Antler Restrictions: Fact and Fiction- Part 1

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Antler Restrictions: Fact and Fiction- Part 1

Antler Point Restrictions. The phrase elicits debate immediately. It seems as though emotions on both sides quickly get super charged and it leads to the kind of infighting amongst sportsmen that isn’t conducive to civilized conversation, nor to finding any middle ground. Perhaps there are plenty of ways that goals between the two camps aren’t congruent, but I would contend that there is a reasonable discussion to be had as to whether or not APR is necessary, as well as if it is beneficial, or, counter productive.

Pennsylvania is, in many ways, the poster child for APR. I remember when it was implemented. I also remember the conversations among sportsmen about whether it would actually benefit the herd, or even the general hunting experience in the State.

Arguments About APR

The arguments against it typically went something like the following: Pennsylvania doesn’t have the genetics to grow true trophy class deer; high grading will occur and inferior bucks will be breeding more does as the genetically superior bucks will be harvested, leaving only those remaining inferior deer to propagate; opportunity will be reduced because hunters won’t be able to shoot most of the bucks they see, and kids won’t want to hunt anymore because of it; there is no biological benefit to APR; I hunt for meat, not horns; they are ruining the hunting heritage of the state.

The last argument is purely emotional and subjective, so there is little argument for, or against, it. You either believe this or you don’t. It’s safe to say that most people who were in favor of APR, didn’t see point restrictions as a way to eliminate hunting as we know it, but instead to evolve it in the 21st century. The arguments they offered in favor of APR were usually something along the lines of: buck to doe ratios in the state are severely out of balance, in some areas as high as 1 buck to 20 does; the unbalanced sex ratios create a biological problem for the whitetail deer herd; hunter experience is diminished by a poor age structure and out-of-balance sex ratios; my neighbor shoots all the bucks I pass up and we can’t practice QDM effectively unless APR is implemented; I want to see and shoot more ‘big’ bucks.

The last argument is also emotional and subjective, so there is little argument for or against it. But, what if I told you that both sides of the debate introduced valid points that should be considered, as well as false or emotional ones that should be ignored?

It’s somewhat surprising to me that more than a decade after implementation we can still be discussing this topic, especially when a large majority of Keystone hunters now agree that antler point restrictions are a good thing for the State’s whitetail population. But, it’s true that some people are still very heated about the idea of the State prohibiting the harvest of certain bucks. I know this because just recently I found myself accosted by a family member who was very heated about antler point restrictions and the harvest opportunity they had recently cost him. He was pretty upset and started in on me for being a ‘trophy hunter’. Interestingly, if you saw my basement wall, you would probably agree that most hunters, especially those in the Midwest, wouldn’t call me that. So, I suppose a lot of the conversation comes down to perception and individual hunters’ mentalities or experiences. I tried to explain that I’m not a trophy hunter, and really not a vocal proponent or opponent to APR. (However, in the interest of transparency, I do think APRs have generally worked in PA, and I have a sister state in NY to compare the progress to. Every year I hunt very similar ground in both states and, though anecdotal, I can see the stark contrast between the two management plans.) My family member ended the conversation by proposing the idea that doe season should be totally shut down for a year or two in order to allow for the does to raise more bucks to shoot. He followed that statement up by informing me that he shot two button bucks this year.  All of that being said, let’s try to tease this discussion apart just a bit.

Anit-APR Argument #1: This area can’t grow trophy deer, and I hunt for meat, not horns, anyway

The idea that PA can’t grow a trophy class of deer is quite simply misguided. The idea that the genetics and soil types are inferior to that of the storied Midwestern states, and therefore trying to increase age structure and maximize potential is nothing but a fool’s errand, is disingenuous. Why? Because this argument is a half-truth, and is largely coming from the same hunters who want to be able to shoot a fork horn and are upset that they can’t. While it may be true that the corn fields of Iowa or the rich soils of Buffalo County may be superior habitat for Boone and Crockett deer, nearly every part of the Northeast has the potential to grow Deer that reach the Pope and Young threshold of 125”. This is a trophy anywhere in my book, but in the Northeast, it’s a stud. If anyone tells you differently, they haven’t hunted long enough, in my opinion. It wasn’t too long ago that a 110” buck or higher was considered the buck of a lifetime around these parts and if you shot one, not only would everyone in town know about it, people would tell you that you might as well quit hunting because you’ll never shoot one bigger. The overlying point here is that I very much doubt that the anti-APR hunters, who would like to have the opportunity to shoot the first buck they see, would fail to classify a 125” whitetail in the trophy category. Because of APR there are more of these deer available to hunt and kill in the State of Pennsylvania than ever before. So, it’s safe to say that the assertion that PA can’t produce a ‘trophy’ class of deer, within the ‘average’ hunter’s definition, is false. I also doubt that the majority of meat hunting hunters would pose for a picture with a 120” buck with the tail end of deer toward the camera, in order to adequately show off those substantial hams for which they shot the deer, of course. So again, it’s safe to say that, to varying degrees, antlers do matter to just about everyone.  This doesn’t even address the fact that since APR implementation Pennsylvania has increased its Boone and Crockett entries exponentially and State records have been broken and re-broken. In 2016 the non-typical archery record was broken with a deer measuring 228 6/8”, and this season the typical archery record was set by a State Land buck with a net score of 185 4/8” (grossing in the 190’s). These deer aren’t trophies for Pa, they are trophies anywhere across the Whitetail’s range.

