After hunting season, a deer’s primary focus shifts from evading hunters to simply surviving Mother Nature. One of the ways they do this is by “yarding up.”
Deer yards are simply winter ranges where large numbers of whitetails congregate to take advantage of dwindling food sources and good bedding cover. They’re more common in the far north where winters are severe with lots of snow, but they occur almost anywhere in the country where food sources change drastically from season to season, too. Common places to find deer yards in this region (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia) are food plots planted with winter forage, cut crop fields with a lot of waste grain left behind, and recently timbered areas that have an abundance of available browse. Most of these yarding places also have quality bedding cover nearby, which allows them to conserve calories by traveling shorter distances.
Two things happen when deer yard up: they seem to appear out of nowhere and they can disappear just as fast. This can give a false impression of either too many or too few deer, depending on the current situation. When deer are yarding up, for instance, is a bad time to go looking for tracks in the snow in the areas where you hunt because the sign can be misleading. Last year, I took a hike in the mountains and didn’t cross a single track up on the ridges where I’d gotten trail camera pictures of many good bucks. Down in the valleys, though, it was nothing to see twenty or thirty deer feeding in a single field right before dark.
Conversely, many hunters who suddenly see their property overrun with deer in January and February can falsely believe the herd is out of balance and run to buy more antlerless permits. Before doing this, consider that these deer may only be inhabiting the area for a relatively short period of time. And if the deer are congregating on your property in the winter, it’s because you have quality food sources and bedding cover, which is never a bad thing.
Although most whitetails have home ranges of about one square mile during summer and fall, they can show up just about anywhere there’s food and cover in the winter. One Montana study tracked a whitetail that migrated 44 miles (one way!) to its winter range. A 2013 study in Washington State tracked a migrating doe for 20 miles as it traveled from a very distinct summer range to a much different wintering range in terms of habitat.
Here's an excerpt about deer yards and migration from Living on the Edge: How Deer Survive Winter by Joe Wiley and Chuck Hulsey of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife:
"Deer behavior also changes in the fall, as family groups of deer congregate into larger groups made up of mostly adult does and fawns born the previous June (kin groups). These groups seek protection from wind and reduced snow depths by moving to sheltered areas, which comprise 5 to 15 percent of their summer range. These movements occur in late November through December. Northern deer are known to travel up to 40 miles between their summer range and winter range, but 5 to 10 miles is more typical. Mature bucks seek out these areas after mid-December when their testosterone levels start to drop after the rut.
"This important winter habitat provides several benefits, such as dense softwood canopies that intercept more snow, providing reduced snow depths. Congregating in these areas also allow many deer to share the energy cost of maintaining a trail network to access cover and food and to escape predation. These and other benefits provide critical “deer yard” habitat deer need to survive Maine’s winters."
Mountainous country seems more prone to roaming populations than agricultural areas. Many times, deer will simply travel farther down the mountain to thicker coniferous forests for the winter. It may not seem like much, but even an elevation change of a couple hundred feet can provide significant relief. For example, I have a camp in northcentral Pennsylvania and have learned that the temperature in the valley is generally three to four degrees warmer than once I get up on the ridge, an elevation change of around 800 feet. Also, if there’s six inches of snow in my backyard, I can expect eight inches or more on the ridge.
Deer will often shift to different bedding areas, too, during winter. They’ll congregate more on south-facing slopes to take advantage of sunlight. So if you’re scouting this time of year and find buck beds in these areas, keep in mind that next fall they may very well be bedding elsewhere.
I used to hunt Randolph County, West Virginia, a lot and had similar experiences, except that migration patterns seemed more drastic in that rougher country. One fall, a doe with only one ear frequented one of my stand locations. By Christmas, I stopped getting pictures of her on my trail camera. During a January trip to the property, that same doe crossed the road in front of me almost ten miles from where I hunted. Can I prove that it was the same deer? No. But how many does do you see missing a left ear?
Local hunters often talked about how deer in that area relocated for the winter. They claimed that most of the deer tended to yard up in the fields surrounding the town of Elkins, almost 20 miles away, and I couldn’t dispute their claims. The property I hunted sure seemed vacant of deer come January. They didn’t all leave, but there was no question that the majority of them wintered elsewhere.
Amazingly, most of those deer eventually ended up back where they came from. In Randolph County, I had trail camera pictures of many of the same bucks year after year, but there were a handful of bucks that showed up one year and never came back. Considering the nomadic nature of certain individual deer, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they’d simply found somewhere along their travels that they liked better.
Of course, nature always takes its share, and not every deer makes it through winter alive. Ironically, while there’s strength in numbers, yarding up can make deer more susceptible to predators. Also, if a harsh stretch of weather hits and a food source suddenly dries up, mass starvation can occur. The early 2000’s were tough for the deer herd where I hunted in Randolph County. There was such a high winter mortality that the antlerless season was closed for a number of years until the population rebounded.
Deer yards aren’t specific to mountain country. I’ve seen them in agricultural areas, too. Even during mild winters I’ve seen 50 to 60 deer feeding at one time in an open field in January. Anywhere that food and cover become scarce, deer are likely to yard up to take advantage of whatever resources are available to help them survive the winter.
Ralph Scherder is an award-winning writer and photographer from Pennsylvania. His work frequently appears on Bowhunting.com, Fur-Fish-Game, Pa Outdoor News, and many others. His new book, Hunting Mountain Whitetails, is available from the First Fork Bookstore.