October 17, 2023

Oh Deer! The Role of Hunters in Managing White-Tailed Deer Populations

whitetail doe, whitetail deer, marsh deer-5330976.jpg
Article Contact: Kent Keene,

Why it Matters: Generational differences in approaches to deer hunting, and deer herd management, often reflect the dominant management strategy in place when a certain generation began hunting. For many hunters who remember the “buck-only” days that dominated much of the 20th century, the idea of harvesting a doe can seem sacrilegious. However, given the importance of managing deer densities to maintain ecosystem health, reduce human-wildlife conflict, and slow the spread of wildlife diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease, doe harvest is an important component of many modern deer management strategies and represents a critical opportunity for hunters to play a role in that management.

  • Recently, the state of Missouri concluded one of several new hunting opportunities designed to increase white-tailed deer harvest, particularly doe harvest, in an effort to combat the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).
  • For many hunters, particularly those who came of age as sportsmen and women during the time of “buck-only” deer hunting seasons that were once common during the 20th century, harvesting a doe is not only less popular, but may even be viewed as blasphemous.
  • Due to the success of deer restoration efforts throughout the 20th century, population management strategies have changed. For sportsmen and women who value their role in the management of deer herds, doe harvest is as important as ever.

During the second weekend in October, Missouri deer hunters had an opportunity to participate in the first early antlerless portion of the state’s firearms deer hunting season. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), 16,575 antlerless deer were harvested. In light of this season, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation (CSF) seeks to address a question that was likely asked in many small-town cafés throughout the Show-Me: “Why would you want to harvest a doe?”

This question is one that deer managers receive quite often, particularly from hunters who can recall the not-too-distant days of “buck-only” deer hunting seasons that were common in many states in the mid-to-late 20th century. The answer to this question inherently involves a celebration of the sportsmen-led resurgence of white-tailed deer populations across the country. One of the most notable species nearly extirpated from much of the nation due to westward expansion, habitat loss, and the effects of market hunting, deer numbers reached an all-time low in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It was at this time that a series of events culminated in one of the most inspiring conservation success stories in the world. Thanks to the creation of state fish and game commissions, dedicated research focused on wildlife conservation and management, and the creation of the American System of Conservation Funding, deer populations at many areas are at an all-time high.

But the question remains, why harvest does? As deer recovery efforts reached the point where hunter harvest was sustainable, deer management was focused on a buck-only harvest framework. Under maximum sustained yield, the sex most involved in reproduction (i.e., does, or female deer) are protected to maximize population growth. Today, however, population management has shifted to help balance populations with both social and biological carrying capacities, often requiring doe harvest to support healthy populations.

Recently, the proliferation of diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease has further highlighted the importance of maintaining reasonable deer densities. This is where the new Missouri antlerless hunting seasons come into play. To continue to rely on hunters to decrease deer population densities and slow the spread of CWD, doe harvest is critical, and CSF applauds the MDC’s continued reliance on hunters to support deer conservation efforts. For more information on deer management, CWD, or other similar issues, visit your state fish and wildlife agency’s website or our friends at the National Deer Association.

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