Are antler point restrictions the answer to quality buck opportunities?
In 1995, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law requiring the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to implement sweeping changes to the state’s deer hunting regulations. Among them, hunters statewide were restricted to bucks with at least four antler points. It was a radical departure from the status quo, and one that concerned state biologists.
“We were apprehensive at first,” says MDFWP deer program coordinator Chad Dacus. “Nothing like that had been tried on this large a scale, so we weren’t sure if it would work or if our hunters would accept the new laws.”
They did, on both accounts. Other states followed, including Pennsylvania. Now, at least 22 states use some form of antler criteria to regulate buck harvest, either in localized areas or the entire state.
At first glance, it seems like harvest restrictions based on antler points are working. Data collected in the years following Pennsylvania’s changes indicate hunters are taking more older bucks under the new rules. In 2005, Vermont instituted point restrictions that prohibited harvesting spikes. Hunters there now kill far fewer yearlings than in years past.
The results are most dramatic in Mississippi. Prior to the statewide four-point rule, yearlings made up 59 percent of the total buck harvest, while 3½-year-old and older bucks made up about 18 percent. From 1996 to 2001, however, those numbers flip-flopped as the number of 2½-year-old bucks accounted for 42 percent of the total buck harvest and 3½-year-old bucks made up 41 percent.
Things aren’t so clear in Pennsylvania, though. Prior to 2002, when antler point restrictions were adopted, the annual Pennsylvania buck harvest consisted of more than 80 percent yearling bucks. While yearling bucks are now being protected as state biologists had hoped, the harvest is made up largely of 2½-year-old deer. Data collected by Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists shows that 75 percent of the buck harvest consists of 2½-year-olds.
“That’s not necessarily bad,” says Quality Deer Management Association biologist and Pennsylvania resident Kip Adams. “That means a higher percentage are 3½ years old or older, which is much better than it was prior to the restrictions.”
Adams says the high harvest rate of 2½-year-old bucks in Pennsylvania is likely a result of the state’s short rifle season and high hunting pressure. Hunters are more likely to take the first legal buck, while Mississippi hunters have longer seasons, more liberal bag limits and are therefore willing to let more legal bucks walk.
While the average age of bucks has gone up in essentially every region where antler point restrictions have been implemented, the quality of those older deer actually decreased in Mississippi. Dacus explains that in the more fertile regions of Mississippi, particularly the Delta region that parallels the Mississippi River, a high number of yearlings actually had four or more points and were legal.
The best bucks were being taken out of the herd before they had the chance to reach their full potential of antler growth. That left inferior yearlings that, as adults, weren’t growing antlers as large as yearlings that had four or more points, a phenomenon known as high-grading. Biologists determined the average total score declined by as much as 10 inches in 2-year-old bucks and nearly 20 inches in 3-year-olds in the Delta region.
Vermont is also seeing a downward trend in antler quality. Using harvest dates prior to the restriction and recent data from the state’s youth gun season which has no point restrictions, Vermont Fish and Game Department deer biologist Shawn Haskell found the number of yearlings with spikes increased from 50 to 65 percent.
“Clearly, something is going on that concerns us,” says Haskell. “We managed to improve the age structure of our buck herd, but the overall quality seems to be going down.”
That’s why Mississippi switched from a minimum antler point rule to one that uses beam length and inside spread as harvest criteria. After discovering the high-grading effect in the Delta region, the agency changed regulations last year and adopted rules that restrict hunters to either inside spread or main beam length measurements. Bucks in the Delta region must have either a 12-inch inside spread or a main beam length of 15 inches. Bucks in the other two zones must have at least a 10-inch inside spread or a 13-inch main beam.
Dacus says the new measurement regulations allow young bucks with high-quality antlers to grow, while maintaining the high-quality hunting opportunities afforded since the original changes took place in 1995.
Other states have also started using various criteria including inside spread, beam length, point minimums and allowing the harvest of spikes. In a large part of east Texas, hunters can shoot a buck with at least one spike or a minimum inside spread of 13 inches. At one time, hunters in that region were limited to a three-point total minimum, or a 13-inch inside spread or at least six points on one antler. Those rules were eventually changed after they had little effect on increasing the age structure of the region’s bucks.
