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SAMUEL: Oak mast determines deer sightings


Acorns are high in carbohydrates and fats and thus provide deer with energy.  Some oaks produce acorns that are more palatable than others, but the bottom line is that when acorns available, oak trees, especially white oaks, attract deer. 

When it comes to deer management, the key is deer density.  Hunters do not always perceive  deer density that the DNR does.  A prime example is the perception of deer when we have a fall with good mast production, especially acorns.  When there is a good mast deer do not move around a lot.  They find those oaks that are producing and dropping lots of acorns and they feed there.  No need to go to fields where they become more visible to hunters.  No need to move around much in the woods where they become more visible to hunters.  So, when we have good mast years, hunters perceive deer numbers are low, even though the numbers haven’t dropped.  

When hunters don’t see deer, they don’t harvest them.  The bucks are out there, but less visible.  Some hunters put in the effort initially, then hunt less because they aren’t seeing deer.  This plays havoc with DNR herd management and is one reason managers tend to look at deer densities on a five or 10-year average when setting harvest goals. 

In 2019, West Virginia had a good mast and for that reason, plus some bad weather, the buck harvest was low.  As always when that happens, I heard hunters complaining — “The DNR set bag limits that allowed too many deer to be harvested last year,” or, “The herd is being mismanaged.”

The job for the DNR is to collect deer population and habitat data, look at the past five-year averages (or 10 -year averages) and determine harvest strategies for the coming deer season.  Invariably, if hunters don’t see what they expect to see, they blame the DNR strategies.  That friction can be resolved to a degree if there is good communication between hunters and the DNR and vice versa. 

Deer numbers are always an issue with hunters.  So also are deer numbers an issue with the DNR.  Their job, and it’s not easy, is to balance the deer herd with habitat and health of the deer. 

Too many deer and over-browning occurs, farm crops and vegetable gardens are eaten and poor habitat they create leads to death in the winter.  The more cold and snow, the more deer will die. 

Where does hunting fit into this scenario?  Actually, it’s quite simple.  The DNR views hunters as the tool for deer management.  However, hunters don’t see themselves as such.  If you ask deer hunters why they  hunt, management is way down the list.

Here is what happened last year when we had good mast: In addition to bad weather, the deer kill was lower than usual.  This year, from what I’m hearing from hunter friends around the state, the mast is spotty.  If that’s true, deer will be more visible this fall as they move around looking for food.  The harvest will go up to what it has been over the past years.  In addition, because lots of yearling and 2 ½-year-old bucks were not harvested in 2019, there will be a lot of bigger, older bucks harvested this fall.  Hunters are already seeing them on their trail cameras. 

Those hunters that complained that there were no deer in the woods in 2019 tend to be the older hunters, while more of the younger hunters are starting to understand how this acorn thing works.  That’s a good thing. 

I found a neat publication that published a graph comparing the “Hours of Hunting per Deer Seen” to the “Deer Density (per square mile).   When the deer density is 10 deer per square mile (640 acres), it takes 14 hunter hours to see a deer.  When the deer density is 20 deer per square mile, it takes eight hunter hours for a deer to be seen.  And when the deer density is 30 deer per square mile, it takes six hunter hours to see a deer.  As deer density goes up, the hours required to observe a deer decreases.   Just common sense. 

Let’s assume  that same model works for deer harvested.  As deer density goes down, the hours required to harvest a buck increases.  That research went so far as to say that 38 deer per square mile is the critical point.  When the deer density is above that, 50 deer per square mile for example, the amount of time needed to harvest a deer doesn’t change much at all.  The changes are exponential below 38 deer per square mile, but nil when you get above 38 deer per square mile.

What do hunters perceive relative to deer density when the actual population is 38 deer per square mile?  Probably not much difference.   But if that population drops below 38 deer per square mile, their perception of deer numbers changes drastically.  If there are 15  or 20 deer per square mile, hunters feel like the deer herd is way too low.  In reality, there still are a lot of deer out there.  Perception is not always reality. 

Hunters today are not the same as hunters 40 years ago.  More and more want bigger bucks, equal sex ratios, and feel that when those factors exist, they are having more fun and a quality time in the woods.  That’s where we are headed. And more communication on deer management and quality hunts will help bring more hunters into the woods.  Those same younger hunters understand that good acorn years means one has to put in more effort to harvest a deer.  More younger hunters are willing to do that, if they know there are bigger bucks out there.

It’s complicated, but this is the major reason I support lowering the buck limit.  Giving hunters more bigger bucks, even if it’s just a perception, means those hunters will enjoy hunting more.  That equates to hunter retention, more hunter recruitment, and hunters that understand deer management.  I’m all for that.  

Dr. Samuel is a retired wildlife professor from West Virginia University. His outdoor columns have appeared, and continue to appear, in Bowhunter magazine and the Whitetail Journal. If you have questions or comments on wildlife and conservation issues, email him at