INVASION OF THE UGLY BULLIES...and the deterioration of the buck herd

By Bill Winke

 Over the past several years, I have been watching the quality of the bucks on my farm deteriorate. When I bought it in 2002 and 2003, the farm held many whoppers. I felt like I had snuck into my mother's kitchen and stolen the cookie jar. I thought, "It couldn’t possibly be this good without anyone else noticing, could it?" And I had huge visions of how much better it would be in subsequent years when I started to manage the land.

Several things can cause a downturn in antler size, so it's difficult to pinpoint the true reason for a decline. However, the second trend I have watched — a herd with more old bucks — seems to shed a bit more light on the situation. The poor quality is not because I don’t have mature bucks and not because I don’t feed them (they have plenty of year-round nutrition). I have old bucks with scrubby antlers and few with good racks, despite a good age structure and lots of year-round nutrition. That is an interesting puzzle. During much of this past season, I averaged seeing roughly one mature buck — those 4.5 years or older — per day. I saw 19 different bucks. That would normally be reason for celebration, but unfortunately, nearly all of them had small antlers, and some were disgustingly small — scoring less than 100 inches. I wasn’t hunting Florida. I was hunting Iowa. They were definitely not the kind of bucks I would hope to see at 4, 5 and 6 years old.

DEFINING THE NO-CULL FACTOR During the past two years, I have run my problem past several hardcore deer hunters, outfitters and managers. We laugh about how the best bucks seem to show up in unmanaged settings and how we have succeeded in managing our way down to 140-inch deer. It seems the more we do to improve our farms, the smaller the mature bucks get. I’m sure that is not exactly the case, but it certainly feels that way. It's what Al Collins, owner of lots of land and successful deer manager from northern Indiana, calls the “no-cull factor.” Collins sees it on his farms all the time. Because hunters are not culling out mature bucks that have small antlers — there are some in every herd, regardless of where they are — such deer are taking over our farms. We have made these properties so attractive to deer that we have created havens. These nasty old bucks have all the food, cover and security they could want. Why would they leave? Additionally, I have read in several places and seen firsthand that when a buck gets older, his range shrinks. Now we have bucks we really don’t want, and they have no intention of leaving. We also have a limited number of precious either-sex tags with which to control them, and we don’t want to waste those tags on ugly bucks. The ugly ones live forever. They have no reason to leave. We have given them everything they want. They have all the does, and they dominate the local action. And we are stuck with their ugly butts.

SCHOOL-YARD BULLIES When I was a child, my friends and I had to deal with several school-yard bullies when we went out for recess. For my part, I simply stayed away from them at all costs. My head was on a swivel; I was always trying to stay one step ahead of those thugs. We all avoided the part of the playground where the bullies held court. Granted, they were little bitty third-graders, but to an even smaller third-grader, they were thugs. They owned the schoolyard because they were aggressive and mean, and most of us were timid by comparison. I had no interest in confronting them to find out where that conflict might end. I was already pretty sure it would end with me in the nurse’s office with a bloody nose. Here is the question of the day: what do you think would have happened if there had been five or six bullies on the playground leaving very little room for the rest of us to play? Undoubtedly, I would have pressed the teacher daily to let me help her clean the chalkboard erasers rather than take a chance in the mean world outside. Hmm, could that equate to the whitetail woods? Now, back to this matter of ugly mature bucks. These old bucks have become dominant partly because of their age and attitude. When the rut occurs, they hold sway over a piece of real estate and keep all other breeding-age bucks away. They come swaggering out into a food plot each evening, ears pinned back, daring all the other bucks to put up or shut up. They make way like the parting of the Red Sea. Even nice young bucks with much better antlers get out of Dodge when the sheriff shows up. No other buck wants to mess with these bullies because they are mean and ornery — like that crusty old man behind the counter at the coffee shop who always growls at you when you walk in. Other bucks seem afraid to even move in their presence lest they attract too much attention. Younger 3- and 4-year-old bucks with better antlers move away from these areas during the rut because they are tired of being bullied and pushed around. If they weren’t leaving, I would see them. They are moving off the farm to places where I can’t protect them. The most likely result of this cycle of not culling bucks is an obvious shift toward a herd dominated by ugly bullies, which is what I am seeing. As mentioned, I saw 19 bucks I figured were 4.5 years or older this past season. Only two of them would have come close to 150 inches. I saw some bigger young bucks, but no large old bucks.

