Hunters who push for antler-based regulations often dream of record-book bucks or bulls shredding the bark off thigh-thick pines and aspens across their region.
However, great expectations of antler restrictions often shrivel to disappointment. After all, Western states mostly credit record-book elk to limited-access hunts, either through long hikes, restricted license allotments, or combinations of both.
And, like it or not, the top-10 states for record-book whitetails impose few or no antler restrictions, unless you count the 3-inch spike rule. According to the Boone and Crockett Club’s online “Trophy Search,” the No. 1 whitetail state since 1999 is Wisconsin with 1,189 typical and nontypical entries, and it has no antler regulations. The other top B&C states this century are Illinois, 874 entries; Ohio, 804; Kentucky, 741; Iowa, 714; Indiana, 632; Missouri, 596; Kansas, 582; Minnesota, 486; and Texas, 423.
Given those realities, here are three safe assumptions about antler-point restrictions and other antler rules: First, hunters who work with wildlife managers to set realistic expectations for antler restrictions might not be awestruck by the results, but most will be satisfied. Second, well-designed antler regulations protect most young bulls or bucks carrying their first antlers, but few of those adolescents live to shed their second set. Even though antler-based regulations ensure males make up a higher proportion of the herd, most get shot as 2.5-year-olds when their antlers meet the harvest criteria. Third, most Western wildlife agencies won’t consider or embrace widespread APRs for mule deer.
Half-Century of Tests
How do we know all that? Because hunters and wildlife managers nationwide spent the past half-century debating, testing, analyzing, and verifying when it’s worthwhile to shoot bucks or bulls based on criteria like these: the quantity of their antler points, the span between their main beams, the length of their main beams or brow tines, the estimated Boone and Crockett Club score of their antlers, or some combination of those factors.
The common challenge is to use antler-based rules to produce older bulls and higher bull-to-cow ratios in Western elk herds; and older bucks, smaller herds, and better sex-age ratios in Eastern whitetail herds. That typically means shifting hunting pressure off of yearling bulls and bucks in hopes they’ll see their third autumn, and focusing more pressure on cows and does to reduce browse damage in woodlands and crop damage in farmlands.
To wring such results from APRs and other antler rules, wildlife agencies and private lands biologists must craft goals based on hunters’ desires, habitat quality, soil richness, water cycles, available nutrition, hunting pressure, herd sex-age ratios, social expectations, and other measurables. In other words, effective antler rules require extensive study and public involvement.
But even that can’t guarantee success. Daniel Morina, an associate wildlife biologist and doctoral student at the University of Montana in Missoula, recently searched the scientific community’s peer-reviewed studies to evaluate which antler-based regulations worked.
“We were hoping for some real clear findings, but we found nothing like that,” Morina said. “Everything is specific to individual areas and their unique goals. It’s complex and nuanced. APRs protect yearling males and the proportion of males in a herd, but they haven’t produced lots of older males of various age and size. They also increase the number of males 2 ½ and older in areas where hunters can shoot antlerless deer or elk, but average antler sizes in the harvest usually decrease eventually.”
Protect the Yearlings
To be effective, antler rules must protect 18-month males, but that’s seldom simple with whitetails. Fertile soils and agricultural areas often produce abundant 6- and 8-point yearlings. In that case, an APR specifying three or four points on one antler can focus hunting pressure on the best yearlings instead of protecting them. This can cause “high-grading” each year’s buck “crop,” removing those that would produce the biggest racks two or three years later.
“Regulations based on antler points alone can cause the most collateral damage,” said Bronson Strickland, a wildlife professor at Mississippi State University. “The number of points is the antler characteristic least correlated with age. Yearling bucks can carry anything from 2-inch spikes to 10-point basket racks.”
To protect more yearling whitetails, researchers prefer antler criteria such as a minimum spread between the main beams, or the beam’s total length. Those features, as well as the beam’s base circumference, correlate well with age, Strickland said.
