Desert Mule Deer “Management”: Does Culling Low-Point Desert Mule Deer Bucks Help or Harm the Herd and Its Genetics?
Culling Mule Deer – or whitetail – is scientifically unjustifiable, and does not improve herd genetics.
Note: This post originally appeared on this blog in November 2014
Approach #1: Remove Cull Bucks to Improve Herd Genetics
…Jerad Wayne Zachary, Deer Guide
Dear Mr. Gill,
I hope you are doing well. I just wanted to throw in my evaluation on the deer herd this year, and ask for your input. Seems to me that in the past few years the number of mature bucks with 5 points or less (not including brow tines) has greatly increased.
These are just a few that I have seen these past two trips to the ranch. I wish I had taken pictures of all of them but did not. I will say that we counted over 6 bucks that were 4½ or older in one day that fit in to this category. The majority of these bucks were with does. There are some young deer with great genetics but I not seen many older deer with the “typical” mule deer frame (G2 and G4 forks).
I was curious to hear what your thoughts would be on this matter. This would be my thought process. Removing deer with “management” antlers of age 4 1/2 or older would be beneficial for the ranch. Even if the wildlife habitat has had a hard year, I do not believe that would be justification enough for not harvesting these deer when we see a great number of younger deer with better genetics. I believe it would reduce the number of animals to a healthy population, decrease competition (especially in hard years) and allow for the deer with better genetics the opportunity to breed more does.
I must say that the mule deer this year look very healthy body wise. There are some hefty deer walking around this year!
I know you have a greater knowledge on wildlife management and I would enjoy hearing your input on this subject.
Approach #2: Shoot Nothing Younger Than Age 5½ and If Culling Remove Bucks Under 7 Points
…Misty Sumner, TPWD Biologist (pictured here with husband Lane)
Good observations by Jared. A couple of thoughts from me…
When he saw 6 bucks 4 1/2 and older that fit into the 7 point and less category (I count brow tines) how many other bucks in those same age classes did he see?
A 4½-year old mule deer buck in West Texas is not quite old enough to say he is showing his potential. They are still in “maintenance mode” and are putting a lot into skeletal bone growth. I’d recommend 5½ be the age you consider the earliest you would shoot any mule deer buck in West Texas. It takes time to grow the skeletal support for the large frame size you see.
You can call it culling, you can call it wise use, you can call it managing your herd or whatever you want but bottom line there is no reason to protect bucks 5½- yrs. old and older with 7 points and less if you have plenty of mature bucks in your herd with more desirable antler configurations.
Approach #3: Mimic Nature. Manage Wildlife Holistically
…Richard Gill & Christopher Gill
Circle Ranch Co-Owners
With all due respect to the previous comments, let us address concerns that lead to the family’s rejection of “culling.”
Eugenics Is Bad Science
As everybody who completed high school in the United States had to learn, a Punnett square is a tabular way to predict the manifestation of genetics in a breeding event. No animal manifests 100 percent of its genes – it’s simply impossible.
Knowing that, and knowing that each individual is harboring many genes that have not manifested, who could possibly claim that looking at buck’s antlers could demonstrate even 1 percent of that animal’s genetic worth?
Perhaps that deer carries a resistance to CWD. Perhaps it has a recessive gene for the largest antlers known to man: Michael Jordan’s father was a banker!
Genetics express themselves at different times and in mysterious ways. That’s why most fields of science have long-since abandoned eugenics. Yet the practice of eugenics persists in wildlife biology among trained biologists who learned it in our wildlife schools.
The only thing we know for certain is that DIVERSITY of genetics is the most critical asset of all. Reducing genetic diversity, especially by such an arbitrary means as judging antler size, runs counter to our interests.
“Invasion Biology” Is Crackpot Science
Added to the bogus science of eugenics are the superstitious beliefs of “Invasion Biology.” These justify eradications and culling. Invasion ‘Biologists’ claim the world is being invaded and attacked by thousands of “aggressive alien invaders.” According to their beliefs, any living thing that is not “native” is, by definition, “harmful.” Also however, if “natives” also are “invasive” or “aggressive,” then “natives” like “aliens” also are “unnatural” and do “harm” to “integrity” and “ecosystem health.”
Because these empirically-hollow buzzwords can mean anything, and can be changed at will, they can justify almost any ‘management’ practice and have reinforced the eradication and culling mania, which is often directed at native species.
