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White-Tailed Deer Habitat: Ecology and Management on Rangelands

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The original, 2006 edition of Timothy Edward Fulbright and J. Alfonso Ortega-S.’s White-Tailed Deer Habitat: Ecology and Management on Rangelands was hailed as “a splendid reference for the classroom and those who make their living from wildlife and the land” and as “filling a niche that is not currently approached in the literature.”

In this second, full-color edition, revised and expanded to include the entire western United States and northern Mexico, Fulbright and Ortega-S. provide a carefully reasoned synthesis of ecological and range management principles that incorporates rangeland vegetation management and the impact of crops, livestock, predation, and population density within the context of the arid and semiarid habitats of this broad region. As landowners look to hunting as a source of income and to the other benefits of managing for wildlife, the clear presentation of the up-to-date research gathered in this book will aid their efforts. Essential points covered in this new edition include:

White-tailed deer habitat requirements
Nutritional needs of White-tailed deer
Carrying capacity
Habitat management

Focused across political borders and written with an understanding of environments where periodic drought punctuates long-term weather patterns, this revised and expanded edition of White-Tailed Deer Habitat: Ecology and Management on Rangelands will aid landowners, researchers, and naturalists in their efforts to integrate land management and use with sound ecological practices.

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1. Habitat Requirements of White-Tailed Deer



Habitat Requirements of White-Tailed Deer


▼ The basic habitat requirements of white-tailed deer are food, cover, space, and water.

▼ A key to habitat management is identifying limiting factors and the optimum levels of these factors for survival, growth, and reproduction.

▼ Habitat use and diet composition of males and females differ, so males and females should be managed as if they were separate species.

▼ Managing for plant species diversity is more important than managing for what are thought to be preferred forage plants.

Objectives and Scope

Management of white-tailed deer habitat should be based on sound scientific theories (Joyce 1993; Fulbright 1996).1 Wildlife managers use scientific theories to predict the anticipated outcome of management practices (Fulbright and Hewitt 2008). Management practices may not have the same results in all environments. Deer management practices that were developed and work well in humid environments may have different, perhaps deleterious, effects in semiarid environments. An example of this would be harvesting female deer based on the theory that white-tailed deer populations are always density-dependent. Environmental factors such as low rainfall and infertile soils may change population behavior in a manner that makes density-dependent models less useful for predicting the outcome of harvesting females (DeYoung 2011). Managers must have a thorough understanding of the theories on which management practices are based so they will be able to adjust their practices to fit different environments and changing needs. Knowing when a particular practice is unsuitable for a certain environment or geographic location is critical for successful management.


2. White-Tailed Deer Nutrition



White-Tailed Deer Nutrition


▼ Nutrition is one of the main environmental factors governing the degree to which white-tailed deer can express their genetic potential for productivity, including antler and body growth.

▼ Energy is commonly limiting for white-tailed deer productivity on rangelands.

▼ Deer habitat management should focus on providing conditions under which deer can maintain a positive physiological energy balance.

• Abundant, nutritious, easily digestible food reduces foraging time and energy expended during digestion.

• Food, water, and cover should be in close juxtaposition and well interspersed to minimize energy expended in travel.

• Sufficient areas of dense woody canopy should be available for thermal cover.

▼ White-tailed deer select plant species to eat as a result of learning, inherited traits, and the ability to discriminate between foods based on their nutrient content.

Importance of Nutrition in White-Tailed Deer Management

Nutrition is fundamental to deer management because it determines how many deer a given landscape can support and the productivity of the population. Deer populations are far less productive in nutritionally inadequate habitats than in habitats where nutritional needs are met. Poor nutrition results in reduced ovulation and conception rates in females (Teer, Thomas, and Walker 1965; Verme 1969). If adequate nutrients are not available, milk production by females is reduced, resulting in lower fawn survival (DePerno et al. 2000). Antler size of yearling males is affected strongly by environmental and maternal factors that influence nutrition, including mothering ability, milk production, and health (Lukefahr and Jacobsen 1998).


3. Ecological Principles Underlying Habitat Management



Ecological Principles Underlying Habitat Management


▼ Current ecological theory should be the basis of predictions about the outcome of managerial actions.

▼ Vegetation and white-tailed deer response to management practices in rangeland environments may differ radically from those expected in humid environments where many management practices originated.

▼ Disturbance is a natural factor in ecosystems, and moderate levels of disturbance may be optimal for maintaining deer habitat. Past and contemporary land use practices have altered natural patch dynamics, resulting in the need for human-imposed disturbances such as prescribed fire.

▼ Plant species diversity results in greater ecosystem stability and resilience to disturbances such as drought and may provide for greater diet and nutritional stability for deer.

Importance of Theory in Habitat Management

All management practices are based on theory. This is an important fact for wildlife managers to appreciate and understand. For example, managers often plant food plots based on the theory that diet quality of deer feeding in the plots will improve. The anticipated outcome of most management practices is a prediction based on theory. A management plan is a model based on predictions about the outcome of management practices. Wildlife managers should have in mind a model to guide them in developing management plans. Ecological theory is the most important body of theory in wildlife habitat management. A basic understanding of ecological theory and its application is critical for habitat managers in developing management plans and in making decisions about implementing management practices.


