Want More Deer? Save The Fawns.

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

Recruitment Rates Paint Ominous Tale

whitetail fawn

I'm a numbers guy in some ways. Not so much in others.

I try to make decisions based on the best available data and information. Some guys aren't into that. And that's fine. To each their own. But playing by the numbers, by and large, has paid off for me. It helps me in my line of work. It helps me in day-to-day life. And it helps me in deer hunting.

The 2016 Whitetail Report, recently released by the Quality Deer Management Association, is a number-lover's dream. It's packed with all manner of stats and figures involving just about everything deer hunting.

But one of the numbers that struck me the most was this one: 0.39.

That's the estimated fawn recruitment rate in Michigan as of 2010. Down from .53 in 2005. Stats from 2015 weren't available in the report. But I'd be shocked if the trend didn't continue on a downward path.

Fawn recruitment rate is NOT a measure of the number of fawns born per doe. Rather, it's the measure of fawns still alive per doe at the start of the fall hunting season. And that's a very important distinction.

So, in my home state of Michigan, when the October bow season opens one would see one fawn for every three does. Where I live in Southern Michigan, the fawn recruitment rate is likely quite a bit higher than that in Northern Michigan where harsh winters and marginal habitat makes things tough on critters.

So Michigan may be an extreme example, right? Nope. Almost across the board, fawn recruitment rates have been on a steady decline.

In South Carolina, the recruitment rate was 1.09 in 2005, fell to .88 in 2010 and fell again to .80 in 2015. 

On average, the Northeast dropped from .67 in 2005 to .48 in 2015.

The Midwest, as a region, did see slight uptick in recruitment rates from 2005 to 2015 but that wasn't the case in every state. Wisconsin dropped. Ohio dropped. Illinois dropped.

As deer hunters, this is a trend we should find plenty disturbing. We've all heard about the nationwide decline in deer populations. And we've likely placed easy and obvious blame as to the reason: Too many does were shot. The DNR and insurance companies were in cahoots. EHD killed them all.

But pre-hunt recruitment rates aren't impacted by the previous year's deer kill. It's not a count of total deer. It's a count of the number of fawns per doe. How many does were killed last deer season has no bearing on that number.

Think about the numbers: In some states, where you would once expect to see one fawn for every adult doe, you now might see one fawn for every three adult does.

I'm not a math major but even I understand that's a big factor in declining deer numbers and a serious impediment to rebuilding populations where disease has struck.

So what's causing the decline? Well, that is truly the million dollar question. It's likely there is no simple answer.

Increased predator populations almost certainly are taking a toll. So if you aren't a coyote hunter, now is a great time to become one. 

Habitat loss is a likely culprit as well. Fawn survival requires a specific set of habitat needs. When we lose CRP acreage, fencerows and other fawn-hiding cover, we're making things pretty easy for predators.

But is there something more at stake? I've written about and studied theories that equate heavy use of the herbicide glyphosate (often referred to by the brand name RoundUp) as having potential reproductive impacts on animals. I'm not saying those studies are legit. But they are compelling. And each year that glyphosate use increases in agricultural production and fawn recruitment rates dip, I wonder whether there isn't something to it.

The bottom line? Our deer seem to be less productive than in the past. And that's something to think about.