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Blane Klemek column: The ways of the whitetails are fascinating

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Though only a population estimate, it is nonetheless difficult to believe that -- according to the literature -- only 500,000 white-tailed deer occurred in these United States in the early 1900s.

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About a century has passed since then, and today's whitetail population is estimated to be over 15 million strong. And in many places throughout white-tailed deer range, their numbers are increasing.

Supporting this was what my grandfather -- who farmed in west-central Minnesota in the early to mid-1900s -- once said about deer. He commented that just seeing a deer track, let alone an actual deer, "was big news." Despite few deer to hunt, Grandpa was an avid deer hunter through all those lean years. He recalled hunting deer in bitter cold and deep snow dressed in clothing ill-equipped for the cold -- and rarely seeing or bagging a deer.

Even in relatively recent times, Minnesota's white-tailed deer were not faring well. Concern over a low population following several severe winters prompted the DNR to close the entire firearms deer hunting season in 1971. Following that unprecedented season closure, as well as subsequent changes in deer hunting regulations and favorable environmental conditions, whitetails in Minnesota now number far more than one million animals.

White-tailed deer are, without question, a most adaptable creature. At this writing, many changes are occurring in the daily routines of this extraordinary animal as summer days shorten and nights grow longer and cooler. They, like many other animals during the autumn months, are busy seeking and consuming the most nutritious foods that they can find. Acorns, hazelnuts, wild fruits, grasses and cultivated farm crops all contribute to a deer's fat reserves.

Bucks, now sporting polished racks, are eager to spar with other bucks or make battle with hapless shrubs and saplings. The shortened length of daylight triggers a hormonal surge that sets the stage for the annual rut or breeding season. These events, among other physiological and behavioral changes, occur rapidly in deer during autumn.

Young bucks nearing 1½ years of age are usually rejected and often physically attacked by their own mothers or older female kin. This is nature's way of spreading or "dispersing" the population.

I once observed this behavior while bow hunting for deer near the family farm. My portable tree stand was located in a patch of aspen intermixed with other hardwoods and understory shrubs. About 10 feet up in a tree, my vantage afforded me a clear view of a grassy glade bordering the edge of the woods and a cornfield.

As the shadows grew longer, I watched as a doe, two fawns and a young buck approached to within 15 yards of me. Occasionally the fawns "mewed" softly to their mother and attempted to nurse. The doe, too preoccupied by the presence of the young buck, didn't indulge her persistent offspring.

In a startling instant, this serene moment changed when the doe, in a frenzied dash toward the small buck, left the fawns behind. When the doe reached the buck she flailed a front hoof and attempted to strike the young buck. Just missing, the buck got the message and made a hasty retreat. Surprisingly, he later returned, acting confused by the whole ordeal. But once again the doe repeated the behavior and chased the little fellow away. After that, I never saw him for the rest of the evening.

This is why it is more common to see bucks of different ages grouped together than observing young bucks with does and fawns. Autumn dispersal works to spread the "gene pool" and ensure genetic variation by reducing the likelihood of inbreeding. These outcast bucks often tag along with other, more mature bucks during the early fall.

"Bachelor groups" of banded bucks, which serve a social function within the deer herd, are quite common in the summer as well as early fall. The youngsters spar with one another, tickling their puny antlers together in mock battles. Occasionally, dominant bucks will lower their great racks and allow little bucks to tussle with them in ridiculously one-sided matches.

After the autumn rut is completely over with, usually in late November and into December, pregnant does will give birth to a fawn about six and a half months later. Depending on the harshness of the winter, the condition of the doe and the availability of good food, a doe might give birth to twins or, less frequently, triplets.

The youngsters soon learn the ways of the whitetail from their mother -- everything from recognizing danger to what foods are good to eat to every aspect of their home range.

Indeed, the world of the white-tailed deer is fascinating. As the seasons change from spring to summer and fall to winter, the whitetail adapts and survives. And though severe winters will likely return to northern Minnesota, effectively reducing local populations of deer, whitetails will always be here as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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