The short answer to your question is “yes” antler restrictions can and do work. This has been proven time and again in many portions of white-tailed deer range in North America. In fact there are currently a total of 21 other states besides New York with white-tailed deer that currently have antler restriction programs implemented in their area of jurisdiction.
QDMA’s Philosophy Concerning Antler Restrictions
Protecting yearling bucks from premature harvest is a key component of “Herd Management” and is one of the four cornerstones of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA). Herd Monitoring, Habitat Management and Hunter Management complete the four QDM building blocks.
On a nationwide scale, QDMA has and will support antler restriction programs if three specific and important criteria are met by the proponents of an antler restriction program. Paramount to the endorsement of any yearling buck protection program, these three criteria must be met:
- The proposed buck harvest standard must be biologically sound for the area and location being considered.
- The majority of the affected hunters and landowners must support the proposed buck harvest standard.
- There must be a commitment and a mechanism that allows comprehensive monitoring of the harvest at a level needed to determine success or failure of the proposed antler restriction program.
Old Standards Need Revising
Keep in mind that the buck harvest standards in New York and many other northeastern states were implemented during the era of deer restoration almost 100 years ago. When the three-inch spike law was implemented in New York in 1912, deer were scarce, having been almost extirpated across the landscape as a result of habitat destruction and subsistence hunting. A key component of the deer restoration effort was the full and complete protection of female deer. Since most firearms during that period had iron sights, it made sense to implement a doe protection statute that required bucks to have a three-inch antler. The common wisdom at that time was that a three-inch antler could be seen with the naked eye and allowed hunters to protect does from harvest.
The three-inch spike law worked extremely well. Deer populations were re-established across NYS as habitat gradually returned. However, as the science of wildlife management also evolved in the last century, it became apparent that a buck with a three-inch spike is invariably a yearling deer, well short of its potential size. In terms of human development they are the biological equivalent of a 13-year-old boy, with considerable growth yet to occur before they reach maturity.
7 out of 10 Male Deer Killed in NYS are Immature
Fast-forward to 2010, and we now have a buck harvest in NYS that is comprised predominantly of immature males. In fact during the 2008 season, 7 out of 10 male deer killed in NYS were either fawns or yearlings. Currently only about two of every 100 male deer that are born in NY live long enough to reach four years of age. For lack of a better description, it is nothing more than “100 years of tradition, unhampered by progress”.
Sportsmen in Ulster and Sullivan Counties realized this disparity and petitioned NYSDEC to implement a pilot antler restriction program in 2005 in two Wildlife Management Units in Ulster County. Adding two additional WMUs in Sullivan County in 2006 followed the initial effort. Although progress has been slower than originally hoped for, protection of yearling bucks is occurring and continuous increases in the harvest of older bucks is evident.
The Future of Deer Hunting is in Danger
New York State DEC has been a leader in antlerless deer management since the inception of the “Party Permit” in the 1950′s. However in the arena of buck management there is a strong and steadfast philosophy of trying to manage the future by relying only on the past. New York’s deer hunting program is undergoing a gradual and quiet, but very real crisis that does not bode well for the future. Hunter numbers have been in a slow but steady decline since the early 1990′s. The median hunter age continues to rise and the level of new hunter recruitment continues to be challenged by an evolving society that erodes the long held traditions of deer hunting. As hunters slowly but steadily age, individual participation invariably declines. The current success rates of regular big game hunters hovers around 15%, one of the lowest levels of success among states with viable white-tailed deer populations. As noted previously, almost 70% of the male deer taken each year in NYS are fawns and yearlings. For an animal that does not reach it’s prime physical condition until about five years of age, this consistent annual harvest of immature males should be cause for concern among hunters who pay a premium price to pursue a magnificent resource.
Antler Restriction is Not About “ Rack Hunting”
Many critics of antler restrictions decry the practice as “trophy hunting”, “rack hunting” or “elitism”. Such statements are a gross oversimplification and generalization of a common misperception.
