The Facts on Antler Restrictions and Deer Hunting

Spike buckAntler restrictions seem to have popular appeal in many places. But, popular appeal could also cause ARs to become a bit like the old “buck law.” Under buck-only hunting everyone knew that the herd would grow if you didn’t shoot “mother deer.” And, it became nearly a sin to consider shooting female deer because you not only killed the doe but also killed her progeny. It was “like killing hundreds of deer with one shot.” The popular appeal of this protective mentality became a major obstacle to prescribed antlerless harvests and persists in some corners yet today.

By Keith R. McCaffery

There is potential for a similar problem with ARs. It seems to make common sense that by not shooting small antlered deer that these deer will survive to have much larger antlers as they mature.  Some hunters are so hooked on this idea that they are demanding state agencies to impose mandatory ARs. But, it is doubtful that they are aware of the biological impacts and track record of ARs.

Antler restrictions may be voluntary or mandatory. On large club properties or shooting preserves the club members or owner may voluntarily establish rules that require that a buck exceed a certain antler condition or Boone & Crocket score before it is eligible to be shot.

Some places might require that antler beam spread exceed the width of the deer’s ears. But, most often it is a point count. State-mandated ARs commonly require that a legal buck have one antler with at least 3 or 4 points depending on the local potential for antler growth. This AR is intended to protect from harvest the majority of yearling bucks.

One might argue that Wisconsin already has had ARs. Prior to 1957, legal bucks had to have at least one antler with a 1-inch or greater fork.  This restriction was discontinued in large part because of the number of spikes that were accidental-illegal kills and left in the woods, plus there was no biological reason for the restriction.

Hunters have a wide range of opinions about antler restrictions in all parts of the country.

Hunters have a wide range of opinions about antler restrictions in all parts of the country.

Why ARs? 

ARs are normally sought only in areas that are heavily hunted for bucks. High hunter numbers and buck-only rules will insure that a high proportion of bucks will be killed. Under such conditions, it follows that the next year’s crop of bucks will be composed mostly of replacement yearlings.

A young age structure should not be confused with the normal age composition of a productive herd.  In any herd, whether heavily hunted or not, the largest age class will be the youngest age class; that is, fawns. The largest “adult” age class will be yearlings. Each older age class will be smaller than the one preceding it. Some hunter’s expectations are unrealistic as they fail to recognize basic population dynamics. No productive herd has a high proportion of “mature” bucks except in relative terms.

Wisconsin has high hunting pressure in that it ranks 4th nationally in numbers of deer licenses sold.  Prior to 1990, bucks were heavily exploited especially in farm woodlot areas of central and southern Wisconsin. Unrestricted buck seasons, plus limited antlerless quotas, meant hunting was focused on antlered deer. The majority of hunters wanted to be successful and most wanted venison. Thus, there was competition for bucks.

Since 1990, Wisconsin has struggled with herd control. Bag limits on antlerless have been greatly increased and hunting opportunities lengthened. This has shifted mortality away from antlered bucks and focused more of it on antlerless deer. The result is that there is an older age structure of bucks now than at any time in many decades.

Hunters have been able fill their freezers with antlerless venison while “saving” their one buck tag for a big one. If the “big one” doesn’t show, they still have been successful and have meat. Meanwhile, more bucks survive. Wisconsin has led the nation in production of Boone & Crocket bucks during recent years. All this has been happening with no deliberate effort to “produce” mature bucks.

Past and Recent AR Trends

Western states have had the most experience with ARs specifically designed for the purpose of producing larger antlers. These have been applied to both mule deer and elk. California tried ARs as early as 1937. Most other Western states followed. But already by the 1970s, it was becoming clear that ARs were not achieving their goal. At best, they were merely shifting the bulk of the harvest from yearlings to 2.5-year-old bucks.

As studies continued, two major disappointments were discovered.First was finding an unacceptable level of accidental-illegal kill of animals with inadequate antler condition.Counting points in the wild can be difficult.

The second was noting that ARs focused harvests more heavily on the mature males, virtually wiping them out. One cannot produce “old” bucks by targeting old bucks. They found better age structures were achieved when harvests were spread across all age classes of males. States also found that the best way to have more mature animals was to limit license sales; an option that would not be popular in most Eastern states.

Attempts to discontinue ARs led to a long struggle between wildlife biologists and hunters and this struggle was reminiscent of ending the “buck-only law” in Wisconsin. But by 1998, all Western states except Colorado had discontinued statewide ARs and even Colorado dropped their statewide rule by 2003. Three states, including Colorado, retained some individual units with ARs as a compromise to pacify those sportsmen that continued to demand ARs.

However, popular appeal forced New Mexico to reinstate ARs for a short time, but discontinued them again in 2008. Several Eastern states including Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Mississippi soon mandated statewide ARs. By 2012, 22 states were entertaining ARs on a broad or limited basis for a variety of reasons.

So, it pays to be aware of the issues as demands for mandatory ARs may be coming yet to a neighborhood near you.

Antler restrictions may work better on private land with voluntary decisions than on a statewide "one size fits all" basis and mandated by a wildlife agency.

Antler restrictions may work better on private land with voluntary decisions than on a statewide “one size fits all” basis and mandated by a wildlife agency.

Where ARs Work

ARs tend to work where there are privatized herds and exclusive hunting. Club properties or leases and shooting preserves can employ ARs and achieve older bucks. Limited entry, alone, would lead to having more old bucks. But, these situations are far from what most Midwesterners would consider to be public hunting.

