New Study Reveals How Whitetails React to Hunting Pressure

Data from a 3-year Mississippi study is beginning to reveal some new insights into whitetail buck movement and core home ranges.

New Study Reveals How Whitetails React to Hunting Pressure

Photo courtesy of MSU Deer Lab

How many times has this happened to you? During summer, you locate a good-size buck — or three. Might be by glassing green fields late in the day, when bucks are still in velvet and they come out of the thick cover just after sunset. Might be on a trail camera, or it might be nothing more than some really big tracks in the mud. Bingo! You start planning your strategy.

And then, nothing. No more sightings, no more trail cam pics, no more big tracks. It’s as if he just vanished into thin air. Still, you keep persevering, believing that an older buck has a small home range, so he just has to be right here.

And that might be true. But 2 years of data from a 3-year Mississippi study is beginning to reveal some new insights into whitetail buck movement and core home ranges. “The study shows that 60 percent of the bucks have a sedentary personality,” said Steve Demarais, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the Mississippi State University Deer Lab. “They pretty much live in one contiguous area. The other 40 percent live in two home ranges during hunting season that are separated by several miles. They’re living in more than one home range during the season. We’re seeing two different personalities. Sixty percent are sedentary and 40 percent are more mobile.”

Deer Study Specifics

The study of deer movement by the MSU Deer Lab and the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks began in 2016, when 55 mature bucks were captured and fitted with tracking collars utilizing GPS technology and ear tags. The GPS collars collect data on the movement of the deer throughout the year, but during hunting seasons, they collect data more frequently. At the same time, many of the landowners and hunting clubs in the study area agreed to provide information about when and where they hunt. Together, the two sets of data are providing a much clearer picture of how deer react to hunting pressure.

Although the focus of the study is on how mature bucks react to hunting pressure, it has revealed the two personality types of mature bucks, among other things. “Within that (sedentary) 60 percent, half of them make excursions outside their home range; a mile or two outside their home range,” Demarais said. “Excursions have been documented throughout the year. You see a little more frequency during the breeding season.” These excursions can explain why a buck suddenly disappears only to reappear. But what about those bucks that disappear and some are never seen again? The study has shown something that is likely new information to most of us.

“All of these bucks are moving,” Demarais said. “100 percent — all of them — home ranges are shifting across time. All of the bucks are changing the emphasis of their home range.”

Demarais said the shift is gradual, and from month to month there is significant overlap of a buck’s range, but over the course of a few months, a buck’s home range may be in a completely different area. “They are shifting month to month as they move across the landscape,” Demarais said. “If you pattern a buck early in the season, you need to get him relatively soon.”

Other studies have shown buck movement tendencies in relation to hunter pressure. For example, a study on the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation’s Oswalt Ranch (NFOR) in Love County, Oklahoma, showed that as human pressure increased over the course of the season, deer sightings became fewer, not because the deer left the area, but because their home ranges actually shrank and daylight movement decreased as human encroachment increased. These bucks simply dove into thick cover and didn’t come out much as more people began tromping through the woods.

The MSU study drives home the point that all deer are not the same, personality-wise, something those of us who have spent lots of time watching them learned long ago.

If you spot velvet bucks feeding in a green field (this bachelor group is feasting on Mossy Oak BioLogic Lablab), don’t assume the deer will still be around after hunting pressure increases.
If you spot velvet bucks feeding in a green field (this bachelor group is feasting on Mossy Oak BioLogic Lablab), don’t assume the deer will still be around after hunting pressure increases.

Takeaways for Deer Hunters

As the early archery deer season approaches, this information should help you plan your strategy. For many years, if I found velvet-antlered bucks feeding in crop fields, I’d try and plan an attack strategy that was very passive. My main goal was to not spook the deer; if I got a shot that was great, but I didn’t want them to leave the neighborhood thinking that my odds would be much better later, during the pre-rut and rut periods. Now I’m thinking that, while I never want to be careless and spook deer, if I’m a bit more aggressive and lightly bump them trying to get an early season bow shot, it’s not the end of the earth. They’ll probably shift their core range a bit when the velvet’s gone, and I’ll be back in the game in 6 or 8 weeks. It’s actually the does I don’t want to scare, because they’ll more than likely live close to the good eats as long as they’re available. When the rut begins, they’ll be the magnet that draws bucks back.

What’s your take? Do you have experiences with bucks that appear, and then just disappear for no obvious reason? Do you have cameras spread out on your hunting area, where you can capture pictures of the same mature bucks miles apart? When hunting pressure increases, do you find your mature buck sightings decrease, and your camera pictures are taken more often after dark? Drop me a note at editor@grandviewoutdoors.com, I’d love to hear about your in-the-field experiences.

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