When giving public presentations on deer hunting, one of the more common questions I encounter is “How do you feel about antler restrictions?”
For reasons too numerous and varied to list, I usually don’t answer right away, instead providing some background information first.
For those unfamiliar with them, antler restrictions are minimum-size or point parameters a buck’s antlers must meet before a hunter can shoot it.
Antler restrictions have become increasingly popular over the last decade or so, and the list of regions or states implementing them grows every year. They’ve worked exceptionally well in some areas, moderately well in others and in still others have fallen far short of expectations.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all application.
To understand what might happen were they implemented in Maine, let’s create a mythical town called Durnal. Durnal is a typical rural southern Maine community spanning about 36 square miles.
Biologists estimate the local deer population at 15 to 18 deer per square mile; and based on all available information, it’s probably on the lower end of that. We’ll go with 15. Multiplying that by 36 square miles gives us about 540 deer living in Durnal.
From what we know about southern Maine deer herds, we can also make an educated guess as to the sex and age distribution of this population. With about a 1:3 buck:doe ratio, we have 405 does and 135 bucks. Assuming a 30 percent recruitment rate, we can estimate roughly 15 percent of the latter are buck fawns; the rest (115) are antlered.
The annual deer kill provides a reasonably accurate index of what’s actually out there.
About 45 to 50 percent of the statewide annual buck kill consists of 11⁄2 year-olds (yearlings) sporting their first set of antlers. Around 20 percent are mature bucks (41⁄2 or older) and roughly 30 percent are submature adults (21⁄2 to 31⁄2).
That’s statewide. Durnal is in southern Maine, where hunting pressure and annual deer kills are considerably higher. We need to shift our age ratio to about 75 percent yearlings, 20 percent submature adults and 5 percent mature bucks. It’s speculative, but probably fairly accurate. Apply this index to our prehunting buck population and you have about 20 buck fawns, 86 yearling bucks, 23 submature adults and five mature bucks.
In a typical year we’ll kill about 80 percent of the bucks. Assuming that kill is evenly distributed among age groups, that means 16 buck fawns, 68 yearling bucks, 18 submature adults and four mature bucks. In reality, we’re likely to kill a few more yearlings, and a few less older bucks; but it’s close enough.
The next year, we impose a restriction that bucks must have at least four points on one antler before they can be harvested. It probably won’t be much fun for most Durnal hunters. Nearly all of those 68 yearling bucks will be spikes (two-point) and fork-horns (four-point) with only a handful of the oldest and healthiest perhaps sporting a six-point rack. All but the rare, odd eight-point yearling will be protected. The buck kill could drop by 70 percent.
This dark cloud would have a silver lining. During the first year, hunters who formerly would have killed the first buck they see – usually a yearling – will hunt longer, and have better odds of shooting an older buck – not significantly better, but better.
The real reward however, comes the following year. Remember, before restrictions we would have had around 23 bucks in the 21⁄2 to 31⁄2 age classes. But last year we protected 68 yearlings.
In year two with restrictions, we now have 90 bucks in Durnal weighing between 140 and 180 pounds and sporting eight, 10 or more points.
In subsequent years, we’ll also boost the mature buck component. And that trend will continue as long as antler restrictions remain in effect.
Admittedly, this example is an oversimplification, and the numbers are not precise. But it gives you a good idea of what would likely occur were antler restrictions implemented in Durnal, Maine.
There are some cons. As previously mentioned, hunter satisfaction would likely go down, perhaps considerably, the first year if 60 fewer hunters get their deer. And those who are content to hunt for any deer will likely remain dissatisfied with the restrictions in future years.
Then there are all those extra deer to deal with. Antler restrictions would be protecting nearly 50 percent of your deer herd.
But increasing the buck numbers would have much less of an impact than would increasing doe numbers. You could compensate for some of the increase by boosting any-deer permits, and thus the annual doe kill, though it’s not really necessary.
Biologically, we could double Durnal’s deer population without any harmful effects on the habitat or the deer herd.
If you base your level of deer hunting satisfaction on number of deer seen, you can expect a 100 percent increase. If you base it on size and quality of deer harvested, the news gets even better, as there will be significantly more big-racked bucks available for harvest.
Do I think mandatory antler restrictions are a good idea for Maine? I don’t know. But I think Michigan provides an excellent example for how to find out.
Michigan surveys residents. When a clear majority (66 percent) of both hunters and landowners support implementation, the proposed regulations are submitted for approval by the state’s Natural Resources Commission.
If approved, the regulations take effect the following season and run for a five-year period, and the wildlife agency collects biological data each year to evaluate the regulations’ impact. In the fifth year, they re-evaluate biological and social aspects of the regulations, and resurvey residents. If support falls below 66 percent, the regulations are dropped.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, Registered Maine Guide and a certified wildlife biologist who provides consultation to private landowners interested in improving wildlife habitat. He can be contacted at: