I first encountered earn-a-buck regulations when I moved to Wisconsin several years ago. Previously, I had never encountered this management technique that forces hunters to shoot an antlerless deer before "earning" the privilege of killing an antlered buck. As I read through the regulations booklet, I found myself questioning the intense practice.
I have since come to embrace earn-a-buck. In fact, I think it’s an invaluable tool for wildlife managers. Sadly, I’ve also watched pandering politicians and selfish, or uninformed, hunters pull this tool out of the Wisconsin deer managers’ toolbox. At the same time, other state and municipal wildlife managers are exploring EAB, experimenting with it, and perfecting its use in areas of extreme deer overabundance.
The key concept to understand with EAB is that it is different than most techniques used for increasing deer harvest. Increasing limits, lengthening the seasons and liberalizing hunting methods can all boost deer harvest. However, the increase is limited by the number of hunters and those hunters’ harvest threshold (how many deer they will kill to meet their personal needs). With hunter numbers in decline across the country, the best way to increase deer harvest is to increase the remaining hunters’ harvest threshold (plus provide them with the limits, seasons and methods to reach that threshold). That is what EAB does. It encourages hunters to adjust their harvest threshold by providing the incentive of an antlered buck. It’s like a bounty system that doesn’t cost the state or municipality money.
The problems with earn-a-buck are twofold: First, many deer hunters who are uninformed about their roles as managers and land stewards are resistant to any effort to lower deer numbers. That they have been "spoiled" by years of herds over carrying capacity and do not understand the impact of over abundant herds doesn’t help. Second, many hunters are wary of EAB because they (and statistics do bare this out to a point) are afraid it will cost them their "one chance" at an antlered buck if the buck appears before an antlerless option.
The advantages are: Foremost, EAB is the most effective way to increase antlerless harvest given a stable or declining hunting force. In addition, it has been shown that EAB increases the ratio of mature bucks in the population, which is an advantage for those seeking larger antlers. Part of this increase might come from that sometimes real disadvantage of missing out on a chance at a mature buck. More often though, hunters in EAB regulations become more selective with their buck harvest after they have an antlerless deer in the freezer.
I think one of the key adjustments to EAB regulations is allowing hunters the ability to "pre-earn" their buck authorization a year in advance. This allows hunters to eliminate that notion that they will miss out on their chance of a "buck of a lifetime," whether perceived or real. Duluth, Minn., which has one of the most successful municipal hunts in the country thanks largely to EAB regulations (in a state that typically does not employ EAB on a large scale, I might note) recently sought to require the harvest of two antlerless deer first. The measure was struck down. However, had they allowed pre-earning, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
I’m sure managers will continue to explore this regulation in the future, fine-tuning it and modifying it for specific situations. In fact, because of its extreme nature, its cost/benefit structure and the increasingly disparate distribution of whitetails, it might be best suited for small-scale management rather than statewide regulations. However, it is important for hunters to completely understand this management tool if they are to understand their roles as managers.