Wading Through the Gene Pool

By Scott Bestul

Back in the 1980s, my cousins and I decided to “get serious” about improving the buck quality on the 600-plus acres we hunted in central Wisconsin. Most of us were not far removed from a farm background, so one of the first things we did was something any good farmer who wanted his critters to grow big and impressive would do: We tried to get rid of breeding age males that looked inferior. We’d have had more success herding cats.

At first glance, shooting sub-par bucks — a practice known as “culling” — makes perfect sense. Why let scrawny, poorly antlered males contribute their genes to the annual fawn crop, especially when there are — or should be — true stud horses willing to take their place? Eliminating less-desirable males from the gene pool is standard operating procedure in everything from hunting dogs to race horses. Why would it not work with deer? Especially when we knew that the whitetail breeding process was based on a dominance-based hierarchy that favored the biggest, strongest and oldest bucks. By shooting scraggly inferiors, we’d enjoy a super-race of sleek bucks bound for the B&C books in a few seasons. Well that fantasy sure didn’t match reality, at least the one we lived in in our corner of Wisconsin. And now — many years later — we know why. Research projects have shined a huge, beaming light on the mechanics of the whitetail breeding process, and taught us exactly why culling bucks in free-ranging herds is most often simply bad science. What follows is a brief summary of each project and its implications for managers.


Culling, of course, relies on taking out those bucks that lack “the right stuff” to produce mega-antlers. And what is the most obvious indicator of which bucks make the cut and which bite the dust? Why, antlers of course. You don’t have to have been around deer hunting long before you hear the age-old theory that spike bucks are inferior to their branch-antlered brothers and cousins. And in some cases, that old saw might be true. But in most others, it’s simply dead wrong. Research has proven that some young bucks just get off to a rough start often because they were born a little later, or good antler-growing conditions just didn’t exist that year. But they can blossom into trophies if given time and a chance and are provided proper nutrition.
Another category of cull bucks are those with deformed or misshapen antlers. We’ve all seen these goofy-looking abnormals trotting through the timber — tines stubbed off; main beams blunted or curved oddly; and even bucks that pack a classic, gorgeous right or left side can have a matching antler that is nothing more than a pathetic spike, fork or twisted-up main beam. These were the bucks my cousins and I liked to kill when we were culling.

“Never amount to anything, anyway,” we’d say as we showed our group another yearling buck done in before his prime.

Although some bucks will indeed carry deformed — or at least non-classic — antlers their entire lives, there’s just as strong a chance that an unbalanced rack will correct itself in the future. Injuries to the antlers or the opposing rear quarter can damage antlers one season and then be a non-factor the next. Noted researcher Mickey Hellickson proved this with a telemetry buck they captured in one of his King Ranch studies. At the year of capture, the buck was a 3-1/2-year old, with six tines on one side and an ugly fork on the other. The next year the buck was a gorgeous 7-by-6 that Hellickson wouldn’t have recognized had it not been a study animal with an imbedded microchip. Two years later, as a 6-1/2-year-old, the buck sported an even larger 13-point rack with four sticker points that grossed nearly 180 inches.


Another long-held belief about the whitetail rut is that the biggest, oldest, most dominant bucks monopolized much of the breeding. More King Ranch research — led again by Hellickson — proved this is not true. The King Ranch, remember, is perhaps the most intensely managed whitetail population in America. Buck-to doe ratios are as close to ideal as possible, and there are a good number of bucks spread across all age classes; up to 30 percent of the bucks are 5-1/2-years-old or older. (Sound like your property? Mine neither). Even with big, old, deer present, immature bucks — 2-1/2 or younger — sired 35 percent of all fawns. Researchers proved this by matching DNA from captured deer and identifying the lineage for each animal. It gets even more interesting. Although old, massive-racked bucks are the intended goal of many management programs, Hellickson’s research proved that some mature bucks simply don’t participate much in the rut.
“We had 7-1/2-year-old bucks that bred hard for only one season, and some bucks just didn’t get into breeding at all,” he said. “We don’t know if that’s a personality thing — some bucks are simply shy and reclusive — or a function of dominance or something else. All we learned for sure is that it’s almost impossible to predict the breeders, regardless of size or age.”

