It's Time to Re-Think Big Game Record Keeping

It's Time to Re-Think Big Game Record Keeping

Jason Thomas thought he’d killed a near-world record whitetail. His 2023 Ohio crossbow-killed deer was scored right after the hunt at 211 4/8 typical inches. The official score from Buckmasters Whitetail Trophy Records came in at 208 ⅝”, making it a new state record and the #2 buck in the world for the "perfect" category. Incredible. But from there, things got strange.

When Thomas submitted his deer to Ohio’s Buckeye Big Buck Club a five-person panel found that a broken tine at the end of one beam was technically long enough to be counted and would have to be matched against an eight-inch tine on the opposite beam, resulting in significant deductions that dropped the net score to 184 ⅛”. And later after these score sheets and photos were submitted to the Boone & Crockett Club, another judge came back with a score of 138” after pointing out that the right side G3 was technically “abnormal” due to the…Oh, who the hell cares. I'm boring even myself.

Seriously. What are we doing here?

Why has a once-in-a-lifetime experience and animal been reduced to quibbling over symmetry and abnormal points? Is this really the best way to quantify the pinnacle of a wildlife species? Is this healthy for our hunting culture? Are we achieving today what this whole antler scoring thing was originally supposed to? I have questions. So many questions.

Where This All Began

To understand how we got here with antler scoring, and how the process might be improved for the future, we first need to examine the antler score origin story.

The first big game scoring system was established in the 20th century by the Boone & Crockett Club. This organization, founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887, was formed with the goal of conserving wildlife and preserving the American sporting tradition and fair chase ethic. The organization stemmed from a growing fear within Roosevelt that the wild creatures and landscapes that he’d come to love were rapidly becoming endangered.

“Theodore was haunted by the idea that by the time his newborn son was grown, there would be nothing left of the West’s great natural majesty,” wrote Darrin Lunde in his book “The Naturalist.” With this grim future in view, Roosevelt set to work on creating an organization that could turn the tide and shift the culture of hunting toward one of conservation.

“The country needed an ethical code that would allow some big game animals to survive,” Lunde wrote of Roosevelt’s motivations. “The animals must be carefully studied in their natural habitats and data compiled to identify meaningful harvests that were strictly enforced. Americans needed to learn to regard these animals less as trophies and more as living specimens worthy of study and protection.”

To his credit, this is largely what Roosevelt and his cofounders were able to achieve, as the Boone & Crockett Club quickly became one of the most effective lobbying groups for wild game and wildlife habitat. Roosevelt and the club were instrumental in the protection of Yellowstone National Park, the creation of America’s forest reserve system, effectively ending market hunting through the passage of the Lacey Act, and much more.

In addition to explicitly advocating for wildlife and wild places, the Boone & Crockett Club’s original constitution also listed the goal “to promote inquiry into and to record observations on the habits and natural history of various wild animals.”

Douglas Brinkley, describing the club’s interest in better wildlife-related record keeping, writes that “a general feeling among the members was that research on wildlife—habits, traits, coloration—could never be overdone.” It’s within this context that the first record-keeping and scoring systems were devised, the first of which was published in 1906 under the title “Big Game Measurements.”

The original scoring system, devised by Roosevelt and several others, was rudimentary and different from what is used today, but it was a first step towards a record-keeping process that could ostensibly help wildlife managers in their mission to preserve big game animals across America. In particular, the founding members of the Boone and Crockett Club believed that a better record of big game across the nation might help track changes in population levels and health, and maybe even the positive impacts of conservation initiatives.

According to Boone & Crockett’s own, History of the Records Program, “The intentions of the Club in establishing and popularizing a big game scoring and record keeping system were greater than arriving at a score, and honoring animals and hunters. The beginnings of record keeping had other purposes, conservation and the recovery of our big game species, and insisting on ethical sportsmanship.”

What It’s Become

So, within that context, what do we make of big game scoring systems and their use today? Do these record-keeping organizations live up to the original ideals of utilizing big game records to further conservation, species preservation, and sportsmanship?

If you ask the Boone & Crockett Club themselves, the answer is likely, yes. “To the Boone & Crockett Club, the foremost reason for maintaining its system of record keeping is as an indicator of the health of the wildlife and its habitat,” cites the Boone & Crockett website. “Boone & Crockett scores are an indicator of overall population health quantified by the evaluation of a secondary sex characteristic (antler and horn growth) in a random sample of mature animals (fair chase taken or picked-up trophies). The idea behind basing a score on these secondary traits is that they are maximized under ideal conditions—age, stress-free living, and optimal habitat. The better the conditions, the larger the antlers they exhibit.”

