The Complicated Whitetail Deer

The Complicated Whitetail Deer

The more we learn about white-tailed deer, the more we learn how little we actually know.

Story and photography by Bob Zaiglin

There are some philosophies about white-tailed deer that withstand the test of time.  Like the fact that antler size increases with age, and if they remain on a consistent high plane of nutrition, complemented with the right genetic makeup, optimal antler size will develop.  However, not everything we know about deer remains the same.

For example, as a wildlife student in college back in the 70’s, I was taught the home range of a white-tailed deer was one square mile, and firmly adhered to this principle until Steve Demarais and I conducted a research project involving mature bucks on a 107,000-acre conventionally-fenced ranch.  By radio-collaring 25 mature bucks and monitoring their movements on a weekly basis over several years, we discovered that South Texas white-tails covered an average of 1,775 to 3,341 acres on an annual basis, with several occupying 8,000 to 10,000 acres.  What these findings represent is the fact that not all deer are the same, with some occupying more land than we once thought and must be managed accordingly.

Another myth is that aging deer based on tooth wear is extremely accurate.  However, managing deer in the brush country, I discovered differences in wear of older deer that I had observed over several years.

My observations were verified in 1996 when Ken Gee of the Noble Foundation administered a test to 34 accomplished biologists, aging 88 known-age jaw bones.

What Gee discovered was that 85 percent of the jaws in the one-to-two-year age class and 73 percent in the two-to-three-year age class were aged correctly, but biologists tend to underestimate the age of older deer.  Furthermore, none of the jaws from deer nine to 10 years old were aged correctly.  Based on Gee’s findings, we can only place deer into three age classes with confidence—fawns, yearlings, and adults.

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