Antler Restrictions: Fact and Fiction- Part 2
This is a continuation of the APR blog series. Read Part 1 of this blog series on the APR discussion where we discuss arguments against APR.
Pro-APR Argument #1: Herd sex ratios are dangerously out-of-balance
So far, if you’ve taken the time to read Part 1, you may think that this blog series is an attempt to disassemble the arguments against APR. But, there are plenty of fallacies those of us who would cast a “yes” vote for APR too often lean upon when presenting a pro-APR argument. Let’s start where we left off in Part 1. I’ve heard people talk about out-of-whack buck to doe ratios as evidence of the necessity of APRs. So often they cite observed ratios of twenty or more does to one buck. A lot of times, when you dive into the conversation, you find these ratios are based on individual observation while afield, and that they are counting every bald deer they see, not just the sexually mature adult does. There are a lot of button bucks getting counted as does in these ratio discussions, and no room is left for the reclusive nature of bucks, especially mature ones. In nature, it is incredibly difficult for herds to get much outside of a 1:5 buck to doe ratio. If a herd was truly at the point of having one buck to five or more does, it would likely be evidence of other problems. Likely some factors in the area are leading to poor fawn recruitment. It could be a result of high fawn predation, which itself could be a result of over population and over browsing of fawning cover. Over population could also adversely affect winter food sources and cause does to enter the spring and summer fawning season in sub-par health. A biologist would likely have other ideas on possible diagnosis, but a healthy herd which is recruiting nearly one fawn to every adult doe, will rarely experience herd ratios much worse than 1:3.
Pro-APR Argument #2: Unbalanced sex ratios, and high buck exploitation, create a biological problem for the deer herd
Think about it this way: a local herd consisting of 2 adult bucks and 6 adult does, which is recruiting fawns at a rate of one fawn per adult doe, will statistically have 3 doe fawns and 3 button bucks in the herd. If both adult bucks are killed in hunting season and no antlerless deer are taken, the following year the three button bucks will be yearlings ready to breed, as will the doe fawns. There are now 3 adult bucks and 9 adult does. The herd size has increased, but the sex ratio has remained the same. Obviously this is a simplified illustration, but it shows how nature is able to keep herself in check and how whitetail Deer can survive and populations grow and thrive even with high buck exploitation rates. It is easy to see how low fawn recruitment is a very concerning factor if you are at all conscious of buck to doe ratios and at all worried about buck harvest opportunities! Shutting down doe season, as my family member suggested, would quickly risk over population in many areas and lead to habitat loss. As mentioned, the relationship of habitat loss to falling fawn recruitment rates leads to adverse buck to doe ratios and actually provides credence to the pro- APR argument. Additionally, shutting down antlerless seasons, in the vast majority of areas in PA, is not sound management and it’s likely that it will never happen, so it’s not even a principle or argument that is conducive to productive conversation. Metro areas with no hunting eventually have to utilize sharpshooters and [ineffective] sterilization ( the latter because of anti-hunting pressure) due to excessive populations reaching density estimates of hundreds of deer per square mile. The over population becomes a public safety/nuisance concern and a herd health problem. Vehicular collisions, residential property damage and deer disease control all become critical issues in these areas. Look at what is currently happening within the city limits of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a case study. Some northern cities sometimes experience high winter kill, because of the lack of food sources in these areas. When this occurred on Long Island, some residents illegally supplemented the local herd and unintentionally caused mortality due to contaminated corn and/or digestive issues within deer who were unaccustomed to eating grain.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge the highly successful and efficient management tool of hunter harvest and its ability to, in some cases, reduce the herd beyond a healthy number. Game commissions and DNRs have the responsibility, especially to the public land hunter, to keep a finger on the pulse of the State’s herd density. I recently listened to a podcast where the founder of QDMA, Joe Hamilton, acknowledged that in some areas doe harvest went too far and a re-evaluation of harvest goals was needed. The private land owner has a little more control over the local herd residing on their own land, but generally speaking it is important for hunters to understand that the responsibility of firing a bullet or loosing an arrow lies with each of us individually. That isn’t to propose limitless bags or overly liberal doe tag allocation, but, at the same time, it is curious that many of the most vocal hunters who would like the game commission to severely limit or reduce doe season, (and thus eliminate that harvest opportunity for other hunters), are in turn upset that the Game Commission has [perceivably] limited their buck harvest potential.
