How to estimate deer density on your property
By Kory McConnell
Every hunter wants to attract and maintain as many deer as possible, but sometimes it can be hard to get an accurate count of the true number of deer that utilize your property. Getting a 100% precise count of deer that use or even stay on your property, depending on the size area, can be nearly impossible to figure out. Data from parcels under 100 acres can be inaccurate, so teaming up with neighboring properties and increasing the area you are collecting data for can increase the accuracy of your study. Using a few simple techniques designed to estimate the density of the deer in a certain area, can be the best way to know what management strategies to implement to maintain or attract more deer on your property.
Pellet Count Surveys
A great way to kill two birds with one stone, once the snow melts, is to get a group of people together to take a walk through your property while looking for sheds and counting piles of deer poop along the way. What could be more fun than counting deer poop?! This method gets some boots on the ground and simultaneously gathers information about your property. Conducting deer pellet counts is most effective in early spring right after the snow has melted. An organized hike with a few of your buddies can get you an accurate estimate of the number of deer that utilize your property in the fall and winter months.
Before heading into the woods, map out straight-lined, parallel transects across the property to cover as much of the property as possible. The distance between transects are about 1500 feet apart and typically run from boundary line to boundary line. After lining up your group of people, each person should stop every 100 feet and count the number of pellet groups of deer droppings within a 4-foot radius in every direction. To be considered a pellet group, there must be a minimum of 25 pellets lying on top of the leaf litter. After recording your data for that stop, use a compass to continue in the same direction along your transect. Continue stopping every 100 feet and collecting data until you reach the end of your transect. You can repeat the process of lining everyone up and setting them out on transects until you run out of your property to cover, or the group runs out of energy. The more area you can cover and the more data you can collect, the more accurate the estimates can be. To calculate one of the most accurate estimates of deer density on your property, use this specialized formula:
Deer Density = # Pellet Groups Counted /Day x Days Since Leaf Off x Square Miles of Plot Area
Camera Trap Surveys
A “camera trap”, or trail camera, can be one of the most simple, efficient and beneficial tools a biologist, land manager or hunter can use to “keep tabs” on specific individuals or the general number of deer in a particular area. Instead of just using a trail camera to get pretty pictures, using the situational data, like date, time or temperature, that trail cameras log each time a picture is taken can be a vital tool to determine the movement of wildlife through a property. In most states, across the U.S. trail cameras can be used year-round. The amount of intel “camera traps” can provide is priceless, and can determine whether you and your target buck are on the same, or opposite, schedules this season.
An ideal setup for a thorough camera trap study is having a basic ratio of one trail camera per every 100 acres of the area you are looking to cover. Similar to the spotlight surveys, having cameras too close to one another can lead to including individual deer more than once in a count. The best way to set up a camera trap is to attach a trail camera to an existing structure about 4.5 feet off of the ground, and typically set it to face north to avoid catching the movement of the sun throughout the day. Placing 40 pounds of Buck Yeah! approximately 10 feet in front of each camera, and replenishing the site every two weeks will provide sufficient attraction. Typical camera trap studies are conducted over an extended period of time, from a few months to year-round, while gathering and saving every picture to be able to most accurately determine when individuals visited that location each day. Using this equation,(# bucks + # does + # fawns)/ total number of parcel acres, can be used to analyze all of the data camera trap surveys on your property have collected.
One of my favorite pastimes before archery season is “spotting” at least a few nights a week. Also called “spotlight surveys,” biologists and land managers use this technique of shining a light across an open space to get a count of the number and variety of wildlife that uses a particular area. The best time to spot fields or open woods is in the late summer or early fall. During this time, deer avoid warm temperatures by staying in deep, cool areas during the day, but when temperatures chill down at night, the deer venture out into more open areas to feed. Another reason spotlight surveys are most effective this time of year is because antlers are developed enough that it is easier to distinguish the sex of the animals at a distance.
Determining your route of travel is most important because you want to be sure that you are limiting the risk of including the same individuals more than once in your count. The best way to avoid skewing your data is to establish a route in a particular area that you only travel or get in close proximity to once a night. To get the most accurate results, this study should be completed during the same time frame over the course of multiple nights. Completing a spotlight survey requires a minimum of 2 people. One person will be solely focused on driving the vehicle and when they stop every 1/10th of a mile, the other one or more individuals will spot the areas to the left and right of the vehicle and record the number of deer in that space, identifying bucks and does if the sex is obvious. The driver will stop the vehicle every 1/10th of a mile until the route is complete. Once the route is completed multiple nights, within a consistent time frame, the numbers of individuals counted on each night’s survey of the route are added together and divided by the number of times the route was surveyed. Entering the data you have collected on your several trips out, you can use equations like using the formula:
Area (A) = L x W, then the distance traveled (L) x average sighting distance (W). And since there are 4,840 square yards in an acre, if we divide # acres by 4,840 you will get the surveyed acres (SA). Then take the (SA) / (# bucks # does+ # fawns) = Estimated deer population, to estimate the deer density on your property.
Take to the Field
Using the same techniques you learned above, land managers can estimate deer density and other factors, like sex ratios, to figure out the best management practices that will have the best benefit to the herd. Implementing data collection on herd demographics and density, as well as on how the deer use your property, can save you time and money when deciding where to focus the management efforts on your property.
Kory McConnell is the Wildlife and Habitat Specialist for AccuForage- Wildlife Attractants and Food Plots. Kory McConnell is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University, obtaining an Associates degree in Wildlife Technology at PSU Dubois and a Bachelor’s degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at PSU University Park. Kory has been deeply engaged with deer species, including working out in Nebraska on a collar study on Mule Deer Fawns and working as an intern at a high-end deer facility in New York. A Pennsylvania native, Kory wanted to take his knowledge to not only help hunters but most importantly help other Habitat Managers manage their deer herd to an optimal level, therefore landing a job at AccuForage. In his free time, he is a freelance photographer and videographer, you can see his wildlife photography here. With videography he is now pursuing a behind-the-scenes look into a hunters lifestyle, capturing hunts with his buddies which you can find here.
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