Native species under TPWD attack in our far-West Texas mountains include mule deer does, lions, elk, coyotes, bobcat, foxes, and other naturalized animals like burros, wild longhorn and aoudad.
Beyond eradications, the agrochemical giants with the help of their cronies in the public and government sector have seized on Invasion Biology. This has given them a scientific-sounding justification for expanding their industrial agriculture model – based on massive, growing use of herbicides – to wildlife practice. The practices indicated by Invasion Biology pseudoscience are now taught in our universities and wildlife schools.
From this fundamentally dangerous thinking comes our widespread and growing poisoning of plants (which wildlife needs for food and cover), wildlife removals/eradications, and antler-based (eugenic) culling. Each of these harms mule deer.
Today, killing what we don’t want to increase what we think we want is the primary tool of farmers, ranchers and wildlife “managers:”
Choose what we like and kill its “competitors”: Nature can be subdued and improved!
Mule Deer Are Easy to Over-Count
This is not the first time we have considered culling. A few years ago, despite the objections of some owners, we bit on this idea. We shot large numbers of “trophy” and “cull” bucks. Using accepted survey methodologies, we greatly over-estimated populations. By the time we made an accurate survey from a helicopter we found that we had far fewer animals than we thought, and while there were still lots of deer, whole age classes of bucks had been shot out.
That’s when we elected to end commercial hunting of deer and severely curtailed the family take. For us there are no “surplus” deer at Circle. We have a large family and plenty of friends who would love a hunt. Some commercial hunter’s cull may be the deer of a lifetime for one of our youngsters.
Mule Deer Are Declining
Deer numbers are down 40 percent across far-West Texas, according to TPWD’s unadjusted numbers. While blamed on drought, habitat decline is the root problem and it is making drought more severe. Habitat will continue downwards so long as we apply conventional practices to the systems, including removing livestock, eradicating animals, and using poisons. Taken together, these conventional practices are inappropriate responses to the unintended consequences of messing with nature in the first place. Holistic management is the best management process to reverse decline.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
CWD, the tragic, unintended result of Colorado wildlife department actions, has arrived in Texas. CWD is invariably fatal and appears to have infected 30% of the far-West Texas herd where it is currently found. We in Hudspeth County are in the danger area for this disease. There is no guarantee the infection rates will not rise but even if they do not, the herd will be down 60 percent if and where both trends converge.
Most hunting decisions are made as though properties stand by themselves. In fact however, the outcomes of the deer that range across the Circle Ranch are not restricted to our actions alone. Some of our neighbors are overharvesting.
For political reasons, the deer season has been extended for properties with MLDP status.
In the last five years, over 50 mule deer does have been killed next door at the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area, located 1,000 feet away at our closest point. There were only a few hundred does in the herd to start with. TPWD rationalizes that this 50-doe removal is “negligible” compared to overall deer numbers across far West Texas, yet it is significant to say the least in the Southeast corner of the Sierra Diablos. Mule deer move widely and the Circle Ranch herd and the SDWMA herd are one and the same.
Holistic Wildlife Management
We are holistic managers at the Circle Ranch. We are not at war with any species and certainly not with biodiversity in general. If human impact changes a system so that some plant or animal declines, and if nature wants to try to fill that empty niche by increasing a native or a naturalized non-native and in the process repair the system, leave nature alone!
History shows that eradications of exotic plants or animals have never succeeded in removing a single one, notwithstanding the river of money given the consultants, bureaucrats and chemical companies who promise they will. What these efforts, including culling, have produced are masses of unintended consequences, always worse than what was supposedly being “managed,” as well as declining habitat and wildlife.
At the Circle Ranch, we have observed that natural processes work better than guns and poisons and cost nothing. We have seen natives, like these elk, reestablish themselves over exotics as systems recover. After all, that is why the natives dominated those systems from the beginning.
Animal impact is our main tool. We rely on a diverse population of wild animals including deer, elk, pronghorn, bighorn, aoudad, and javelina, and, other domestics, some of which are semi-wild, including llamas, goats, horses and burros. Just like nature “back in the day,” we rely on mixed herds of many animals delivering a variety of animal impacts as they constantly move around.
Along with these, when appropriate we run cattle. These are grazed seasonally as forage indicates, and water availability allows. Think of the old bison herds and their migrations dictated by forage and water availability.
Predators are good: None of ours are targets for eradication. Predators cull sick, weak and defective animals more effectively, by far, than any wildlife “manager.”