As noted previously in this article, QDMA strives to embrace four basic principles including overall herd management that seeks to attain a more natural balance of the age and sex structure of the deer herd on a landscape scale. The current buck management program in New York State is one of default, retained from an era when little knowledge of deer biology existed.
Among the other constraints that limit the success of antler restrictions in New York is the growing phenomena of land subdivision, fragmentation and intense human land use that ultimately restricts hunter access. This increasing level of development, along with burgeoning growth of suburbia results in increasing “no hunting”signs and de facto refuges for deer.
Hunting Mature Bucks is Enjoyable !
Very few NY hunters experience the luxury of having a significant number of mature bucks in their local deer population. An age structure with a greater number of mature bucks significantly enhances many of the satisfactions hunters derive from their deer hunting activities. Research has shown that yearling bucks make only a fraction of the rubs and scrapes that older deer commonly do. Signpost behaviors are an important facet of white-tailed deer breeding behavior and ecology, and seeing deer “sign”is a key hunter satisfaction in NYS. Current regulations create a male deer population comprised predominantly of immature males that lack the courtship and breeding behaviors typically found in well-balanced deer herd.
What about meat hunters ?
Reliable records shown that there is significantly more usable meat on a mature buck than is found on a yearling buck. A 2 ½ year old buck will have about an average of 57 pounds of boned meat, while a 3 ½ year old will have 66 pounds. Compare these amounts of boned meat to a typical yearling buck that produces only about 40 pounds of boned meat. With current success rates hovering around 15 % for regular big game license hunters, meat is at a premium for most hunters. Mature bucks invariably have a much greater load of meat standing beneath its antlers.
Let’s not overlook another great but underutilized source of venison. Deer Management Permits (DMPs) are widely available in most Southern Zone WMUs, and for those who do not have one there is a liberal ability to receive and use the DMPs. Consignment or transfer of DMPs to other hunters has existed since 2002. Additionally separate season tags also exist to allow antlerless deer harvest in muzzloader and archery reasons. With all of these license and season options available, a NY hunter can theoretically harvest up to seven deer in a season.
There’s more than one way to bring home deer meat !
Loss of Choice ?
Probably the strongest impediment to the success of antler restrictions in New York is the 100 year old, longstanding Northeast deer hunting tradition of harvesting juvenile bucks. Opponents of antler restrictions are quick to cite their “loss of choice” to harvest any buck with a visible three inch antler. Sportsmen have traditionally supported bag limits in terms of size and numbers of fish and game taken. Long standing bag limits and size limits based upon sound biology and equitable distribution of a public resource is a key founding principle of wildlife management. Hunters and anglers readily accept these reasonable standards for many other species that are sought, and it should hold equally true for buck hunting in the Empire State.
In the long term, hunters are not losing the resource by passing on 1 ½ year old bucks. Studies in Pennsylvania show that 90% of the bucks that survive their yearling fall will survive to subsequent years. All things considered, hunting is the primary mortality factor for deer. Dead deer don’t grow, therefore passing yearling bucks is in essence “banking” them for a better choice in future years.
There is no biological basis or justification to continue to cull the majority of bucks as yearlings in NYS. However, changes to longstanding traditions and closely held family customs are understandably slow to occur.
New York State’s three-inch spike law originated in an era of chamber pots and outhouses and we have learned much about the biology and ecology of white-tailed deer since the law was adopted in 1912. There is a long list of obvious and valid reasons why the NFL doesn’t draft 13-year-old junior high football players. Many of those same reasons could also apply to white-tailed deer hunting and they make a compelling case for protecting yearling bucks.
To maintain the status quo, to do nothing, is to guarantee the continued slow, silent demise of deer hunting in New York, as we know it today. We owe future generations of deer hunters a better legacy than a 100-year tradition that defies science and ignores common sense.