In the poem penned by Brewster Higley in 1873 that later became the State Song of Kansas, Home on the Range lyrics included the most noted line: "Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play."

Making a rather quantum leap to the quandaries of today's quality deer managers and whitetail hunters alike, the emphasis taken from this song is squarely on the "roam" part.

Or more succinctly, it could be pointed out that a central concern has indeed become how to manage or even prevent the roam part at least where the white-tailed deer are the targeted game of opportunity. Thus, how to keep them home on the range is the ultimate land manager's challenge.

So the deer you have on your hunting property today will be there tomorrow, right? How about the opening day of deer season or the month after? What about the bucks? Do they stick on your place or roam elsewhere?

More importantly, is there anything you can do to keep the deer on your place, especially that big buck you saw at the close of last season? The same one you spotted in the far field one evening at the end of summer?

The questions remain how to keep deer residential and not departing for more desirable locations. Let's investigate this more.

 

Home range theories

It would be a gross misunderstanding to assume that all the deer currently living on your property will automatically be there tomorrow, next month or next season. Unfortunately, far too many deer hunters and land managers remain ignorant of this fact, or just choose to reside in denial on the issue.

Now for certain, there are stories that a hunter might track and pattern the same buck in the same hunting area for several seasons before finally getting an opportunity to harvest the deer. It does happen, and it will continue to happen. However, many bucks will not be so accommodating.

Quite often, a certain number of bucks born on one property will move to new grounds. In a sense, it could be viewed as a sort of trade off, but then questions to which there are no real answers linger about the quality of genetics, nutritional quality and availability during doe-pregnancy periods, as well as fawn development after birth. Are the bucks coming onto your place as "good" as the ones leaving it?

The truth is that some of the deer on any given property will inevitably migrate elsewhere. Of that number, some may travel outside their existing initial home ranges or even expand their home range acreages pushing them to new outer boundaries. Unfortunately, these increased home ranges may not be lands you own or have permission to hunt.

These deer may range back, or back and forth, and even some may never return to their birthing home grounds again. Bucks are bad about this, but does are less likely to exhibit this kind of home-turf abandonment.

"Between 1 and 1 1/2 years of age, young bucks disperse normally around 3 to 10 miles. So the buck fawns you are producing will move to someone else's property, and you will get bucks from elsewhere to replace them," said Stephen Ditchkoff, associate professor of wildlife at Auburn University. "Of interest, though, is evidence that should a buck fawn be orphaned, it normally won't disperse. Also doe fawns do not disperse."

This information is certainly a critical piece of the home range fidelity program that land managers and deer hunters should learn to use to their advantage. There will be more on that later.

Another piece of research conducted in Louisiana by Justin Thayer, a grad student at LSU, under the direction of Scott Durham, deer program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Professor Michael Chamberlain at LSU, also sheds some light on this home-range issue.

"Captured and radio-collared deer including 37 bucks were tracked for over a year," Thayer reported. "Data indicated that bucks had a home range of between 155 and 418 acres. Does had a home range of 60-70 acres. Core areas of 34 acres were noted for bucks and only 12 acres for does.

"Preliminary findings highlighting small home ranges may indicate the important role habitat plays in these southern, bottomland-dwelling deer."

Based on this kind of home-range information then, the question remains: Can land managers and deer hunters implement strategies that will keep the most deer possible on their existing properties season after season?

 

Quality habitat is essential

Certainly habitat is the key.

Then what is essential to habitat first turns out to be quality soil, according to Steve Demarais, professor and deer biologist at the Forest and Wildlife Research Center at Mississippi State University.

"We found that regional variation in antler size can be explained by soil fertility," he said. "Soil fertility impacts food type and quantity, which ultimately affects habitat quality."

It's all about habitat quality.

Demarais' research partner at MSU, Bronson Strickland, also commented about their research results.

"The study found that improved nutrition improves antler-size distribution within any region where nutrition is a limiting factor, especially those with low to moderate soil quality," he said. "If you want to harvest big bucks, you should let deer reach maturity and provide proper habitat management and food plots."

The important element here is QDM-type habitat development and maintenance including enhancement of native whitetail food resources as well as creating quality supplemental wildlife food plots. Providing these strategies will go a long way toward the goal of holding deer on your hunting property.

 

Home range holding power

First establish a baseline by having soils tested all around the hunting property, especially the food plots. Verify the pH values and mineral levels. Then act accordingly to apply lime if necessary to the proper pH.

Next plan to dose the soil with ample fertilizer to increase vital mineral content as well as provide a boost to food plot plantings to enhance nutritional values.

Pick food plot seeds that not only match the regional soil potential, but also offer the best variety of high quality forages that deer will readily eat. Make choices that are high in protein and have sustaining power for a long growing season for both summer and fall plots.

Initiate a year-round food plot and overall habitat maintenance plan. This might include periodic mowing, herbicide treatments to deter invasive weed growth, controlled burns in certain areas that would benefit from this strategy and select timber harvests to open forest canopies to expand native browse. Provide additional fertilizers on native vegetations to maximize their quality and forage production all year long. Plant some fruit trees native to the area, and mast-bearing trees for the future.

So keeping them home on the range continues to mean providing compelling reasons and resources to hold the deer on your property. Some deer will still migrate off, but by enhancing your habitat and growing quality food plots, more deer are likely to stay home where you can hunt them exclusively. And that makes it all worth the effort.