Anti-APR Argument #2: APR will cause High-Grading to occur

This influx of record book entries, along with the anecdotal evidence that is the significantly different look of social media feeds in recent years, seems to fly in the face of any high-grading argument which some anti-APR hunters choose to make. The record books tell us that big deer are falling in PA with more regularity and Facebook photos, forum threads and local big buck contests seem to be evidencing this annually as well. Biologically, and genetically, high-grading within an ungulate species that breeds as whitetails do is a misnomer and a straw man argument. Deer do not have harems as elk do, and the idea of a dominant “breeder buck”  servicing the majority of the does in an area has been debunked. With radio telemetry studies we can determine how deer move during the rut  and we also know that bucks breed one doe at a time. A buck may speed 48 hours breeding one doe repetitively until she is through her breeding cycle and then he will break away and find another. While this buck is bedded in thick cover with a hot doe, other does in the area are also coming into heat. In populations with unbalanced age structures (anything greater than 1:1 really), most bucks will participate in the breeding season. There are enough does that even that ‘inferior’ spike will be getting some action in November when that mature ‘breeder buck’ is hunkered down with his current doe. The high-grading argument has its flaws in genetics as well, mainly due to the fact that the doe contributes half of the genetic material that is within the next generation of buck fawns. Some captive deer breeders will tell you that the most inheritable antler traits are passed through the maternal side of the deer’s pedigree, leading them to believe the buck’s mother has more to do with antler potential than its sire. Since we can’t harvest does on the basis of their antler potential, it becomes nearly impossible to positively or negatively alter the genetics of the deer herd through hunter harvest. Just ask any of the renowned biologists who are part of the QDMA. This is also why the idea of shooting “cull bucks” from a wild Deer herd to improve antler size is foolish and misguided. Lastly, the high-grading argument doesn’t account for later born fawns, poor growing seasons, or a buck which was born to a first time mother. A buck that is younger when it is growing its first set of antlers may be behind in body size when comparing it to other deer in the same fawn crop. He may display smaller antlers for the sole reason that he is still catching up to his peers. Additionally, a harsh Winter which causes deer to enter Spring under nourished, or a poor growing season and dry summer during critical antler development times can also stifle antler growth, even with mature deer. Lastly, every Fall, some doe fawns reach sexual maturity before their first birthday and are bred. These does may not have access to the best food sources as do matriarchal does, and may not produce as much milk because they are still growing themselves after fawning. This can cause a buck fawn born to one of these does to start life behind other deer in the local herd. Those things have nothing to do with the antler genetics or the maximum antler potential within that deer’s DNA.

Anti-APR Argument #3: APR will reduce hunter opportunities

Hunter opportunity, if reduced solely to buck harvest, has not sustained any significant decreases in the state of Pennsylvania. Statistically speaking, hunter buck harvest has remained consistent based on a percentage of licensed hunters across the state, so the argument of diminished opportunity really falls quite flat. Many of the people I know, myself included, who haven’t filled a buck tag this year, could have if they would have chosen to shot any legal buck. But, because of APR, many hunters have seen what another year of age can do, and they choose to self regulate beyond the APR standards. Even with this self regulation and the mentality of higher antler criteria that has been making progress within the hunting ranks, statistical harvest success rates have remained consistent. What we have seen, however, is that for the first time in modern hunting history, PA has begun to harvest more (59% in 2016) 2.5 year old or older bucks than yearling bucks. The majority of the statewide buck harvest comprised of yearlings used to push near 80% annually. On the contrary, some 60% of New York’s harvest is still made up of yearling bucks, the highest ratio in the nation. Youth hunters in Pennsylvania are allowed to shoot a buck with antlers over 3” in length, and since they can shoot deer that are otherwise “protected”, one would have to argue that the youth opportunities have increased in the State. Like every State, PA faces hunter recruitment and attrition issues, but it is hard to correlate that with a lack of youth opportunity. Likely, there are other, more significant roadblocks to entry for the next generation. Sports and electronics present bigger threats to the perpetuation of hunting within the next generation than do APRs.

Anti-APR Argument #4: APRs are not biologically necessary.

The best argument offered by the anti-APR crowd is that Antler Point Restrictions are not biologically necessary. This I (cautiously) agree with. I say cautiously because the discussion is more nuanced, but as a whole, sustaining a huntable population of Whitetail deer does not require APR.  If an area is recruiting fawns back into the herd at a high rate, buck fawns will be present the following year as sexually mature yearling bucks, and can breed the does to produce the next generation. Even if there is near 100% exploitation of the buck population, as long as there is high fawn recruitment, the deer herd will be able to regenerate from year to year. Of course, this doesn’t account for the social effects this may have on the herd, the physiological effects on the bucks, or the effects on hunter experience, but we will get into that in a bit.

Part 2 of this blog series will discuss common arguments often offered by those in favor of APRs.

By Reuben Dourte

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