That’s why Mississippi replaced its original APR, which exposed bucks to harvest if their rack carried four or more total points. Bucks in Mississippi’s soil-rich Delta region must now have a minimum 12-inch inside spread or a 15-inch main antler beam. Bucks elsewhere in Mississippi must have at least a 10-inch inside spread or 13-inch main beam.
Colorado tackled similar challenges in 1986 with an APR that makes bull elk legal once they have four points on one antler. The Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency added an option about 10 years later: Bulls with a brow tine measuring at least 5 inches are also legal. This 4-point/5-inch brow rule covers all elk zones except those with limited-draw regulations.
Scott Wait, senior Colorado Parks & Wildlife biologist in Durango, said the rule became “institutionalized,” and hunters widely accept it.
“We’re now in our second and third generation of hunters living with it,” Wait said. “It has good compliance and it protects most yearling bulls. We don’t have a whole bunch of 7- and 8-year-old bulls running around, but we have good numbers of 2- to 3-year-old bulls.”
Elk Goals Achieved
Andy Holland, Colorado’s big-game manager, said the APR has been “extremely successful” in achieving elk management goals. In the early 1980s, for example, bull-to-cow ratios ranged from four to 13 bulls per 100 cows in the White River elk herd, which is currently estimated at 46,000 elk. Those low ratios caused unbred cows, delayed breeding cycles, late calf births, and widespread hunter dissatisfaction.
In contrast, the agency’s statewide post-hunt 2018 survey that classified 96,000 elk put Colorado’s herd ratio at 23 bulls per 100 cows. The agency also estimated its 2018 herd at 287,000 elk, which produced a harvest of 43,000 elk by 225,000 hunters.
Holland credits the APRs for Colorado’s extensive elk hunting opportunities, noting that the state had only 122,000 elk hunters 33 years ago when it debuted the rule.
“We’re proud we have 100,000 more elk hunters today than in 1986,” Holland said. “We’re the last state in the country with unlimited over-the-counter elk tags. Hunters can drive here, buy an elk tag, and go hunting.”
Holland said OTC tags for areas with the four-point APR provide about 43% of Colorado’s elk hunting, while limited-entry areas provide the rest. Despite unlimited OTC tags, Colorado has placed 137 elk in the Boone and Crockett Club’s record books since 1999, ranking it fifth behind Arizona’s 263 entries; and Montana, 241; Utah, 231; and Wyoming, 178.
Not all hunters think that’s good enough, but Holland said the regulations enjoy strong support. “Most hunters feel like they have something with a four- to five-point bull,” he said. “They aren’t turning them down to wait for 3- and 4-year-olds. It’s popular, and no one is asking us to go away from it.”
The four-point rule also has high compliance. Colorado’s conservation wardens issued only 131 citations for antler-point violations from 2006 through 2017, an annual average of 11.
“It’s easier to see and count points on elk because their antlers are big and they generally live in more open country,” Wait said.
Back in whitetail country, Pennsylvania quickly achieved its deer management goals after imposing three- and four-point APRs in 2002. Still, hunter satisfaction remains mixed and fixed.
“About 60% of our hunters like the (APR), and that hasn’t changed since before the rules went in,” said Duane Diefenbach, a professor at Penn State University. “We’ve found that a hunter’s like or dislike of APRs is based mostly on their opinion of APRs, not their experience with them.”
Pennsylvania imposed its APRs in hopes of reducing the herd’s size and its browsing impacts on trees, shrubs, and other plants. Biologists also wanted to shift more hunting pressure to does and fawns, and away from yearling bucks, which were suffering 80% mortality rates each fall. Yearlings also made up 80% of the state’s entire buck kill. Only 20% were 2½ years and older.
The APR changed things quickly and dramatically. The statewide deer herd fell from 1.49 million deer in 2000 to 1.14 million by 2005, and the yearling buck mortality rate plunged from 80% to 31%, with 92% of the “survivors” making it to the next fall. Even though half the buck harvest was still yearlings, the other half included far more larger-antlered bucks in the 3½ and 4½ age groups than biologists expected.
