Antler Restrictions

Posted on September 6, 2011

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Antler Restrictions

(Editors note: Sorry for the repost but somewhere all but the first photo got erased from the initial post.)

“Somewhere deep in the recesses of the hearts of today’s
hunters is a desire to bring something home that is more than just food. We
have an intense longing to show our ability to conquer.” – Steve Chapman

Antlers, since prehistoric time, man has been fascinated
with the hardened appendages grown annually atop a male whitetails head. Today,
it seems as though this seduction with antlers has reached an all time high.
Valerius Geist, a leading cervid biologist, classifies this current antler
craze as follows; “It’s a market gone wild and unrestrained by even a modicum
of personal, social or biological ethics, nor by true respect for the hunted
animals. One problem is that the trophy craze we’re experiencing today
generates a socially and biologically harmful spin-off by creating a lucrative
market for trophy heads. And driving this market are those who, by fair means
or foul-by any means-will acquire exceptional trophies, about which they can
falsely brag.”

With that said, one needs to question why any game
department would abandon traditional deer management practices in order to
mandate some form of harvest restriction based on the size, spread, number of
points or configuration of a buck’s antlers?

The Management Side

In the day-to-day management of whitetail deer, state game
managers face numerous obstacles that can, and do complicate their job. There
are many unpredictable influences that, if not managed properly, can have a
dramatic affect on a whitetail population. Some of these influences include
winter severity, deeryards, quality habitat, escalating or declining deer
numbers, age structure and disease. If game managers’ job description consisted
entirely on just managing herd density for the deer’s benefit alone, quite
possibly the whitetail would be living in a veritable “Garden of Eden.”

 

State agency biologists’ position as a paid public servant,
which entrusts them to manage deer for the general public, routinely face
political pressure from hunters and game departments preventing them from
exercising sound biological changes. Let’s face it; whitetails are not
concerned whether the land can sustain their carrying capacity. They also are
not affected by buck-to-doe ratios, as long as the opportunity to breed
continues to exist. Although bucks have proven to be a clever animal, they
don’t possess the intellect to decide which food source will promote optimal
antler growth. A whitetail is really only concerned with two basic needs, to
eat and survive. Man becomes the controller of whitetail populations simply
because of the animals’ inability to manage themselves. When populations have
exploded beyond the lands carrying capacity, deer have literally eaten
themselves out of house and home, resulting in the destruction of their habitat.

As good stewards, game managers must find biologically sound
ways to manage their states respective deer herd. In accomplishing this
management plan, they must also satisfy the taxpayer, environmentalists,
hunters and naturalists alike without compromising the quantity or quality of
the available deer. In order to facilitate this challenge, management practices
must be implemented that may or may not be favorable to one or more groups
concerned. Hunting traditionally has been the primary tool used to meet
management objectives. Because hunter dollars fund Fish & Game Departments
through license fees, they understandably should carry the most weight when
voicing their opinions.

Meetomg Objectives

There was a time when a huntsman could hunt for and harvest
a deer of his or her own choosing. But as deer numbers began to decline,
managers needed a system that would better control annual harvests.
‘Bucks-only’ hunting was initiated in several New England
states to help rebuild diminishing herds. As the whitetail rebounded it then
became necessary to begin removing antlerless deer through a permit system.
Unfortunately, deeply entrenched traditions and the unwillingness by many to
shoot a doe have exacerbated the problem of having too many does and not enough
mature males in the population. So how do we fix the problem while at the same
time ensuring that the hunting fraternity remains satisfied without limiting
hunting opportunities?

 

Antler restrictions are another tool used to effectively
manage whitetails. Despite it being foreign in the Northeast, this practice is
not new. Currently, 24 states have some form of mandated antler point
restrictions with Arkansas, Mississippi
and most recently, Pennsylvania
implementing statewide restrictions.

In fact, Pennsylvania
is a classic model for this type of management. Gary Alt, former chief of the
Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Deer Management, enacted a statewide antler
restriction as a last-ditch effort to address his state’s chronic underharvest.
Yearling bucks are now given the opportunity to reach the next age class. “What
we are trying to do is have a more natural antlered-buck-to-adult-doe ratio and
a more natural breeding (season)”, according to Alt. “We believe that reducing
the number of adult does and increasing the antlered buck population is in the
best interest of the deer resource.”

