White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in North Dakota, USA, have greatly increased over the past 100 years due to conversion of prairie to agriculture, planting of tree rows, regulated hunting, and extirpation of large predators. In support of management to maintain harvestable big game while minimizing depredation damage to agriculture, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department manages wildlife management areas (WMAs) where planted trees and food plots provide habitat and public hunting. These WMAs are typically surrounded by agricultural fields, and management that concentrates deer in these areas may expose surrounding agricultural producers to increased depredation. We investigated diets, habitat use, and movements of white-tailed deer at a large WMA in central North Dakota (Lonetree WMA) to understand how the animals are responding to management designed to enhance wildlife populations. We also evaluated survival of white-tailed deer for an improved understanding of the recent trend for population growth. Diets of deer varied seasonally, including a relatively high proportion of crops from food plots in winter and mostly herbaceous forbs and browse during spring and summer. Data from radiocollared animals and biweekly spotlight surveys revealed that deer are being drawn from a relatively large area to Lonetree WMA during fall and winter. Hunting was the most important cause of mortality, but annual survival of adult and fawn females exceeded 80%. The original purpose of food plots at Lonetree WMA was to alleviate depredation on adjacent private lands. Depredation has been limited, but the multiyear trend of increased deer numbers is a new concern. A possible consequence of provisioning white-tailed deer with food plots during winter when some starvation would normally occur could be for the population to exceed a threshold above which regulated hunting will be unable to prevent irruptive growth. Research on how food plots influence winter survival is needed to inform management and prevent possible rapid increase in white-tailed deer populations across the prairie-coteau region of central North Dakota.
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Vol. 71 • No. 8