Are Antler Restrictions Working?

By David Hart

After over a decade of data, biologists are tweaking buck harvest.

In 2002 Pennsylvania became one of a growing number of states to institute antler restrictions. The new rules were part of a sweeping change to the state’s deer management program, one that was an attempt to bring the state’s buck-doe ratio closer together, increase the number of adult bucks and give hunters a better chance at killing a mature whitetail.

Prior to the new rules, Pennsylvania hunters could shoot any buck with at least one spike three inches or longer, or a single antler with at least two points. Not only were hunters willing to shoot those little bucks, they shot them en masse. According to harvest data, 80 percent of the antlered deer taken in Pennsylvania each season were just 1 1/2 years old, and buck-doe ratios were as low as 1:10, even lower in some areas. Under the new rules, hunters in most of the state can only shoot bucks with at least three points on one side. While most hunters were willing to give the restrictions a try, a small but vocal number of critics blasted the plan for a variety of reasons, claiming the plan wouldn’t work. Turns out, they were wrong.

Where it has been instituted, either through regulations or through voluntary cooperation by clubs and individual hunters, antler restrictions have resulted in more bigger bucks in the entire population. Bigger, however, is a relative term. Data compiled by the PGC shows that while yearling bucks are indeed surviving at higher rates, most are being harvested the first year they are legal. Prior to the new rules, about 20 percent of the total buck harvest consisted of mature (two years or older) deer. Now, 2-1/2-year-old bucks make up 75 percent of Pennsylvania’s “mature” buck harvest. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer project leader Matt Knox is also seeing a shift in pressure away from yearlings to 2-1/2-year-old whitetails, even though there are no mandatory restrictions in most of the state. They may be bigger, but how much bigger?

“I walked into a deer processor last season and saw only one one-year old buck hanging. The rest were two-year-olds,” he recalls. Most of those two-year-olds are far from trophy class deer, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, agrees Knox. He says an increase in 2-1/2-year-old bucks ultimately means there will be more older deer left in the total population after each hunting season.

“I think hunters will start treating two-year-old bucks the same way they treated one-year-old deer in the past,” he says. “They will realize that they don’t have to shoot the first small eight-pointer because they’ve shot plenty of small eight-pointers already.”

Greg Patton, a taxidermy shop owner in Shenandoah County, Virginia, also thinks hunters will eventually tire of shooting those mediocre bucks and will be more willing to pass on them. Patton was one of a handful of forward-thinking hunters who pushed the VDGIF to implement antler point restrictions in his home county starting in 2006. Instead of adopting a full-blown, across-the-board point restriction, the Department instituted a second-buck rule: The first buck could be any antlered deer, but the second had to have at least four points on one side. It was a good start, figures Patton, and while he’d like to see the rules taken a step farther, he agrees with Knox.

“I think hunters will start to realize that they don’t need to shoot any more two-and-a-half year-old deer and they’ll start letting those bucks walk, even if there are no changes to the current restrictions,” he says. Mississippi, which adopted antler restrictions in 1995, is also seeing a shift away from the harvest of younger deer. Prior to the restrictions, yearlings accounted for about 50 percent of the total buck kill. But unlike what’s happening in Pennsylvania and Shenandoah County, VA, hunters in Mississippi are shifting their attention away from just-legal deer to older bucks. In 2005, 60 percent of the buck harvest was 3-1/2 years old or older. After ten years of living and hunting under the four-point rule, hunters have adopted the same attitude Patton would like to see Shenandoah County hunters adopt: Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it has to be killed.

“The majority of the clubs have been using more stringent rules than the state rules and they have been more than willing to hold out for older deer,” says Mississippi Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks deer program coordinator Chad Dacus. “I think somewhere in the late ‘90s or early 2000s there was also a noticeable shift by the general public to pass on those younger legal deer and I think it is a trend that will continue.”

Dacus added that a survey conducted by the MDFWP backs that up, as most hunters said they were no longer shooting a buck just because he was legal. Overall, Mississippi hunters have been extremely satisfied with the changes, and a majority of Pennsylvania hunters have embraced the recent changes. A vocal minority, however, questioned the need to change the status quo, wondering if the state’s deer herd was truly in need of a fix.

Pennsylvania instituted its antler restrictions largely as a result of an extremely low buck-to-doe ratio and a disproportionately low number of mature bucks. There was also some concern among hunters over the lack of quality bucks. By drastically increasing the doe harvest through increases in permits and by cutting down on the buck harvest, biologists have been able to bring the herd into better balance. Knox, however, wonders why some hunters and biologists get so worked up about buck-doe ratios and age structures.

“I’m always having discussions with hunters and even biologists about the ‘right’ buck-doe ratios and the proper age structures for a deer herd, but no one can give me the right number,” he says. “There is no shortage of deer in any of these states that are enacting antler restrictions, so to me it really comes down to creating more older deer and not necessarily the right balance, whatever that is. As I said before, I have no problem with managing for older-aged bucks, but I don’t think it should be mandated by a wildlife department.”

Despite initial claims by Pennsylvania biologists that the skewed buck-doe ratio was creating unnatural breeding cycles, new reports show that there has been no change in the breeding dates of the state’s deer. Prior to the restrictions, the average date of conception was Nov. 17; after, the average breeding date was Nov. 16.

After examining the effect of antler restrictions for 14 years, biologists in Mississippi found that selective harvest of bucks with at least four points on one side resulted in a reduction in bucks with larger antlers in subsequent years. In other words, the best bucks were being taken out of the population early because they grew legal antlers at younger ages than lower-quality bucks of the same age. Called “high-grading,” it ultimately resulted in an overall decline in antler size of 3 1/2-year old and older bucks. It’s happening mostly on public property where hunting pressure is high and hunters are still less willing to let a legal deer pass.

Private-land hunters, however, have more freedom to be selective and are more willing to pass up legal bucks that barely meet the minimum requirements as they wait for a mature, heavy-antlered buck. So after 14 years of point restrictions, the MDFWP has scrapped the four-point rule and instead adopted a measurement scale. Now, hunters have to judge either a buck’s antler spread or main beam length. In two management zones, which cover about threequarters of the state, bucks must have at least a 10-inch inside spread or a main beam length of at least 13 inches.

In one zone, which has more fertile soil and a greater potential to produce larger bucks, hunters are restricted to bucks with at least a 12-inch inside spread or a main beam length of at least 15 inches. Dacus says the new rules will protect nearly 100 percent of the state’s yearling bucks and allow mature bucks to breed more does, which is more natural and better for the herd overall.

“We were seeing a decrease in antler quality because the poor-quality yearling bucks were doing most of the breeding. By increasing the overall antler quality, we expect to see a long-term increase in antler size as well as a shorter breeding season,” he explains. “When we had the four-point rule in place, the breeding season was lasting as long as 50 days and we saw some fawns born as late as October. That’s not a sign of a healthy deer herd.”

The bottom line is that antler restrictions can work to a degree. Younger bucks are surviving at higher rates, putting more 2-1/2-year-old deer in the woods. But what happens after they reach that age can only be determined by those who make the ultimate decision to shoot or to wait.