4. Estimating Carrying Capacity



Estimating Carrying Capacity


▼ Carrying capacity is the number of animals per unit area that a habitat can support without degrading forage and other resources.

▼ The number of animals the habitat can support changes continually in time and space depending on availability of food, water, cover, and usable space.

▼ Nutritional-based estimates of carrying capacity should incorporate nutrient needs of free-ranging animals and production needs such as lactation, account for effects of antinutrition factors such as tannins, and include adjustments for habitat preferences.

▼ Forage- or nutritional-based models to estimate carrying capacity may provide values useful as a guideline for management, but values should be regarded as ballpark estimates and may be inaccurate. Management decisions regarding whether deer numbers exceed carrying capacity of the habitat are best made by monitoring level of utilization of important, or key, deer forages.

Carrying Capacity Defined

White-tailed deer population densities vary geographically. The Edwards Plateau region of Texas supports higher densities of white-tailed deer than any other rangeland area in the United States, with greater than 45 deer/km2 (see fig. 1.2; Quality Deer Management Association 2008). In contrast, much of the Great Plains region from Canada south to the Texas Rolling Plains supports fewer than 15 deer/km2. Deer densities in the Great Plains may be locally greater along riparian corridors and other wooded areas such as shelterbelts. Much of the Cross Timbers and Prairies and South Texas Plains supports 15 to 30 deer/km2. Although white-tailed deer were almost extinct by the 1970s because of poaching, habitat destruction, and screwworm infestation, an estimated white-tailed deer population density of 10 to 20 deer/km2 exists in northeastern Mexico (Villarreal G. 1999). These regional differences in deer densities result in part from regional differences in hunting pressure, geographic variation in human population densities, and numerous other factors, many of which may be beyond the control of wildlife managers. Carrying capacity can be enhanced and maintained by habitat management. Proper wildlife habitat management is based on the concept of carrying capacity and an understanding of the limitations of the concept. One of the limitations is that carrying capacity is conceptual rather than an absolute value.


5. The Cow: Livestock and White-Tailed Deer Habitat



The Cow: Livestock and White-Tailed Deer Habitat


▼ Cattle grazing can reduce grass cover and increase forbs in productive plant communities dominated by mid- to tall grasses, but whether or not the increase in forbs may result in improved deer nutritional status or productivity is unclear.

▼ Cattle grazing during winter may reduce forage available to deer, even at moderate stocking rates.

▼ As a general rule, rangelands dominated by native vegetation and grazed by domestic livestock should be managed so that livestock consume 25 percent or less of annual production of herbaceous vegetation to avoid degradation of white-tailed deer habitat and to minimize diet overlap between livestock and deer.

▼ Introduction of exotic deer species is a threat to white-tailed deer populations because exotics are highly competitive with white-tailed deer and can potentially displace them.

Livestock Grazing and Deer

Most rangelands are grazed by domestic animals, although in recent years livestock have been removed on some private ranches in Texas. About 20 percent of respondents in a recent survey of landowners and hunting lessees in South Texas said livestock have not grazed their lease or ranch in the past three years (Bryant, Ortega-S., and Synatzske, n.d.). Contrasting viewpoints exist among natural resources managers in regard to cattle grazing and white-tailed deer. Aldo Leopold (1933) espoused the view that cattle can be used as a tool to improve deer habitat, although he cautioned that livestock grazing can also destroy habitat. Another, similar view is that cattle grazing and deer are complementary and grazing the two together is more efficient use of rangeland. A third view is that livestock grazing is simply destructive to wildlife habitat. An overall goal of this chapter is to present what is known from the scientific literature regarding livestock grazing and white-tailed deer and allow readers to follow the chain of evidence to develop, change, or reinforce their own view on the topic. Our interpretation of the relevant literature is that production of livestock and of white-tailed deer are compatible land uses only when numbers of each are properly adjusted based on available forage. We focus on seven aspects of livestock grazing in this chapter: (1) diet overlap between deer and livestock; (2) effects of livestock grazing on plant communities; (3) social interactions between deer and livestock; (4) grazing systems and deer; (5) calculation of correct cattle stocking rates to benefit deer habitat; (6) livestock water developments, such as earthen stock ponds, and fencing; and (7) effects of grazing on predation on deer. The effect of exotic ungulates on white-tailed deer is a topic related to livestock grazing. Continued introduction and increase of exotic deer and other ungulates may negatively impact white-tailed deer populations.


6. The Plow: Food Plots



The Plow: Food Plots


▼ White-tailed deer are attracted to and may derive nutritional benefits from food plots, particularly in habitats relatively low in forage nutritional value.

▼ Converting good-quality white-tailed deer habitat to cultivated food plots should be avoided.

▼ Planting food plots is not a substitute for proper habitat and population management.

▼ Food plots do not increase carrying capacity of the habitat—they are a supplement to natural vegetation.

▼ The use of food plots in rangelands is restricted by low rainfall and by soils that are unsuited for cultivation.

