Too early to pattern movements of bucks in your woods? The Optimality Theory at work

Lou Cornicelli, DNR wildlife research manager, said it isn’t clear whether the additional positives indicate a westward expansion of the disease or individual deer movements, given that all the presumptive positive deer were adult males.

It’s never too early to start thinking about the upcoming deer season. Heck, don’t we begin as soon as the last season closes?

Over the next few months, food plots will be cultivated, tree stands will be hung, and trail cameras will be strapped around thousands of trees. We’ll relive the glory or defeat from the previous season, which will hopefully encourage us, if this is even possible, to pursue our antlered (and antlerless) quarries with more meticulous fervor than before. Then, after all the blood, and tears of joy, sorrow, and sweat are shed, the arduous duty of patterning the bucks we’ve tracked via trail cams all summer will commence. My, how simple the idea, and yet this process can be a complicated and daunting feat when trying to apply it in real time.

It’s well understood by deer hunters across the country that patterning buck movement is easier said than done. They can switch at any given moment, especially mature bucks. We’re basically powerless to stop it.

The worst from a hunter’s standpoint, of course, is when daytime travels turn nocturnal, tremendously depleting any opportunities for a shot. Further, with a gauntlet of possible influences, we may be clueless as to what caused the sudden shift. Unfortunately, it often requires significantly more effort on our part than simply relying on trail cameras and believing the photo and video evidence we receive is gospel.

To model the travel-patterns of mature whitetail bucks, we first need to attempt to dig deeper to better understand what I’ve now learned are fine-scale movements, specifically during hunting season. Speaking personally, I’ve determined that there is more to learn about buck movements, or any deer transitions for that matter, than meets the eye of the trail camera.

It’s called the Optimality Theory and is a model that can help explain the complexity of animal movement and behavior, including bucks during the rut.

A lengthy research project based on the Optimality model was conducted by Taylor N. Simoneaux, Bradley S. Cohen, Elizabeth A. Cooney, Rebecca M. Shuman, Michael J. Chamberlain, and Karl V. Miller, all from Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia, in Athens. The study set out to determine, or at least better understand, “Fine-scale movement of adult male white-tailed deer in northeastern Louisiana during hunting season.”

The abstract initially provides information that is well understood by most hunters. “Movement patterns of adult male white-tailed deer is important to explaining population dynamics, predation interactions, gene flow, and disease spread.”

However, the abstract goes on to state that, “relatively few studies have investigated movement ecology of mature male deer, although recent trends in hunter-harvest selectivity have led to an increased representation of this cohort in many herds. Multiple co-occurring variables influence spatiotemporal (more to come on spatiotemporal!) variations in deer movements, but individuals should move at an optimum rate to maximize individual health and fitness while minimizing high-risk encounters.”

The contents of this study are intricate and the information is hard to take in. Basically, it boils down to costs vs. benefits, and how the variances in this ratio affect buck movements during the breeding season in countless ways. But it doesn’t end there, as we’re well aware of how buck activity comes to life around the end of October.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth analysis on this study in an upcoming issue of Illinois Outdoor News.

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