Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Deer Wars: Do Antler Restrictions Work?

Dr. Gary Alt was responsible for a lot of changes in Pennsylvania's deer management program during his tenure as chief of the deer management program, but the two features that drew the most attention were his herd reduction program and antler restrictions.  Of the two ideas, antler restrictions was the one that gained the most approval by Pennsylvania's deer hunters, but one still hears some discontent about them at times.

First we must consider if they work.  In my experience they definitely do, as todays' photographs will illustrate, and I can show case after case of similar examples.  This is a buck that I first photographed after rifle deer season of 2011.  This particular photo was taken on the day after Christmas, which was also the first day of the flintlock deer season.

Yearling Spike Buck: Canon 7D-Canon 300mm f2.8- ISO 400 1/400 sec. f 3.5

Before antler restrictions were implemented it is likely this photo would not have been taken as there is a high possibility  he would have been shot during the traditional two week buck season as bucks with spikes 3" or more in length were legal.  As it happened he lived to grow a larger rack as the photo below illustrates.

Same Buck - 2 1/2 yrs. of age: Canon 5DMK II-Canon 500mm f 4- ISO 1000 1/1000 sec. f  4
Some agree that the buck is bigger, but say he is still not a trophy so what is the point?  I for one believe that anything that contributes to keeping a buck alive is a good thing.  While habitat quality and genetics are important to a certain extent--age of the animal is also extremely important.  I have documented one buck that was a small spike in his first year with antlers, a modest 8 point in his second, and an impressive 8 point in his last.

The fallacy of Alt's view of deer management was that he believed these deer should be growing larger racks sooner.  To a certain extent he is right, but only to a certain extent.  Drastically reducing the deer herd in the hopes that those that remain will be larger is absurd, but it is even more absurd to claim that we had better quality bucks before antler restrictions and that antler restrictions will damage the genetics of the herd.  Some are still so hung up on the concept of getting "their buck" each year that they would be perfectly happy to kill a spike and deeply resent having to pass up the little bucks.

Perhaps the poorest argument I ever heard against antler restrictions was penned by a well know outdoor writer who was upset because restrictions eliminated the surprise factor from buck hunting.  In his view one had to look at the deer so much to determine if it was legal that he knew exactly what he had gotten before he walked up to the deer if the shot was successful.  There is of course cases, perhaps many, where determining the legality of the buck does cost the hunter a shot, but in many if not most cases it is a shot that would have been better not taken anyway, and anyway as I see it the important thing is keeping as many bucks as possible alive to be at least one step closer to maturity.

I for one do not intend to ever kill another buck, but I would much rather see a deer herd in which a significant portion of the bucks live to reach maturity, which is the case at places like Shenandoah National Park.  That doesn't seem possible in hunting country, but it is much better to have a significant crop of 2 1/2 year old bucks coming on that is comprised of a large number of decent bucks of six to eight points or more, than for most of the bucks sighted to be spikes and four or six points.

Watch for more on deer management issues as we continue the "Deer Wars" segment from time to time. 

Originally published at Pennsylvania Wildlife Photographer by Willard Hill.


Nancy J said...

Lovely photos and words, he looks so pensive, what is he thinking? Such expressive eyes!! Cheers from Jean

Tom Ham said...

I guess it comes down to, do you hunt for meat or hunt for bone? I'm not a trophy hunter, i'll fill the freeer any way I can. Would I like to have a nice rack on the wall for my efforts? who wouldn't?!?! but in the end bigger bucks is a sign of better management I guess. If you only ever saw spikes or 2 by 2's in the woods, it would indicate we are too relentless. at the same time I don't need to be impressed with freakish racks either...hunting is hunting, eating is eating.

Tom Ham said...

i meant freezer...

Willard said...

Thanks for the comment, Tom.

I look at this from the standpoint that it is sad if bucks are shot before they have a chance to reach any degree of maturity. I am not interested in seeing large numbers of freakish monsters such as those found in game farms raised so that people can shoot trophies, but rather that bucks can at least have decent antlers.

A decent 16+ inch spared eight point is much more fulfilling to see, photography, etc., than a four point, although I am capable of enjoying the experience of seeing the 4 point.

Even with the current system, few survive to maturity. If bucks are like bull elk, it is entirely possible that they do not obtain their maximum potential until 8 yrs. or older and that is not too likely to happen in public hunting areas, and I can't think of a way to manage the herd that this could happen.

Tom Ham said...

i hear ya! seems like in your efforts to get them on film, you become familiar with specific deer...have you noticed any trend in habitat and food that could attribute to antler growth year over year? it's hard to wrap your head around, genetics, nutrition, hunting...all of these could factor in to antler size. I have access to some private property and we have seen some real nice racks up on the mountain, but the bulk of the mature bucks have small racks, almost like the gene pool is stuck with it.

Willard said...

Tom, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I will tray to post more about this soon as you raise some good points best addressed in depth in a new post.

For now I will say that I think that genetics and the age of the deer are the most important factors in antler growth in mountainous whitetail country.

Food does play a part, but it is likely in cases where deer have access to plentiful agricultural foods such as corn and grain fields, alfalfa fields, etc. that it becomes a major determining factor, or in cases where the habitat is damaged so bad that there is little food available, which is not the case in my area.

Brendan Burger said...

Thanks Willard for your friendship, pics, and info. Keep up the terrific job. God bless.