THE PROBLEM WITH HIGH-GRADING My neighbor calls it “high-grading” — removing genetically superior deer before they reach maturity, leaving only the ugly to survive, thrive and live a long life. High-grading is at the heart of this ugly-bully problem for a couple of reasons. In managed settings, most hunters are actually trophy hunters. They give lip service to all the things they are supposed to say, but when it comes down to it, they do not intend to finish the season with their buck tag still in their pocket. They want a trophy for the wall. In most cases, they don’t consider how old the buck is when they shoot it — just how much bone he has on his head. As a result, they shoot the very best easy bucks in the herd. The easiest trophy is a genetically superior buck when he is still young. I have seen 135- to 150-inch 2-year olds on our farm, and 165- to 185-inch 3-year olds. These are genetic freaks — the Michael Jordans and Shaquille O’Neals of the deer woods. These are the deer we should protect so they can reach full maturity and express their potential, yet they are actually the bucks most “deer managers” devote their energy toward trying to kill. And compared to 4-year-old and older bucks, they are easy to kill. During the rut, these 2- and 3-year-old bucks cover a lot of ground during daylight, making them extremely vulnerable. To someone looking only for a good trophy rack, they are easy marks. In areas with intense trophy hunting pressure, where even normally casual hunters are trying to shoot good bucks, it's possible to almost exterminate the best young bucks each year. If you aren’t guilty of this, it's likely your neighbors are, so if these great young bucks are leaving your farm, they are likely getting whacked. Obviously, keeping them on your farm is the answer. It comes back to those ugly bullies again, but I'm getting ahead of myself. In unmanaged settings, hunters are often satisfied with shooting anything, and they don’t make a point of cherry-picking genetically superior bucks. If the overall pressure is modest, several bucks from all age classes (with various levels of genetic potential) will live another year. Hunters in these settings make no effort to distinguish between which buck lives based on antler size — only opportunity. They shoot what steps out. This is why a lot of great bucks seem to come from unmanaged areas in our part of the state. In most managed areas, genetically superior bucks are shot when they are 2 or 3, leaving the ugly bucks to live another year. It is not surprising the mature herd in these areas then favors poor antlers. It's one thing to understand what is happening but another to unravel and solve it. I remember one time listening to Harry Jacobson say that managing deer is easy, but managing people is the real challenge. No truer words have been spoken.

GENETIC RAMIFICATIONS I’ve studied genetics in free-ranging deer. Every biologist I talked to said it is impossible for someone to affect the genetics of deer they hunt simply by killing a few cull bucks each year. Yet it is not unthinkable that on a wider scale, removing all — or nearly all — genetically superior bucks from the herd before they can pass on those genes to more than a handful of does could have long-term effects on the future quality of bucks. That is just a guess on my part, but it seems logical. Genetics can change mysteriously as they skip generations. An ugly buck can produce good-looking offspring. Jacobson had such a buck in his breeding program at Mississippi State when he taught there as a professor. That buck didn’t score more than 135 inches, yet he produced many exceptional offspring with much better antlers. So it's not so simple to say that by high grading we are causing a deterioration of our buck herd. However, there's no doubt it can’t be helping matters, either.

THE HUNTER'S VIEWPOINT Maybe the continued presence of these ugly bullies isn’t directly causing a downward spiral in herd genetics, and maybe it is. However, there's no disputing that they are space eaters. They are taking up space on my farm that another buck would occupy, and it's likely that other buck would have better antlers. So the obvious conclusion as a serious deer manager is to make the appropriate change to my management plan. I need to remove as many of these bucks as I can as quickly as I can. Hopefully, I'll see them replaced by bucks with better genetics. As difficult as that might sound, it's actually the easy part of the equation. The second step is to talk my neighbors and their neighbors into passing up great young bucks. I would love to see more of them deciding to shoot or pass based on age rather than antler size. However, that would mean that some hunters accustomed to shooting a buck every year would have to occasionally end the season without filling a tag. Though I am friends with all of my neighbors, I suspect halfway through that mission I will feel like a salmon trying to run up Niagara Falls.

HOW TO REMOVE THE BULLIES You can wait for them to die of old age, I guess, or you can tackle the problem head on. Ideally, you are early into your management experiment and can head the problem off before your property looks like mine. The answer is both simple and hard. You have to remove ugly bullies. Unfortunately, most deer hunters are not yet good enough at aging deer on the hoof that you can trust them to decide this for themselves. That is, you can’t turn a group of your buddies loose on your property and expect them to shoot your cull bucks while you save your tags for mature trophy deer. I tried it, letting a friend hunt my farm for management deer a few years ago, and he shot a 170-inch 9- pointer. When I asked him about the hunt, before I saw the deer, he said he was sure the buck was at least 3.5 years old. That was not the right answer. He was supposed to shoot only old bucks (4.5 or older) that were never going to get bigger. I don’t need 170-inch deer killed. I can do that myself. I need 130-inch deer killed. It is really difficult for someone to pass up a great buck in the hopes of shooting something smaller but older if you're not there to keep him honest. The mind plays funny tricks when the eyes are fixed on a great buck. Buck fever can justify almost anything. You have two solutions. You shoot the cull bucks instead of the mature trophies, or you sit with your management-buck hunters to make sure they shoot the right deer.

CONCLUSION You need to remove ugly bullies. In fact, I took my own advice this past season and shot two of them. They were mature— 5 or 6 years old. Neither was a true monster by Iowa standards, but I was more than happy to shoot them and more than satisfied with the season when it ended. However, there are still several more I didn’t shoot. Some of them were much smaller, and next season, I'm going to have to figure out what to do with them. The only answer I've come up with is to invite my friends to get gun tags and sit with me in the tree. When a buck comes along that I don’t want to shoot but needs to be removed, I will cut my friends loose. They will know it's a management hunt, and everything should work smoothly. I’ll let you know how it turns out.