The above being said, it is important to cede that the further away from a 1:1 ratio the herd finds itself, stress can and will increase. A longer, but less intense rut will often result, leading to bucks servicing more does than they might otherwise if the herd dynamics were more balanced. This can affect the condition in which Bucks enter winter, and can be detrimental to the younger individuals in the population. Bucks entering Winter in a poorer condition will often enter Spring nutritionally deficient and the following year’s antler growth can therefore become affected. Body weights are also affected by unbalanced sex ratios and overpopulated herds, so the meat hunter should care about herd balance as well.
Pro-APR Argument #3: Hunter satisfaction and enjoyment is diminished by out-of-balance sex ratios
Sex ratios that reach a point that is biologically out-of-balance do adversely effect hunter experience given the aforementioned less-intense rut. A herd with poor age structure will also not display as much of the stereotypical buck activity and sign that hunters can use to increase their opportunities in the woods. Again, (anecdotally), the New York property we hunt has very few rubs and scrapes in or around bedding areas, field edges or travel corridors. The age structure is generally very young on this property, despite our efforts to practice what QDM we can manage. The Pennsylvania property we hunt, within the same Twin Tiers region, regularly displays significantly more (and larger) rubs and is riddled with scrapes by October’s end. The age structure there, while not equivalent to some Midwestern destinations, is significantly better than neighboring New York, and the increased hunting opportunities because of it are noticeable. At the same time, the kind of rutting activity and daylight movement that may be visible in parts of the Midwest, are still not experienced to the same degree in Pennsylvania. APRs haven’t totally changed that reality.
High population densities coupled with unbalanced sex ratios can also make properties more difficult to hunt, as bucks move away from the social pressure of doe groups within preferred bedding. Access to stands within the property becomes difficult. Getting to and from a stand without bumping non-target antlerless deer can become nearly impossible and keeping the pressure minimal on an over populated parcel is extraordinarily difficult. Higher densities of deer is not equivalently valuable to higher densities of target animals, and as such, conflating the two ideas is again, misguided. One must only evaluate the herd populations of Kansas and Pennsylvania to understand that high overall deer numbers is not absolutely correlative to buck harvest opportunity, especially mature buck harvest at that. A credible argument can be made that the above factors lead to diminished hunter opportunity and experience. However, what it doesn’t equate to is APRs being biologically necessary for the sustainability of huntable populations of Whitetail deer. In the interest of constructive and objective conversation, the two concepts should not be conflated.
The presence of APRs also doesn’t automatically lead to increased success on mature Deer. More target animals creates a better environment to connect on a nice deer, but I can assure you, killing a three and half year old, or older, deer in Pennsylvania is still incredibly challenging. In most areas, A 2.5 year buck is in the top 25% or better of the local buck population. Because some yearlings are guaranteed to survive every year, due to being protected by APR, and some other yearlings that meet the antler criteria will get through by mere chance, there is certainly an increased number of 2.5 year olds to hunt in Pennsylvania. These deer are a year older and a year wiser and perhaps have increased their survival acumen, providing them with better chances to reach 3.5. However, in most areas, PA’s gun 2 week gun season and 900,000 license holders serve to eliminate many bucks in their second year of antler growth. The age structure in PA after APR is unarguably better, but it is no where close to that of lower hunter density states like Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma or Arkansas. I remember thinking that APR was going to all but ensure wall-mounter bucks would be running all over our hunting areas in PA and thinking that hunting was about to get significantly easier in the Keystone State. Reality was something entirely different.
Pro-APR Argument #4: I can’t practice QDM without APR because my neighbor shoots small bucks
My ‘favorite’ argument for APR is the suggestion that APR is necessary because a landowner can’t successfully practice QDM on their property because of their neighbors’ buck harvest. I’ve been guilty of this train of thought more times than I would like to admit. I’ll defend myself in the sense that these thoughts occurred mostly when my hunting experience was unfortunately based in more competitive spirit. I thought that my neighbors’ practice of shooting small bucks was the whole reason I couldn’t connect on the type of deer I sought to shoot. I didn’t know enough to accurately evaluate my own hunting approach. I failed to see my shortcomings within my process and how I was hunting the deer in my area incorrectly. I look back now and feel fortunate to have killed the deer I did during that time. When I was frustrated about not seeing deer or target bucks, I didn’t realize I wasn’t hunting their bedding areas or correctly evaluating mid season shifts in food sources or even at the most basic level managing the amount of hunting pressure I was putting on certain areas. Ironically, I suspect that most of those lamenting the introduction of APR because they can’t find a buck to shoot, are guilty of some of the same mistakes and are simply unwilling to put in the work it takes to identify buck bedding areas and low impact exit and entrance routes to stand sites.