The “official” reason for employing ARs in some states was to focus mortality on the antlerless segments of the herd. Accidental-illegal kill as experienced in the West may not be as much a problem so long as Eastern states continue to experience over-abundant deer and have surplus bonus permits for antlerless deer. But, as herds are reduced to responsible numbers and competition for venison and success increases, accidental-illegal kill of bucks may again be a concern.

Another approach

An overlooked tool for producing older bucks is the employment of Earn-a-Buck (EAB) where a hunter must harvest an antlerless deer before being eligible to bag an antlered buck.  As initially applied in Wisconsin and New Jersey, EAB tended to reduce buck harvest rates by nearly 40 percent.  Some of the reduced buck harvest was no doubt caused by hunters having to pass up a buck because they were not yet eligible to shoot one.  But, another factor may be that once having shot an antlerless deer there was less need to shoot a buck for venison.  By holding back for a “bigger” buck, many hunters go home with no buck but are still “successful” and happy.  The result is an older buck age structure.

Of course, the use of EAB is temporary as it depends on having surplus deer.  EAB has been demonstrated to be one of the most effective herd reduction tools available for public hunting.  Once herd size is lowered and approaches population goals, EAB is discontinued and its affect on extending the buck age structure ceases.   Note that a “pre-qualification” provision, where an antlerless deer shot in the prior year qualifies a hunter to shoot a buck in the following EAB year, reduces the proportion of surviving bucks as does the strategy of earning a second buck (EA2B) by shooting an antlerless after one buck has already been taken.

Other Downsides of ARs

A primary goal of ARs is to provide some protection for yearling bucks so that they can be harvested at age 2.5 or older with increased antler size.  The effect is to protect all bucks with small antlers while creaming off mature bucks and those yearlings with larger racks.  While this may or may not have long-term genetic effects on the herd, studies in Mississippi have found that the surviving members of a yearling age class will have significantly smaller antlers during their lifetime after ARs have been applied.

A secondary motivation for imposing ARs is to correct what is perceived as “distorted” sex ratios. It is common in productive herds for about one out of 5 deer to sport antlers prehunt in the fall if buck harvest has been unrestricted. Some believe this is an indication of “grossly distorted” sex ratios when in fact the prehunt adult sex ratio is rarely more than 2 does per buck and the fawn sex ratio is near 1 to 1. The combined sex ratio for most of these fall herds is near 3 females to 2 males.

To the extent that adult sex ratios are adjusted from 2 does per buck to closer to 1, as might occur with ARs, herd growth rate will be slowed. This can be good or bad depending on objectives.  Most hunters have wanted rapid growth to produce and sustain high harvests.  But, slowed growth would be beneficial for controlling herds where deer are overabundant and hunter demand is low.

Another problem with mandatory ARs is the matter of enforcement and penalties. Low fines might reduce compliance. High fines might increase the number of abandoned dead deer.  And, what should the fine be for a young hunter that mistakenly shoots an illegal buck?

A final concern is the perception created for the non-hunting public. ARs are nearly impossible to divorce from so-called “trophy” hunting. The general public has strongly supported hunting when the focus has been on producing food or for controlling wildlife populations. But, ethical challenges arise when they perceive that the purpose is for mere sport, recreation, or trophies. Mandatory ARs force even meat-hunters to appear to be trophy hunters.

Parting Shot

ARs seem to have popular appeal because, like the “buck law” of earlier times, the restrictions seem to make sense. However, the consequences of imposing ARs have not been fully appreciated by many people. Very simply, you cannot produce more old bucks by targeting older bucks. That, too, should make good sense.

Years of experience and research in Western states has shown that ARs, when mandated for public hunting, do not result in more deer or larger-antlered deer. Can we expect different results in Eastern states?

— Keith McCaffery is a retired wildlife research biologist from Wisconsin.

Literature Cited
Ballard, J.  2008.  Making a point.  Wyoming Wildlife LXXI(3):34-39.
Carpenter, L.H. and R.B. Gill.  1987.  Antler point restrictions: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Proc. Western Assoc. Fish & Wildl. Agencies 67:94-107.
Strickland, B.K. and S. Demarais.  2007.  Using antler restrictions to manage for older-aged bucks: navigating the tangled thicket.  Mississippi State Univ.  Extn. Serv. Publ. 2427.  16pp.

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2 thoughts on “The Facts on Antler Restrictions and Deer Hunting

  1. McKeith

    Experience has shown that under heavy hunting pressure APRs may protect up to 70% of the yearlings and other small-antlered bucks while creaming off the larger yearlings and focusing mortality even more heavily on the mature bucks. Better age structures can be obtained by spreading the mortality across all age classes. If one really wants a “natural” sex and age structure one needs to open the season withing 15 days of the peak of fawning and shoot 40-80% of the current production as that would simulate nature in the absence of hunting (paraphrased from the late Dr. Tony Bubenik, Ontario MNR).

  2. 12Yards

    Your statement, “Very simply, you cannot produce more old bucks by targeting older bucks.” Is absolutely false. In fact the only way you will have more older bucks in the harvest is to allow young bucks to live and target 2.5 year olds and older. They will be replaced every year with another group of 2.5 year old and older bucks. States in the midwest that have APR have shown an increase in the age of bucks harvested and no decline in harvest rates after the 1st or 2nd year of implementation. They have also documented increases in acceptance of APR after hunters have experienced the results. WI would be much better yet if it did have APR IMVHO.

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