We use technology to supplement water and to fix impaired water cycles, so the system can right itself. (CLICK HERE)
A Deer Program That Can’t Backfire
For these reasons, and because there simply isn’t any slack in the system, we will continue our current course of action:
• Harvesting small numbers of deer by family and friends;
• Shooting only old trophy bucks, which have had several years to breed;
• Giving away or selling no deer;
• Monitoring the growth and health of the mule deer herd, with the help of Jerad, Misty, Steve and others, and hunting the mule deer in a respectful way.
On 32,0000-acres we have killed five bucks and no does in the last five years combined, as we rebuild the seven-year- and-above age class. We think the eventual harvest should not exceed five to six bucks per year.
It Is Working
Because we can now see so many more bucks, and because many of these look like they will grow into trophy specimens, we believe our practices are leading to the healthiest herd in years.
Approach #4: The Dangers of Culling, Sculpting and ‘Reverse Culling’ to Herd Genetics
…by Steve Nelle, NRCS Retired
This is an interesting and relevant discussion and I appreciate the opportunity to comment.
Extreme Deer Culling
The current modern culture of Texas deer management has put great emphasis on culling. This started with whitetail where the practice has gone to the extreme in many cases and has now moved to desert mule deer where it is much less applicable.
The practice of unwise culling can have some very detrimental effects on a deer herd, especially when done too aggressively. I have seen it many times.
Low Numbers = Low Harvest
You hit on the most important issue when you said that there is currently no surplus of deer on Circle. If there is no surplus, there should be a very low harvest and little if any culling. Culling is not an issue to be considered unless there is a surplus of deer.
Deer Count Methods Can Lead to Disasters
You hit on another important thing when you noted that the survey method being used overestimated deer numbers. This is a common thing and can be disastrous to a management program. When deer numbers are extrapolated from a partial sampling, you are taking a real risk. I have seen the effects of this and it can take a population backwards and it can take a long time to recover once it is discovered.
Some intentional removal of some of the poorest examples of antler development might be helpful IF you have a surplus of deer and IF the population needs to be trimmed. The aggressiveness of culling would then be commensurate with the amount of surplus.
Culling Does Not Improve Genetics
Research in white-tail has shown that culling in a free ranging herd has negligible if any effects on antler genetics of future generations. Since mule deer wander much farther than whitetail, I suppose there would be even less potential benefit.
Cohort Sculpting Can Backfire
What has been demonstrated is that a cohort of bucks can be “sculpted”. If the lesser antlered (smaller) bucks of each age class are removed, then by the time that cohort reaches maturity, the remaining individuals will have larger antlers. This is not a genetic change. But the downside of doing this is that there may be very few bucks reaching maturity if this practice is carried out in harsh environments.
If the owner/manager is content to let predators, disease, drought do most of the herd thinning, and if he is content with whatever kinds of antlers nature produces, then no culling should be done – simply harvest a few truly mature bucks if desired and appreciate the “trophy experience” regardless of the size of the rack.
Sustained, Intense Trophy Hunting Hurts Genetics
With that said, if only the biggest antlers are selectively removed year after year for several decades, the size of antlers will probably decline. This high grading by intense trophy hunting is sort of reverse culling. Either extreme can be detrimental.
Population Cycles Normal
I expect that the Circle Ranch may once again see an excessive population of deer sometime in the future. If we get into a different rainfall mode such as we saw in the 70’s and 80’s, and if fawn crops are high for successive years, and the range flourishes to produce an abundance of forbs and browse and grass, I think you will see the deer population drastically increase. If this happens, you will be in a position to practice some common sense culling, if you desire, as a tool to improve antler size of mature bucks (sculpting the cohort). You would also need to remove some of the excess females if this happens.
But for now, if numbers are low and if you are trying to re-build the population, this does not seem like the time to practice culling.
Many thanks to our contributors, and especially to Jerad for keeping our game cameras in order, and editing thousands of photos monthly.
Our readers’ remarks are welcomed below.
A remark from my son Richard:
“Sounds good Dad, I agree. The comments from Steve are interesting. I think he’s closest to the point. But, these concepts are not responsive to my main point:
If deer become overabundant, won’t natural selection favor those with the best genes? How did “good” genes arise if not through that mechanism? God?
Where is the real genetic study on antlers? Which specific genes affect them? Are they recessive or dominant (how and when do they manifest)?
