could agree to almost anything else, I decided on the following rules: 1. We had to shoot the number of does I prescribed each year; 2. Every deer harvested, buck or doe, had to have data recorded from it, including age, sex, lactation, weight and antler measurements; and, 3. Every buck harvested had to be photographed with the hunter.

The rules passed. The first year, the hunters came and had a great time as usual, but the average age of bucks harvested in the middle of the Golden Triangle was 2.7 years! I was very dismayed, but I had a plan.

The next season rolled around and the first group of hunters showed up for the hunt. On the wall in the Lodge were signs above photographs of the hunters with their bucks. The signs said: “These are the kind of bucks we want you to shoot,” and “These are the bucks we don’t want you to shoot!”

The hunters walked down the wall, finding all but one of their photographs beneath the “Don’t Shoot” sign! The one exception was pretty puffed up to say the least. That wall became known as the “Wall of Shame!”

The average age of bucks that season jumped to 4.7 years, in spite of the fact the herd had not changed demographically one bit. I went out to pick up one of the hunters and helped him load the 2 1/2-year-old buck he had just harvested. “If I had a shovel,” he said, “I would have buried that buck. I don’t want my picture on that wall!” I was still a young biologist then, but it taught me something about the power of peer-group pressure in deer management; a lesson I never have forgotten.

Some 20 years later, the Diamond H Ranch was sold, and it was known as being one of the best trophy whitetail properties in the whole state of Texas! It brought top dollar. In the next (and final) installment of this series, I will review the management metrics we use for measuring progress in a white-tailed deer management program.




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