But recent research — at the King Ranch and other places — has also proven another interesting statistic: Individual bucks tend to only a handful of does each fall. And of the fawns they actually sire, a percentage will succumb to predation or accidents. This makes the actual contribution of even a highly desired “breeder” buck to the area deer herd a statistical drop-in the- bucket. Of course, it’s great when a studly, towering-antlered giant passes his superior genetic traits down to a young buck fawn. But any manager of a free-ranging deer herd who thinks he can make that happen with regularity is kidding himself.

And finally there’s this: Hunters have long had a tunnel vision that focused solely on the contribution that a buck makes to a fawn’s genetic makeup, but even the greenest farmer can tell you that the female half of the equation is equally important. And how are we to select for the most genetically superior does in a wild population? Body size? Ear length? Tail diameter? I’m being facetious here, of course. We have no such control and likely never will. Managers of wild deer do not live in a world of penned does, semen straws and artificial insemination. Our attempts to influence the genetic makeup of our whitetails might be admirable but are largely futile.

Faced with such statistics, it might be tempting to throw our collective hands up in the air and wonder why the heck we try so hard to grow quality deer. The key, of course, is to focus on factors we can control, and forget the ones where nature is driving the car.
We make the habitat we own or manage as good as it
can possibly be, and then let whitetails do the rest.
Providing quality food plots is a huge part of the
equation, as well as a never-ending challenge.

In other words, let captive breeders worry about genetics. They have some measure of control in that arena, but wild deer managers do not. Indeed, free-ranging deer actually benefit from genetic diversity, which is at least one of nature’s reasons for making yearling bucks disperse to areas far from their home range. I’m sure a biologist could list other ways in which deer populations are saved from in-breeding, but I’m not that guy. All I know is, fretting about genetics is not only a monumental waste of time, but it takes us a scary step closer toward thinking of whitetails as domestic animals that we “raise” or “grow.” In my opinion, waltzing down that road is a sad step, if not a dangerous one.

So what do we do? We make the habitat we own or manage as good as it can possibly be, and then let whitetails do the rest. Providing quality food plots is a huge part of the equation, as well as a never-ending challenge. I have the privilege of talking to many deer hunters each year, and the popularity of food-plotting is only matched by the questions that wanna-be farmers (like me) have after dipping their toes in that pool. But whether we’re struggling to grow that perfect stand of Imperial Whitetail Clover or fretting whether we should experiment with Imperial Winter-Greens, we know that we’re helping whitetails be as healthy as possible.

Managing timber and other forms of whitetail cover is a second, though no-less-vital link to managing a deer herd. Whitetails are largely a woodland species — one that thrives in young growth timber that provides browse and cover for bedding, security and fawning. Food plots are understandably a hot item right now, but let’s never forget that timber management — as well as the creation and management of grass-lands, river corridors, wetlands and other critical habitat — is every bit as vital to deer. Maintain ideal cover, I’m convinced, and we’ll be able to grow all the mature bucks our property is capable of producing.

Third, if we really want to improve the composition and age structure of our herd, we’ll make the right decisions about which — and how many — deer we kill. I’m still amazed at the number of hunters who tell me, “I want as many does on my ground as possible, so then I know where all the bucks will be during the rut.” Well I’ve never lived in that world, but I have a couple of very good friends who had “as many does on their ground as possible.” Though their properties held good bucks, killing one was nearly impossible during the rut, as mature deer barely had to move to find a willing doe. And though many bucks survived to old age, very few ever grew great antlers. Stressed from a long and arduous rut, the bucks barely scraped through winter, competing for food with oodles of does. Only when an aggressive doe-harvest plan, designed to bring overall deer numbers in tune with the habitat, was implemented did the bucks start growing to their potential. Even better, they became more killable.

Finally, celebrate the success of taking a buck from the bounty now and then. I’ve known hunters who tag a fine, mature whitetail but then second guess their decision by wondering, “Maybe I should have left him to breed another year or grow bigger.” If the buck trips your trigger when you see him in the field, and he meets the harvest criteria for that property, shoot the buck, and count it as a marker of success. Passing a deer to see if he’ll gain 20 inches the next fall is understandable, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand and raise the harvest bar so high nearly every buck is off limits. (I’ve seen this happen, too).

But passing on a buck because one more year of breeding will somehow benefit the area’s genetics? This is as foolhardy as turning down a date with the pretty girl next door in hopes that Angelina Jolie will show up and whisk you off your feet.

Growing great food plots. Implementing a long-term, well-designed, habitat management plan. Keeping deer numbers in tune with property size and available habitat. All are time-consuming, difficult and worthy goals to strive for.

But controlling or improving genetics? You might as well try herding cats.