 

The chief objective to antler restrictions is to place more
emphasis on antlerless deer harvests, which in turn aids in reducing the herd
density. This is no guarantee that buck numbers will increase, but it will
certainly augment the proportion of antlered bucks in the herd. Initially,
fewer bucks will be harvested, but with each passing year the age structure of
the buck population becomes better balanced. Instead of 50 percent or more of
the annual buck harvest being comprised of 1 ½ year old bucks sporting their
first set of antlers, which incidentally is reflective of a diminished adult
buck population, there will be more mature, adult bucks available to hunters.

It is a well documented and agreed upon fact amongst
biologists that by letting bucks mature, it helps create healthier, vigorous
deer herds so long as enough does are harvested annually. When implemented as a
management tool, antler restrictions accomplishes four key elements: a better
control upon the deer population, much improved deer habitat, a more refined
buck-to-doe ratio and a better defined breeding hierarchy.

The Criteria

 

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when mandating antler
restrictions is creating a minimum. What may work fine for one state may not be
the right criteria for another state. Furthermore, the minimum set in one
Wildlife Management District (WMD) may be too stringent or loose to apply in
another given WMD within the same state. The reasoning for this is that antlers
grow proportionally to genetics and the quality of feed available to the
resident deer. Also, here in the Northeast, whitetails face harsh winters where
stress plays a pivotal role in antler development. Based upon where a buck
lives can mean the difference between having optimum or stunted antler growth.

 

As a general rule, most 1 ½ year old bucks will grow spikes
or forks as their first set of antlers, though it is common for that age class
to sport six or eight points under good conditions. It is also true that under
poor conditions or inferior genetics that a 2-½ year old may only grow a small
six point rack. Most states that have mandated antler restrictions adopted
either a 3 or 4 point-per-side requirement. But, with that criterion, how many
of those bucks harvested meeting the minimum standard are the best-developed
1-½ year old males? In Dooly County Georgia,
restrictions require a buck to have a 15-inch outside spread to be legal, which
may go further in protecting all 1- ½ year olds and some 2- ½ year old bucks.
Is an antler restriction brewing on a contentious horizon here inNew England and if so, how will the practice be embraced?

 

Controversial

Restrictions, just the mere mention of the word brings a reaction
to impassioned huntsman. For those die-hard Yankees who, when faced with any
type of change will stubbornly resist under the premise that “nobodies going to
dictate to me what I can and can’t shoot. I’ve paid for my license and that
entitles me to take a deer without having to scrutinize the beast prior to
shooting.” On the flip side of the coin are those individuals that seek to
enhance their deer hunting experience with a reasonable opportunity at a mature
buck.

 

According to Larry Castle, Mississippi deer program leader,
“After seven years of the four-point minimum, I can say that our hunters love
it. By the third year of the program, hunters were seeing more big deer than
they had ever seen before. Today, more than 85 percent of the hunters favor
antler restrictions. The limitations have also enabled us to kill more
antlerless deer, which was one of our original goals.”

In order for a program to succeed the idea must first be
sold to those who will be involved, mainly the hunters. To accomplish this they
have to be educated as to what the motive is behind the change and what the
ultimate final results can produce. No one wants something pushed down their
throats with out understanding the benefits. Sure, there will be initial
resistance by some. Gary Alt faced this opposition in a big way when he
initiated restrictions. But after only two years, hunters in Pennsylvania experienced a significant
change in the quality of bucks.

 

The commonly held misconception that antler restrictions is
nothing more than a trophy program to grow larger racked bucks for ego driven
hunters couldn’t be further from the truth. It is a program designed to better
the deer herd, alleviate the impact on the animal’s habitat and provide diverse
hunting opportunities for all involved.

 Conclusion

 

As deer hunters, each of us has the ability to decide
whether or not to let a buck grow or put him in the freezer when sighting down
the barrel of a gun. Because man is selfish by his inherit nature, mandates,
restrictions and bag limits are imposed. When considering our view on antler
restrictions, the all-important question should become: ask not what is best
for us as deer hunters, but what is best for the white-tailed deer?

                  All images on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

 © 2011 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

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