Without considering those questions, this is literally a discussion of 18th to 19th century vintage. Somewhere between Malthus and Darwin, and not ten minutes after.”
So I initially thought that this was a ugly ugly website and place for murdering in the name of “jus shootin sumthin”. To my surprise, and yay it is not! I am so proud of the work you all are doing here. As Texans, we often get a very bad wrap for ‘totin guns and shootin stuff’, and well very true in some cases, not so much for others.
I am a studying wildlife biologist/ecocology for environmental science major and have spent my life vouching for those who cannot speak for themselves (animals/trees and such). As I said before, wow, I am very proud of the work and progress you all have made in keeping WILD populations of these native majestic species and limiting the death rate by protecting them. As well, just providing this information to those ‘gun slingers’ is a very valuable asset to those species and those of us working very hard to protect them from unfounded killings. I dont hunt, don’t like it, and never will unless a necessity of survival. So me personally getting through to the ignorance of those who slaughter for sport is almost, like me speaking to the deaf. (No offense) So I guess as hunters yourselves, it comes across as easier to hear than from some “hippie”. I am sincerely grateful for what your doing on this ranch! It is fabulous and thank you. Keep it up and build up the acreage of that land, I want my grand kids to see the native Texas wildlife, in the wild, and you are contributing to that happening. I’m 27, so you have alot of years of work to do. As well, I would love to visit your ranch and possibly do a prolific research project, shooting for national geographic, so maybe it could benefit the both of us.
Thank you so much.
I understand that many ladies object to hunting and maybe it is partly because, as my wife’s grandmother once remarked to me, “Women give life, not take life”.
As I get older I come more to respect those who build wildlife and habitat, although I do enjoy shooting enough quail or doves for dinner and catching fish that can be enjoyed fresh. And venison is a treat. But I prefer to be given it by friends who we invite to hunt.
Call me 210-240-3800 and we will plan to meet.
Agree with much of your discussion with the exception regarding predator control. Mountain lions do NOT only take diseased and weak deer. They may disproportionately take bucks and often older bucks that tend to be solo individuals.
Consider also how many deer a pair of lions will be taking from your ranch annually.
That said, I am not in favor of entirely eliminating mountain lions or coyotes for that matter. I suggest you determine to the best of your ability how many lions hunt your ranch and adjust your strategy on the basis of whether you are happy with how many deer they are taking. But my main point is that lions do take healthy deer and often mature bucks (their solo behavior through part of the year makes them easier to stalk and kill).
Thank you for this thoughtful comment.
I would never say that predators do not take healthy animals. I would say that the system is in better balance as a result of having lots of different kinds of wildlife including the predators.
We deal with this issue every day: how can any of us possibly say what the right number of predators are? Why would anybody think that a wildlife “manager” can do a better job than these animals?
Perfection and imperfection are relative. These systems evolved over tens of millions of years. Why shouldn’t healthy animals be removed?
The idea that we can improve on nature would be hilarious, except for the vast damage that attempting to do so has caused!
I have to disagree with your assumption that lions take a misappropriate number of bucks. While herding during the Circle Ranch’s last grazing season there were at least two lions on the ranch that I knew of. In a month’s time I watched two groups of does lose four deer each. As lions eat a deer a week, these two cats were concentrating on does, not bucks.
Thank you for this comment Bob.
The idea that lions kill every three days was based on the assumption that they could only tolerate fresh meat in their diet: In fact, that rotten meat was lethal. Recent research has shown lions returning to kills that are weeks old. So, the assumed frequency that we have all been talking about as having been proven turns out to be wrong.
In addition, the assumption that lions only eat deer is very doubtful, unless deer are the only prey species present. This is why it is so important to have many species: aoudad,javelina, burros, llamas, and cattle are all species that lions might hunt, or feed on if killed by other animals, or by accident/disease. So are deer, pronghorn, sheep and elk. Spread the risk to any one species by having lots of species.
Simplistic assumptions about “appropriate” relations of the sex of kills, and selection of species, usually lead to inappropriate actions based on such mistaken assumptions – like killing every lion it is possible to kill – and to unintended consequences and more inappropriate responses in a downward spiral.
When they put sheep down at Big Bend Ranch, they killed everything else first. That left one thing for the lions to eat: the sheep!
Much better to get biodiversity into the system and then leave it alone. I really don’t understand why so many people think we can do this better than mother nature.
