Which Buck Do You Want?

Antler-point restrictions, the most controversial concept in deer hunting, have now spread to 21 states. So, dare we ask, do these programs work?

Outdoor Life Online Editor

More Boone and Crockett (B&C;) and Pope and Young (P&Y;) bucks were bagged in the 1990s than during all of the previous decades since the clubs were formed. Take a peek at a map compiled by the Quality Deer Management Association of America (QDMA) that shows county by county where record-book bucks are coming from, and you'll see that tightly managed private land and suburbia-places where bucks get a chance to mature-are responsible for most entries. Traditionally, a deer on public land with three-inch antlers may as well wear a sign that says "shoot me." But traditions are changing. Increasingly, hunters are declaring, "We want little bucks to grow up to be big bucks on public land, too." And game managers are listening. Three whitetail states now have statewide antler-point restrictions, and many others have designated quality deer management areas. And unless the numbers are fibbing, these areas are growing bigger bucks.

But it's not just about big deer. Influential deer biologists across the country say the movement to let bucks grow up will put deer management on an ecologically sound course. They say that attempting to raise more deer than the land can sustain is the greatest mistake wildlife managers have made. They say that harvesting any antlered buck while protecting all or a large portion of the antlerless population is irresponsible. And yes, they claim there will be a lot more big bucks nationwide if they continue to get their way. Here's how they answer some of the more common questions about antler-point restrictions.

**Where Are Point-Restrictions Currently in Place? **

Only four states have statewide antler-point restrictions. Mississippi has had a statewide four-point (total points) minimum rule since 1995. Arkansas has had a statewide three-point (on one antler) minimum rule since 1998. After a contentious debate, this year Pennsylvania will have an antler-point restriction requiring that a buck have at least three points on one side to be legal in all of the state except 10 counties. In those counties, hunters can only harvest a buck with four points on one side. And California, which does not have whitetails, has a forked-antler-only rule.

Across the country state game departments are trying different strategies to grow bigger deer. Many states, such as Florida, New Jersey and Georgia, have point restrictions in place in various WMAs or counties. Others are trying more inventive strategies. For example, this year in Delaware two doe tags but no buck tags will come with each regular big-game license. If a hunter wants a buck tag he'll have to buy it separately. Some states have tried "earn-a-buck programs," which force hunters to shoot a doe before they can get a buck tag. And instead of a point restriction, Kentucky has a few WMAs where any buck with less than a 15-inch spread is off-limits.

Programs vary widely, but according to the QDMA, the number of state or federally managed areas operating under some form of quality deer management increased from 72 in 1989 to 292 in 1999. Those 292 areas represented approximately 4.7 million acres of land.

Where Will Statewide Point Restrictions Be Tried Next?
Brian Murphy, executive director of the QDMA, says that if he had to bet which states might try a statewide point- restriction next, he'd put his money on Kentucky, Louisiana, and Michigan, but he wouldn't bet more than he could lose. Murphy explained that because sportsmen's approval ratings of point restrictions in Arkansas, Georgia and Pennsylvania hover around 80 percent, he expects to see other states implement deer management programs of their own.

However, antler-point restrictions are undoubtedly the most contentious issue in deer hunting today. Several state deer managers told us they hope it never comes to their states, and even added that they hope the existing programs fail. But others said ey were watching Pennsylvania closely to see if a program in their state is feasible.

Do Point Restrictions Really Grow More Big Bucks?
Arkansas is currently the best example of the success of statewide point restrictions. As of 1998, the state's regulations say that a buck needs to have at least three points on one side to be harvestable. Now, three years after its implementation, three out of four hunters still approve of the regulations, largely because the percentage of 21/2-year-old bucks in the herd (which average 7.3 points) has doubled. Also, the percentage of bucks in nearly every other age-class has risen dramatically in every part of Arkansas.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources has had mixed success with utilizing point restrictions to grow bigger bucks in its WMAs. Kent Kemmermeyer, senior wildlife biologist for Georgia's DNR, explains that the chief reason why some areas failed to produce was that bucks were harvested when they left the WMA. Kemmermeyer's feeling is that for an area to be successful, either it has to be large enough to make these losses around the edges marginal or there have to be geographic boundaries (lakes, rivers) that keep bucks in the WMA. In an attempt to move beyond simply placing relatively small parcels under QDM guidelines, Georgia placed a point restriction on one of the two bucks that each sportsman can harvest annually in the state's firearms season.

Larry Castle, deer coordinator of Mississippi, says, "By the third year of our four-point-minimum rule hunters were reporting more big deer than they had ever seen before; as a result, in our latest survey, over eighty-five percent of the hunters still favor the antler restrictions."

Will More Mature Bucks Intensify the Rut?
Increasing the number and age of bucks in a deer herd intensifies all aspects of the rut, says Karl Miller, a research biologist at the University of Georgia. Miller says that studies have found that mature males make scrapes and rubs earlier and much more often than yearlings do. In fact, in the Southern states he's found that more equal buck-to-doe ratio condenses the rut into a shorter, more predictable period of time. John J. Ozoga, a retired research biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, says, "We found that mature bucks make more than four times as many scrapes as yearling bucks do. Yearling bucks, however, are much more likely to chase and harass does. Older bucks find more discreet ways to scent-check does to see if they are in estrus so that they don't waste energy pursuing does that are not ready to breed."