Vermont is considering a change that would allow the harvest of spikes, says Haskell. He thinks allowing hunters to shoot spikes but no bucks with less than three points on one side would help remove what many biologists consider inferior bucks while still protecting the best yearlings.
However, Haskell isn’t sure if Vermont’s hunters would embrace such a rule. The Pennsylvania Game Commission faced stiff opposition from vocal hunters unwilling to allow any changes to the state’s deer hunting tradition.
Richard Harper, a 73-year-old lifelong Pennsylvania resident who serves as manager of a sportsman’s club near the Ohio border, was one of them. Since the state adopted point restrictions, Harper hasn’t seen any benefit from point restrictions where he hunts.
“There’s a tree on the property I hunt that I’ve gone to every opening day for as long as I can remember,” he said. “Every opening day, I’d get my buck.”
Not anymore. His once-reliable stand hasn’t produced a legal deer in five seasons. Last fall, Harper finally tagged a buck on a different piece of property, a 7-pointer that barely qualified under the four-point rule.
“I almost didn’t get a shot because the buck was facing directly at me and I couldn’t tell if it had a fourth point on one side. When it turned to run, I was able to see the fourth point and get off a quick shot,” he recalls. “I’m not a trophy hunter, and I don’t really like the fact that I have to sit there and count antler points. What if I miscounted?”
It’s a minor offense, but it’s still an offense. Pennsylvania hunters who mistakenly shoot a buck below the minimum point requirements can turn themselves in, pay a $25 fine and forfeit the deer. Harper thinks a large number of illegal bucks are simply left in the woods by hunters afraid to face consequences.
Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist Lonnie Hansen doesn’t think that happens much in Missouri, which has mandatory point restrictions in the northern two-thirds of the state.
He says there is a growing trend among deer hunters to be highly selective of the buck they shoot, so they are far more willing to study a set of antlers before they pull the trigger. If they do shoot an illegal buck, they aren’t necessarily slapped with a ticket, says Hansen.
“It depends on the circumstances. If it’s obvious they are trying to hide it, then there’s a good chance they’ll get a ticket. But our agency understands mistakes can happen,” he says.
Dacus agrees, adding Mississippi game wardens “aren’t out there with tape measures,” and generally don’t ticket someone who admits to accidentally killing an undersize deer.
Despite widespread support in states with point restrictions, there are plenty of hunters like Harper who just want to tag a buck. If 60 percent like Pennsylvania’s current regulations, as recent surveys indicate, that means nearly 40 percent either don’t like them or have no opinion. While many hunters simply refuse to accept any change to their long-time traditions, others like Harper don’t want to be told what they can and can’t shoot. Hansen says the majority of hunters in southern Missouri, which doesn’t have mandatory antler restrictions, don’t favor them, either.
“The deer population is relatively low there to begin with,” he explains. “If we restricted buck harvest and forced hunters to pass up what used to be a legal deer, I think there would be a high level of frustration.
“Point restrictions tend to work best and have the highest public support in areas with high deer populations. Would it put more older bucks in the woods in southern Missouri? Probably, but if hunters are satisfied with the current regulations, we see no reason to change them,” he said.
Like many other biologists, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries deer project coordinator Matt Knox favors selective harvest through some form of antler size standards to increase the age structure of bucks, but only if they are voluntary.
“A lot of hunters already practice what we call trigger management. Instead of shooting the first legal buck that walks by, they hold off until they see something that meets their standards. That’s great, and I’m all for it,” he says, “but I don’t think we should be in the business of telling hunters what they can and can’t shoot based on antler size or point count.”
If Mississippi is any indication, hunters have been more than happy to have various antler restrictions placed on them, even if they have changed three times in the last 17 years. Dacus admits the current rules aren’t perfect and they may change again in the future.
Even with the various problems point restrictions have caused, they are producing a healthier deer herd and better hunting opportunities for quality bucks.
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