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Scott Rall: Deer are hard to count

Scott Rall

Daily Globe outdoors columnist 

So here is a hard question for you. What does drinking beer and white tail deer have in common?

Consider this: When you go out for a few cold ones with your buddies you might think you have had just the right number. Your buddies will think that you should stay and have one or two more and your sweetie might think that you have already had one too many.

When it comes to white tail deer, if you ask three people, there will be three different opinions as to whether the deer population is just right, that we need a few more and, in some cases, there will be those who think we already have too many.

Who is right? Is there a perfect answer? I have come to the conclusion that when it comes to religion, politics and deer numbers, there will never be much of a consensus.

I have had a great past couple of weeks. I got to ride with the fisheries personnel and learn about the new programs they are working on when it comes to walleye reproduction and stocking in southwest Minnesota. It was pretty cool stuff and I covered it in my past two columns. If you missed them they are on the Daily Globe website. I had lots of calls and comments so they must have been at least OK.

Just a few days later I got a call from Bill Schuna. He is the DNR Area Wildlife Manager whose office is in Slayton. He asked if I want to volunteer a night to go do some work in regards to estimating deer numbers. I said yes, for sure.

We met at the Grain Exchange in Slayton for supper and spent 90 minutes discussing what Bill had done in the past, where he worked and what areas of wildlife management he enjoyed the most.

It was very interesting and Bill is a top-shelf guy whose heart and brain are all in the right place, and he is fully engaged to make Southwest Minnesota’s wildlife resources the very best they can be.

When it comes to estimating deer numbers there has never really been much of an exact science to this effort. Harvest numbers were always the mainstay of this information gathering effort.

Hunters are required to register their kills so harvest numbers can be recorded. Hunters used to have to take the actual animal to a registration station, but you can now do it online, and this has helped improve the reporting consistency.

Another method used to estimate deer numbers in the past was deer depredation reports. If the number of farmers and ranchers who had trouble with deer eating off of their livestock forage piles this was an indication that deer numbers were up, and when there were very few of these troubles it was indicative that deer numbers were lower. Area wildlife managers and their staff also made their own rounds across their work areas to add their own sense of what was happening on the landscape.

The managers would all get together and submit their findings and then the group would kind of decide how many doe permits were needed in each hunting permit area to keep populations in line with what the habitat could support and what the social constraints could or would allow.

If you hit a deer with your car most people think there are deer all over and that the population is out of control. If you hunted an entire season and saw almost no deer you would call the department and say that all the deer had been killed off and populations needed to be protected so they could rebound.

When populations are high, they issue more doe permits. A doe is a female deer. If she is killed she will not raise a fawn or two fawns the following year. Kill lots of does and deer populations will decline. Reduce the number of does killed and the deer herd will expand.

Does are only about 10 percent as smart as a buck. Many people with a buck tag will not shoot a deer in any given season. Almost every person with a doe permit will be successful in killing a deer.

The DNR is undertaking a new research project in about five counties in Southwest Minnesota. They used a masters student working on his thesis to set up possible new method to estimate deer numbers.

It involves computer modeling. Data is entered into a computer model and it uses this data to come up with a few different scenarios to estimate deer numbers. The local DNR personnel are at the end of year two of three collecting this data. When the third year is done the outcomes of the research effort will be distributed and peer reviewed by other researchers. If they find the results to be verified by their science and experience, then we might just get a new way of determining the number of deer in any given area.

The data is collected by driving the same routes at the same time of day. In this case it was after sunset till about midnight. We drove a predetermined route and surveyed deer with the use of a high-beam spotlight. We would look for deer on both sides of the road at 20 miles per hour. When we saw the reflection of their eyes we would stop and count them. Distance them from the road with a range finder and report their exact location. We would then drive a few miles to get to the next survey spot.

This went on from 8 p.m. till 12:30 a.m. I got home a little later than my normal bedtime. Each route is driven several times a year and run from front to back and from the back to front in order to get the most even report of deer counts. Time of the sighting and even wind speeds and outdoor temperature is added to the model.

We are a few years out as to when the outcome of this effort will be completed, and if it will even work is still an unknown.

I like the fact that we are trying harder to get accurate numbers of deer in the landscape. Deer need habitat and winter feed, and if deer numbers are to possibly rise as a result of this effort, hunters and others will need to understand that food plots on public land will need to be increased so they don’t start making trouble for cattle guys and others.

One of the interesting things about my participation in this research is just how far away you can see a deer at night. I range-finded a deer at 485 yards and that deer stuck out like a sore thumb. The deer’s eyes glowed like a laser beam.

When you shine the light on them they will just stand there like they are hypnotized. Minutes would pass and the deer would just stand there.

I can see why deer poaching and shining are such a serious offense. I could have shot 50 deer in one night alone. We saw at least 100 deer in four hours.

Many of the deer were bedded down within 50 feet of the road. They must just lay there and watch the traffic go by and are so well camouflaged that no auto driver even knows they are there.

I must have seen at least 200 raccoons in this trip. Between survey sights as I was driving I would shine the light around pastures, creeks and tree groves. There were coon all over the place. Many trees would have anywhere from 3-5 sets of lights shining back at me.

With so many coon I can’t believe that any ground nesting bird could even bring off a clutch. Raccoons are nest predators, and if it were up to me there would be no closed season on them.

My understanding is this used to be the case but the trapping interests got them protected with a posted season. I would change that back if I were in charge, which I am not.

It was just a great night learning about how deer are managed and what can be done to manage them better.

When it comes to deer numbers I am the buddy who thinks I should have another beer. I gauge deer numbers by how many I see pheasant hunting, and I pheasant hunt a lot.

My dogs don’t chase deer but they do spook them up when we pass through an area. When you can walk in great habitat and not see many deer, I think deer numbers are low. Sure, in the winter when they bunch up there seem to be many, but I think the last posted population number for deer in unit 237 (which is Nobles and Murray counties) the populations was estimated to be 2.25 deer per square miles. Back in the heydays of deer hunting, there was estimated to be 7.5 deer per square mile.

Should we have one more beer? Have we had just the right number or have we had one too many? When it comes to deer there will never be the perfect answer to satisfy all interests.