The truth is, my neighbors do have some impact on my hunting opportunity, and as I mentioned, the buck exploitation around the New York property we hunt certainly has affected the age structure in comparison to the neighboring PA ground. But, we are still able to have a few animals on the property that meet our criteria each year, and since managing the hunting pressure we put on the property and allowing the property to act as a sink during gun season, we have been able to protect a handful of bucks each season and allow them to live to another year of maturity. This year we pursued the first known 4.5 year old deer we have had on the property and came just fifteen yards short of a shot opportunity in archery season. If hunting that age class is possible in a high hunter density area of western New York, it is possible anywhere. Furthermore, public land hunters have perhaps the most to gain from APRs, as they have no control over hunting pressure, but ironically it seems to be the private land owners who are the most vocal in support of APR. As I progress in my life and my hunting experience, I have found myself feeling happy for a fellow hunter’s filled tag, regardless of whether or not I would shoot the deer they chose to take. If it is a legal and ethical harvest, far be it for me to say when the trigger should be pulled. If they have put down a giant, either by luck or hard work, I am also happy for them. Everyone should hunt and harvest to their prerogative, within the laws and regulations provided.
That being said, I was listening to a podcast where the speaker described a situation where a hunter on a shared piece of private ground had killed an immature buck. The person on the podcast expressed their displeasure with the hunter’s choice to kill that type of buck. The conversation went something along lines of “Why did you shoot that?”. On this property there was one deer that was of older age class frequenting the parcel and I’ll make the assumption that the hunter who was offering the criticisms felt there would be more target animals if those sharing the property would just stop shooting small bucks. I find this to be a misconception on multiple fronts. First, it accounts little for the social pressure of increased populations and how mature bucks often disperse to more remote bedding and core areas away from other deer. Your private parcel has a limited number of bedding areas on it. Unless you own thousands of acres, the number of mature deer you will realistically hold on a small parcel is limited. That’s not to say you won’t find mature Deer using your parcel randomly or infrequently, but the number of home-body bucks you can enjoy hunting from opening day to season’s close is going to be restricted to some degree. Northeastern hunters need to have realistic expectations when it comes to management and ostracizing another hunter over their harvest decision is, in my opinion, an un-constructive and alienating way to approach a conversation about APR or QDM.
Counter to the statements made on the podcast, when I personally am hunting a private parcel that is shared with hunters who do not hold the same management mentality as I do, I am glad when they shoot a buck that I would not. In a one buck state such as Pennsylvania, their harvest of an immature deer means two things: 1. They won’t be able to fill their buck tag, either by luck or woodsmanship, on a larger deer that I am hunting, and 2. After their buck tag is filled they will likely not be in the woods adding additional hunting pressure to the parcel. In my opinion, taking a yearling, or two, from a property has little overall impact on the hunting opportunities of subsequent seasons, and I would gladly trade that for the positive impacts on my current season. If there are hunters who are consistently killing good deer on public lands, a yearling harvest on a shared private parcel or neighboring property should be very low on your list of concerns.
So, as we can see, if we objectively evaluate the discussion, there are a lot of false premises, and incorrect information coming at us from both sides of the argument. My personal opinion of Antler Point Restrictions is that they have been proven to be an effective management tool in the areas where they have been implemented. While I am generally in favor of less regulations coming from governing bodies, I think Antler Point Restrictions fall in a unique place. As I see them, they are a practical and easily implemented way to increase the opportunity for a large and diverse set of hunters without diminishing opportunity for others who hold different goals. The meat hunters have essentially experienced no statistical reduction in buck harvest opportunity, and opportunities to shoot antlerless deer remain plentiful enough across the state. The APR regulation provides protection for a certain number of yearling bucks and inevitably some other deer, which may not be quickly identified as legal, happen to get through as well. This protection provides opportunities at an older age class of deer for those who wish to be more selective. Many of the opportunities these more selective hunters in Pennsylvania now enjoy would be much more difficult to obtain without the regulation in place. Public lands, especially, have seen a marked difference in herd age structure. I believe the single largest challenge facing APR and hunting in general is social media. Social platforms have an uncanny ability to shift the hunting narrative to one of trophy hunting only, where hunters feel the need make unfortunate posts that include excuses for shooting a small buck, or even excuses for a phenomenal deer that simply doesn’t meet the TV definition of a “shooter”. Because of this, some hunters end up opposing APR because they conflate it with simple trophy hunting, and other hunters will support APR because they believe it will automatically equate to TV caliber animals on their wall. Both of these narratives obfuscate the truth of APR’s value. The reality of APR’s strength lies in its ability to be something in between these two extremes; something with reasonable, realistic and tangible benefits to all hunters within the State that implements it.
By Reuben Dourte