Role of Food Plots in Deer Management

Planting food plots for white-tailed deer is a popular form of supplemental feeding (fig. 6.1; Koerth and Kroll 1994; Donalty, Henke, and Kerr 2003). In a recent survey of hunting lessees and landowners in South Texas, 56 percent of respondents said they plant some form of food plots (Bryant, Ortega-S., and Synatzske, n.d.), and 41 percent said they planted them in both summer and winter. Twenty-three percent of landowners in Texas who lease hunting rights plant food plots (Adams, Thomas, and Ramsey 1992).


7. The Ax, Plow, and Fire: Brush Management for White-Tailed Deer



The Ax, Plow, and Fire: Brush Management for White-Tailed Deer


▼ Brush management may benefit or harm white-tailed deer habitat; thus, careful planning and understanding of plant and plant community responses to brush control are critical.

▼ Landscapes that have not been mechanically or chemically treated to control brush should remain untreated if quality white-tailed deer habitat is the management goal.

▼ Brush management may improve white-tailed deer habitat by increasing yield of herbaceous vegetation; creating openings for feeding activity; and increasing quality, accessibility, and palatability of browse.

▼ Created openings for feeding areas should be about 8.1 ha in size and should be interspersed within a matrix of woodland or shrubland to provide wooded travel corridors and daytime bedding sites for white-tailed deer.

▼ Stands of tall, dense, diverse brush are important for thermal and hiding cover and should not be subjected to brush management.

Deciding to Apply Brush Management


8. The Gun: Harvest and Management Planning



The Gun: Harvest and Management Planning


▼ Maintaining deer populations within the carrying capacity of the habitat should be the primary goal of harvest management.

▼ Management decisions regarding whether deer numbers exceed or are below carrying capacity of the habitat are best made by monitoring utilization of key deer forages and monitoring trends in deer body mass, antler development, and fawn survival.

▼ Establishment of a management goal is important, whether managing for trophy males or for maximum-sustainable-yield harvest.

▼ Developing a sound management plan and keeping records of the number, age, sex, body mass, and antler dimensions of harvested deer are important aids in meeting management objectives.

Harvest as a Habitat Management Tool

Aldo Leopold (1933) asserted that game can be “restored” by hunting. Our primary emphasis in this chapter is use of hunting as a tool to maintain deer densities within carrying capacity of the habitat. Maintaining deer populations within carrying capacity allows the most preferred plant species in the habitat to reproduce, affords maximum protection to other resources, and benefits all organisms in an ecosystem. We recommend managing populations based on our forage-based definition of carrying capacity, which results in densities lower than K-carrying capacity, commonly used as the basis for modeling deer population growth and harvest management. Much of the theory underlying harvest management, including the concepts of density dependence, density independence, and compensatory mortality, is based on K-carrying capacity.


Appendix 1. Common and Scientific Names of Selected Animals and Plants



Appendix 2. Metric–English System Unit Equivalents



Appendix 3. Determining Adequate Sample Sizes


Appendix 3

Determining Adequate Sample Sizes

Sample size can be determined by iteration using the following equation (Zar 1996, 107):

n = (t2 × S2) ÷ d2 = (t × S ÷ d)2

In this equation, n is the estimated sample size; t is Student’s t with n – 1 degrees of freedom for a particular alpha; S is an estimated standard deviation (may be the sample standard deviation of an initial sample); and d is the half width of the desired (1 – alpha) 100 percent confidence interval.

If you are estimating biomass of vegetation and desire to estimate the true population mean with a 95 percent confidence interval no wider than 200 kg/ha, then d in the equation would be 100 kg/ha, and the t-value for α = 0.05 would be used for t. If the objective is to obtain an adequate sample that will detect a 10 percent change in vegetation parameters, such as biomass or cover, from one sampling period to the next, ()2 can be used for d, where x k = 0.10 and is the mean of the presample values (Bonham 1989).

Example: A researcher wants to determine carrying capacity of a ranch for white-tailed deer. The researcher obtains an initial sample consisting of twenty 1 m2 sampling frames in which the standing crop of forbs and browse are clipped, oven dried, and weighed. The mean weight is 1,000 kg/ha, and the sample standard deviation is 800 kg/ha. The researcher desires a 90 percent confidence interval with width of 200 kg/ha to estimate the population mean. The following is the initial equation to obtain an estimate of the adequate sample size:


Appendix 4. Planting Summary for Selected Forages


Appendix 4

Planting Summary for Selected Forages

Sources of Information

The follow planting recommendations for selected plant species were compiled from several sources, including Heath, Metcalfe, and Barnes (1973); Vallentine (1980); Koerth and Kroll (1994); Fulbright (1999a); Redmon, Caddel, and Enis (n.d.); Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Stephenville (; Natural Resources Conservation Service, Conservation Plant Characteristics (; Pogue Agri Partners Web site (; and Turner Seed Company Web site ( Information for individual traits was selected from a single source when recommendations varied among sources; local extension specialists should be consulted for recommendations in specific locations. Many different varieties are available for plants such as hairy vetch, oats, wheat, rye, triticale, cowpeas, and soybeans. Extension specialists or seed dealers should be consulted to determine the variety adapted to the locality where food plots will be planted.



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