Mandatory Antler Point Restrictions: A Dangerous Precedent

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Mandatory antler restrictions are a hotly debated topic among hunters in many states. Some want more restrictions while others don’t believe them necessary.

In the rush to jump on the mandatory antler point restriction bandwagon, in some states basic principles of biology are being ignored in favor of public opinion. The end results are confusion, unhappy hunters and poorly managed deer herds.

The fact that the value of voluntary antler point restriction (VAPR) is mostly being ignored in discussions about deer management in some states is part of the reason for confusion and the problems regarding mandatory antler point restriction (MAPR). Proponents of MAPR insist that VAPR won’t work, but there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. VAPR allows hunters maximum flexibility without the negatives associated with MAPR, best serving both deer and deer hunters.

VAPR simply leaves it up to each hunter to decide which buck to shoot based on the amount of time they have to hunt, their preferences, the license they possess and what they manage to see while hunting. Since the majority of hunters support the concept of passing up young bucks to increase their chances of taking an older buck, most voluntarily pass up spikes and forks and even deer with larger antlers. Hunters who want meat for the table are most often willing to shoot antlerless deer, where this is possible.

The beauty of VAPR is that no one is penalized. Hunters who are happy with a buck that has spikes or forks can shoot them, but at least 50 percent of the yearling bucks are protected, which is the goal of MAPR, so there’s plenty of bucks to move on to older age classes. Hunters who see antlers that are at least 3 inches long, but are unable to count points can safely shoot deer that might otherwise get away. Under VAPR, there’s no worry about being ticketed if the buck you shoot has smaller antlers than you thought it did. And deer aren’t left to rot such as those in MAPR areas, when hunters who shot them realize the antlers are too small and walk away rather than risk getting ticketed.

One of the problems with MAPR where antlerless deer are not legal, and applies to where I hunt in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is it results in hunters shooting yearling bucks with the best antler development that have 6, 8 or more points. Under VAPR, experienced hunters who are good at aging deer are more likely to let yearling bucks with decent racks walk. Where antlerless deer are not legal, MAPR encourages hunters to shoot yearlings with the best antler development, if they want to fill a tag.

Proponents of mandatory antler point restrictions insist that voluntary choice by hunters won’t work, but there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Voluntary choice allows hunters maximum flexibility without the negatives associated with MAPR, best serving both deer and deer hunters.

BIG BUCKS WITHOUT MAPR
Wisconsin is a perfect example of how well VAPR works to produce plenty of mature bucks with big antlers. That state has the highest number of entries in Boone and Crockett Club records since 2010 and is at or near the top of the list historically, too. Yet, there is no MAPR in that state. A legal buck is a whitetail with a minimum of a 3-inch antler. How is it possible to produce so many big bucks without MAPR? Many Wisconsin hunters support and practice VAPR. Even though it’s legal to shoot spikes and forkhorns in Wisconsin, plenty of hunters choose to pass on them, and even bucks with bigger antlers, on a voluntary basis.

Wisconsin is no fluke. Nine of the top 10 states in terms of Boone and Crockett whitetail entries since 2010 have either no MAPR or limited antler restrictions. Those states are Wisconsin, Kentucky, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Indiana, Minnesota and Texas. In each of those states, legal bucks are either those with any visible antler or antlers that are at least 3 inches long, such as Wisconsin. VAPR is widely practiced in those states as well as many others.

MAPR is in effect in a small portion of the southeast part of Minnesota. Illinois also has a small number of managed areas where MAPR is in effect. Although Texas does not have MAPR, a restriction on antler spread of legal bucks is in effect in some counties that limit hunters to shooting only one buck with an inside spread of 13 inches or greater.

The final state on the top 10 list for Booners, Missouri, does have some MAPR, but that state is backpedaling on those regulations in response to the presence of CWD. Older bucks are more likely to contract the disease, so MAPR has been eliminated from parts of Missouri where CWD-infected deer have been located.

VAPR used to be the rule in Michigan, too, and plenty of big bucks were bagged by hunters under those regulations, but since about 2000, politics and money have changed that to the detriment of the public as well as deer and deer hunters. When there’s too many deer, motorists are impacted by an increase of collisions with the animals, resulting in injuries and deaths to motorists and damage to vehicles. Too many whitetails also negatively impact the bottom line of farmers and loggers as deer eat crops and young trees. The habitat for future generations of deer is degraded, too, when whitetails aren’t properly managed.