I’d also like to reply to Destinee…if you have the bandwidth see if you can handle some of Paul Shepard’s books you can find here: http://paulhoweshepard.wordpress.com
Nature is not a collection of pieces, but a process. I find it ironic that you take the time to post your anti hunting views but not your opinion about the rancher growing cattle destined for slaughter. Even if you are vegan, there is no escape from killing life. I would argue our species is near the precipice of destruction precisely because of our alienation from food and Nature in general. In the year 2555 when our ancestors are munching on algae muffins and tofu, where will the animals be? Gone.
If you want your grandkids to see native Texas wildlife, let me suggest you buy a hunting license. Hunters and fishermen/women are the true conservationists. It comes down to habitat protection and bird watchers, photographers, and hikers don’t cut it.
bowhunter, naturalist, biologist, and lover of the wild
As a hunter and fisherman, I agree that the best conservationists have always been hunters. However, today “hunting” is being turned into something of which no sportsman can approve. True sportsmen must oppose eradications whether by poisons or unethical hunting. Please take a look at the sections on Fair Chase.
Thank you for commenting.
Interesting read about selective buck harvest. I think “culling” is often used by hunters to make them feel better about shooting bucks that are less than “trophy quality.” I think culling can shape the buck segment of a deer herd, but to be effective at impacting the gene pool the intensity of harvest takes the enjoyment out of deer hunting, and will drastically reduce the population.
Thought provoking article. I have friends who work on High Fenced deer ranches, and the results of some of the animals they grow makes it hard to argue that what they are doing doesn’t work.
However, one would have to key in on what exactly it is they are doing to understand why they are getting such large animals. It could be argued that it is their “culling” of the inferior genetics and supplementation of animals with the “desired” genetics are what cause the disproportion of big animals.
It could also be argued that it has nothing to do with genetics or culling leading to the huge antlers, but it is instead the proper diet and nutrition allowing these animals to grow to their full potential and phenotypically displaying their genes to the best of their ability.
It can also be said that this is a moot point BECAUSE of the high fence. The entrapment of the deer because of the fence allows one to unnaturally alter the environment in a controlled manner limiting the free movement of genetics and predators throughout the property.
Thanks for the post.
Thanks for this comment Justin.
When managing for long-term restoration of habitat and the community of animals that support it – including mule deer – it has helped me to approach this from a broader perspective than how to get larger antlers within the next year or two.
The genetic issues are what they are: for the reasons stated the genetics are not being improved by culling, even though antlers are growing larger as a function of feed. There was a test done on red deer (European elk) where an unremarkable red deer herd was fed high-protein diet and after just a few years, there were several world records in the herd. The particular facts are recited in this paper at page 49:
Similar insights are found at pages 42 & 47.
If you’re looking to have a healthy heard, why would you select for just one of thousands and thousands of characteristics and why would you not be worried about endangering herd genetics by doing this?
Then you get into the issues of damage from unusually large animal numbers, associated predator removals, removals of so-called competitive species. The ‘cattelization’ of deer and other wild animals has done lots of damage to habitats.
Feeding in a high fenced area will create bigger antlers, but is that hunting? Whatever your views on hunting ethics, and whatever your personal hunting sensibilities may be, the fact is that we are not upgrading the genetics as to antlers, and furthermore selecting for antlers alone is harming the overall health of the herd in ways we cannot begin to understand.
It is far more difficult and much more satisfying, in my opinion, to strive to create larger deer antlers – which are primarily the result of nutrition – by managing towards better habitat using biodiverse animal populations and their associated animal impact as the primary tool. Add to this water harvesting and contour subsoil plowing and you have the restorative deer practices that we use at Circle Ranch.
And then hunt the animal in the old-fashioned way.
I think we’re on the same page on this one! Listening to the Jay Scott Outdoors podcast, he is always discussing the monsoon rains in Arizona, because this is going to be a direct correlation on the antler size of elk and mule deer for that season. If the rains are good, and the animals get the nutrition they need in the proper times of the year, they will have good antler growth. Conversely, if the rains don’t show up, you will be able to tell proportionately. Of course I don’t have the studies to back this up, rather just restating their observations.
Yes and speaking of Arizona and the enormous elk found in the White Mountains (Apache Reservation), these were thought to be a separate species they are so large but it turns out to be nutrition – including consistent timing of plant growth – i.e. different weather not different genes.
Here are studies to explain this pages 42 – 49: https://pitchstonewaters.com/are-elk-native-to-texas-yes/