A higher percentage of bucks in a population also increases the competition for breeding rights. This is why rattling works better in Texas and Alberta than in the Eastern deer woods. All of this bodes well for Pennsylvania hunters.

Dr. Gary Alt, Pennsylvania's deer-management specialist, explained that in recent years only about 50,000 bucks survived Pennsylvania's deer season, but the new point restrictions should allow 75,000 to 100,000 bucks to live through the season. That's a lot more rubs and scrapes.

**How Do Point Restrictions Affect Doe Populations? **
Hugh Durham, director of the Arkansas State Game and Fish Commission, says, "Before antler restrictions, our deer harvest was seventy percent bucks and thirty percent does. Now we are tagging more does than bucks." During the first year of Arkansas's point restriction, the doe harvest increased by over 60 percent to about 100,000. At the same time the buck harvest fell by nearly 40 percent.

Kent Kemmermeyer, Georgia's deer specialist, says that doe populations in some of the state's QDM areas were hit so hard they negatively affected the success of the programs. Kemmermeyer says, "States have to be careful not to allow hunters to overharvest does when they start a QDM program. The impulse is to pound the does to equalize the buck-to-doe ratio. The problem is that the buck-to-doe ratio is often so out of whack that if you are too aggressive your herd will be reduced too much. It's better to do the adjusting over the course of four or five seasons. Game managers have to be especially careful, because when hunters can't find a harvestable buck, they will often use a doe tag instead."

What's the Commercial Impact?
Marc Jordan, a master taxidermist in Punxsutawney, Penn., says with enthusiasm, "The point restriction might hurt business the first year, but after that, business should be booming, because more bucks worthy of den walls should be harvested."

Okay, more big bucks mean a busier taxidermist, but what about meat processors? Joe Krajewski, of Krajewski Custom Meats in Reynoldsville, Penn., who operates one of the largest venison processing facilities in the state, explains, "I don't see antler restrictions affecting our business at all. We've been processing about two thousand deer a year, and because the harvest under the proposed plan is projected to be similar to last year's, we'll probably butcher the same number as in the past." (They just won't have little antlers on their heads.)

What Will the Non-Hunting Public Think?
Imagine a world where hunters are viewed as game managers, not users of the deer resource, says Dr. Alt. This is a side benefit of a biologically sound deer management plan that uses antler restrictions. Whenever the deer herd is improved by increasing buck numbers and bringing the overall population in line with the range's carrying capacity (i.e., less damage to gardens and car fenders), the non-hunting community views hunters in a better light. Deer hunters are seen as problem-solvers rather than contributors to the overpopulation dilemma.

Brian Murphy, executive director of the QDMA, says, "A more educated hunter is a better representative of the sport. And one of the most encouraging aspects of quality deer management is the increasing desire to learn more about deer biology and management. Where previous campfire discussions revolved around the number of bucks harvested, today hunters talk about the condition of the habitat."gram. The impulse is to pound the does to equalize the buck-to-doe ratio. The problem is that the buck-to-doe ratio is often so out of whack that if you are too aggressive your herd will be reduced too much. It's better to do the adjusting over the course of four or five seasons. Game managers have to be especially careful, because when hunters can't find a harvestable buck, they will often use a doe tag instead."

What's the Commercial Impact?
Marc Jordan, a master taxidermist in Punxsutawney, Penn., says with enthusiasm, "The point restriction might hurt business the first year, but after that, business should be booming, because more bucks worthy of den walls should be harvested."

Okay, more big bucks mean a busier taxidermist, but what about meat processors? Joe Krajewski, of Krajewski Custom Meats in Reynoldsville, Penn., who operates one of the largest venison processing facilities in the state, explains, "I don't see antler restrictions affecting our business at all. We've been processing about two thousand deer a year, and because the harvest under the proposed plan is projected to be similar to last year's, we'll probably butcher the same number as in the past." (They just won't have little antlers on their heads.)

What Will the Non-Hunting Public Think?
Imagine a world where hunters are viewed as game managers, not users of the deer resource, says Dr. Alt. This is a side benefit of a biologically sound deer management plan that uses antler restrictions. Whenever the deer herd is improved by increasing buck numbers and bringing the overall population in line with the range's carrying capacity (i.e., less damage to gardens and car fenders), the non-hunting community views hunters in a better light. Deer hunters are seen as problem-solvers rather than contributors to the overpopulation dilemma.

Brian Murphy, executive director of the QDMA, says, "A more educated hunter is a better representative of the sport. And one of the most encouraging aspects of quality deer management is the increasing desire to learn more about deer biology and management. Where previous campfire discussions revolved around the number of bucks harvested, today hunters talk about the condition of the habitat."