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SOCIAL SCIENCE DEER MANAGEMENT
Even though the stated policy of the Quality Deer Management Association is to support the protection of young bucks on a voluntary basis, chapters of that organization have successfully lobbied the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to promote and establish MAPR in the state. A set of guidelines was established for adopting MAPR that requires a sponsoring organization to nominate a deer management unit (DMU) or region for MAPR and then pay the DNR to conduct an opinion survey of a small random sample of the hunters in the nominated area to determine public support. If the survey results in a minimum of 66 percent support, MAPR goes into effect.

For the DNR to agree to such an arrangement sets an extremely dangerous precedent. To adopt a hunting regulation based solely on public opinion, with no biological considerations, is right out of the anti-hunters playbook. No other hunting regulations in Michigan are determined this way, but it opens the door to make more management decisions in the same way in the future for species besides whitetails.

Besides the fact biology should be used to make deer management decisions instead of opinion, another problem with opinion surveys is they are subject to bias in so many ways that it decreases their accuracy and reliability. Giving opinions (social science) top billing in the making of deer management decisions also opens the door for bias among those who make those decisions, which is obvious in the establishment of MAPR in Michigan. Leelanau County is the first county in the northwest Lower Peninsula of the state where MAPR was adopted. The wording of the survey to determine the level of support for MAPR was written in such a way to generate a positive response.

Even so, the level of support for MAPR was only 63 percent, instead of the 66 percent called for in the guidelines for adopting MAPR. Members of the Natural Resources Commission, who have the final say on regulation changes, adopted MAPR for that county anyway. The wording of that survey suggested that an adequate number of antlerless deer would be harvested to achieve an adult buck- to-doe ratio of 1 to 1. Instead, antler- less harvests were reduced, and after about 15 years of MAPR that herd is nowhere near an equal sex ratio among adults. Deer vehicle collisions have increased and some farmers have resorted to high fencing their properties to eliminate deer damage, at the same time ending deer hunting on thousands of acres of land.

The DNR is ignoring the fact that the outcome of MAPR has been the opposite of the intended deer management goals. Then when an additional 12 counties around Leelanau were nominated for MAPR, another biased survey generated the necessary support and they were added. After four years under MAPR, those deer herds are also growing and farmers in those counties have begun high fencing their crops to protect them and eliminating more deer hunting property.

Of all the surveys the Michigan DNR has conducted, they have done none to assess support for VAPR vs. MAPR. The mindset in that state is that if you don’t support MAPR, you don’t support VAPR, which couldn’t be further from the truth. DNR wildlife biologists also are ignoring the fact that yearling bucks make up 50 percent or less of the buck harvest of many of the state’s counties that don’t have MAPR and VAPR is responsible for that level of yearling buck harvest.

Eight counties in the northern Lower Peninsula that don’t have MAPR, for example, had average yearling buck harvests, based on DNR data, of from 36 to 49.5 percent from 2013 through 2016. Those counties are Arenac, Cheboygan, Clare, Crawford, Gladwin, Ogemaw, Otsego, and Roscommon. The same results would be achieved under VAPR in those counties that currently have MAPR.

WATCH: WHY MEAT-HUNTING FAMILY TRADITIONS ENDURE


COULD DECLINING DEER
BE THE RESULT OF MAPR?

An example of how terrible MAPR is for managing deer in Michigan is even more obvious in the Upper Peninsula (UP), where those regulations were implemented region-wide during 2008. Instead of increasing the number of older bucks available to hunters, those regulations have contributed to the devastation of that deer herd by trying to carry too many bucks through severe winters. Many of the bucks that hunters were forced to pass up died during those severe winters, along with plenty of does, being lost to hunters forever, at the same time they reduced the carrying capacity of winter habitat for the future.

The UP buck harvest for all seasons was estimated by the DNR at 57,988 during 2007. The buck kill estimate was down to 17,057 by 2015. Hunter numbers in that region also plummeted from more than 100,000 to 77,905 in 2016 in response to low deer numbers and reduced hunting opportunity. The same regulations were approved for another three years starting in 2017!

Between 2008 and 2015, an estimated 237,945 bucks were bagged by hunters in the UP, according to the DNR, compared to 376,459 tagged during the years 1999 through 2007, which is a difference of 138,514 bucks. Just as many bucks could have been harvested by hunters since 2008 as the nine years prior, but because of more restrictive regulations, those 100,000 plus bucks died during the winter either of starvation or in their weakened condition were pulled down by wolves, coyotes and bobcats.

These figures clearly show the advantages of VAPR over MAPR. Most hunters and even non-hunters, would agree that it is far better for deer to be harvested by hunters than die during winter, but it is unclear what it will take for state agencies to get that.