Hunter satisfaction, however, remains a tangle. Even though over half the hunters surveyed in a 2002-2005 study supported the APRs, many steadily lost faith in the game commission’s deer program. After three years, 41% rated the program lower and 21% rated it higher.
Even so, most hunters followed the rules. Before APRs took effect, many hunters loudly predicted widespread waste of sublegal bucks, but “shoot-and-sort” hasn’t been a problem.
“Whether they like the rule or not, most hunters abide by it,” Diefenbach said. “Those (wanton waste) concerns disappeared after a year or two.”
APRs Fail on Muleys
No Western state, however, has forgotten the failed experiments with mule deer APRs, with the exception of Washington. When Colorado debuted its four-point elk rule in 1986, it also initiated a three-point rule for muleys. Eight years later, the muley APR died without mourning. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies distributes a “Fact Sheet” opposing mule deer APRs, stating they: Focus hunting pressure on older bucks, and decrease the average age of bucks; reduce the number of trophy bucks by protecting only smaller-antlered young bucks; fail to increase fawn production or herd size; reduce hunter participation, hunting success, and total harvest; and increase the illegal kill and wanton waste of sublegal bucks.
Why do elk and whitetails benefit from some antler regulations, but mule deer usually struggle? Jim Heffelfinger, wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department and a research scientist at the University of Arizona, said Western states that tried APRs on muleys couldn’t sustain the programs’ initial successes beyond five to eight years.
“APRs don’t produce many trophy bucks,” Heffelfinger said. “They’re good at creating more 2½- and maybe 3½-year-olds. That might be fine for elk hunters and Eastern whitetail hunters, but that’s not what most hunters want from mule deer.”
Heffelfinger said hunters also accept APRs more readily if they can shoot a doe or cow, but mule deer herds in many Western habitats don’t offer such safety valves. He said an easier, more sustainable way to produce bigger muleys is to restrict license sales, which Western hunters accept but Eastern hunters reject.
Holland agreed, adding that Colorado hunters also rejected three-day seasons in a 1993 experiment. Restricted license sales delivered surer herd management and hunter satisfaction. When Colorado imposed limited-entry deer hunts in 1999, muley sex ratios averaged 12 to 15 bucks per 100 does. Those ratios improved instantly when hunting pressure eased. Heading into the 2019 hunting season, a survey that classified 71,000 mule deer put Colorado’s statewide ratio at 35 bucks per 100 does.
License restrictions incur costs, however. Colorado sold 150,000 deer licenses in 1998, but only 81,000 in 1999, a 66% reduction. It sold 88,000 deer licenses in 2018.
“It’s a loss financially and in hunting opportunities, but hunters requested it and it’s wildly popular,” Holland said. “No one is suggesting change, and we aren’t considering change.”
What’s the future of antler-based regulations? They’ve found a niche in elk hunting and delivered hunter satisfaction and herd benefits in several Eastern and Southeastern whitetail states since Dooly County, Georgia, debuted them in 1993 with a 15-inch outside spread requirement. But according to records kept by the Quality Deer Management Association, the number of states with antler restrictions stalled in the low 20s in 2009.
That could change as chronic wasting disease spreads across the United States, but that’s also hard to predict. Because of CWD, Minnesota recently dumped its regional APRs to focus hunting pressure on all bucks. In contrast, Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission—over objections from the Department of Natural Resources—allowed a four-year, three-county experiment in its CWD zone to see if APRs spurred hunters to shoot more antlerless deer to reduce the herd.
Grant Woods, owner and creator of “Growing Deer TV” and “The Proving Grounds” in southwestern Missouri, thinks further antler-based rules will mostly be local and voluntary.
“APRs get people talking, and help educate hunters about their land’s potential, but we’ve learned that broad-brush, landscape-wide restrictions are tough to sustain,” Woods said. “APRs are like training wheels. Eventually, we outgrow them, especially on individual properties where you’ll always manage deer one trigger pull at a time.”
Feature image via Matt Hansen.