The Boone & Crockett Club references multiple studies utilizing their records to answer questions related to wildlife population dynamics. These are admirable use cases, and it’s fair to recognize the fact that the records kept by organizations like the Boone & Crockett Club and others can serve a larger purpose and have, at times, provided a long-term sample set for research.

But is any of this on the minds of the hundreds of hunters who submit their bucks to the record books in a given year? Is any of this featured in the countless social media posts, YouTube videos, and magazine articles celebrating (and denigrating) high-scoring whitetail deer?

No, at least not any I’ve seen. When record books and antler scores come into the conversation, I instead see quibbling over inches and deductions. I see posturing and name-calling. I see ego boosting, status signaling, and one-upping.

When I spoke with Jason Thomas recently about his buck, even from across the phone line, I could sense the frustration emanating from him like a heat lamp. What a shame to have a once-in-a-lifetime hunt tainted by the arbitrary ruling of a scorekeeper assigning value to a deer’s antlers. And, hey, I’ve been there too.

A number of years back, I made the arbitrary goal to kill my first “booner” by the time I was 30. And, soon after my 30th birthday, for the first time in my life I had a deer to hunt of that caliber. For someone who grew up seeing nothing but forkies in Northern Michigan, this buck was mind-bogglingly big. He made the over-the-top expression “take your breath away” nothing more than a literal description of my experience each time I saw him in the flesh. The clean ten-pointer, in my estimation, was easily over 170”. And then, after more than a month of close calls with this Michigan buck-of-a-lifetime, I killed him.

That night, as soon as I arrived home, we got to work with the tape measure. The score we arrived at, to my shock, was 165.” How could that be? I felt my stomach clench and my jaw tighten. I was immensely disappointed.

But, soon after, I caught myself. Disappointed? On a night like this? After just having put a tag on the most shockingly impressive deer I’d ever laid eyes on in my home state? It was ridiculous. It was absurd. I vowed that night to never again let the score of an animal influence my hunting or how I felt about the animals I killed.

Now, I recognize this is all subjective and quite personal. And I’m sure there are plenty of folks out there who are perfectly happy within our current antler-scoring culture. I don’t hold that against them. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing inherently wrong with scoring deer as long as you don’t impose your standards on others. If you find satisfaction in measuring your success in inches, go at it, have fun, and enjoy. It’s human nature, after all, to want to measure our outcomes.

“We can’t help ourselves but compete with one another,” wrote my colleague Tony Peterson. “If we weren’t allowed to shoot bucks, we’d target the heftiest does, or the fawns with the most spots, or something. We need to qualify our accomplishments, and scoring whitetails is certainly one way to do it.”

But still, I wonder, might there be a better way?

What It Could Be

While I’m not suggesting that scoring antlers is inherently bad, I do wonder if the distillation of a deer down to nothing more than a score might just be selling these critters short, not to mention be a missed opportunity.

What if, rather than simply being a way to prove your deer’s antlers are bigger than mine or vice versa, our record books could be a launching-off point for a new era of citizen science? What if our score-keeping institutions could re-examine the original impetus for keeping big game records—“conservation and the recovery of our big game species, and insisting on ethical sportsmanship”—and develop new ways to combine hunter record-keeping and conservation work.

Big game species, for the most part, are thriving across North America, but past performance does not guarantee future results, especially amidst the rapidly changing environmental conditions that are coming to define the 21st century. A more robust data set of big game health would be no small thing, especially if it could be leveraged into work that helped benefit these species down the road.

The major scoring organizations, with the exception of the Boone & Crockett Club, ask for essentially nothing but antler-related data on their submission forms (B&C does provide the option to provide age). But what if a record book submission required more than just an antler score? Imagine a record submission that included the jaw bone for accurate aging, a dressed weight, a completed CWD test where applicable, and information related to the habitat type the deer was killed in. What an educational opportunity that could be for hunters, and what a data set this could be for managers.

What if the score-keeping organizations were just as dedicated to using their platforms and record books for wildlife research and habitat enhancement as they are to rank ordering the biggest bucks and touting the new year’s latest hunting hero? What if we hunters took a momentary step back from our obsession with antler score and instead worked to remind each other of the value these deer bring to our lives beyond just a net score?

What might all of this do to the culture of record book bucks and scorekeeping and hunting as a whole?

I don’t have the answers, but I do have questions. So many questions. If Theodore Roosevelt were alive today to see the legacy of what his record books have turned into, I imagine he would, too.

Feature image via Toby Hughes-Buckmasters of Ohio, Facebook Page.

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