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White-tailed Deer


Antler Restriction Regulation

Background

There has been much discussion among hunters and landowners over the past several years regarding the antler-restriction regulation currently in effect in 61 Texas counties. This web page is intended to provide Texas landowners and hunters a comprehensive overview of this unique antler-restriction harvest strategy.

Counties in Which the Antler-Restriction Regulation is Proposed

The Experiment

During the late '90s, landowners and hunters in Austin, Colorado, Fayette, Lavaca, Lee, and Washington counties requested a hunting regulation that would offer more protection to immature bucks. As is the case in many of the one-buck counties in Texas, hunting pressure on bucks was extremely high in this particular area, and very few bucks were allowed to reach maturity. Poor age structure within a buck herd has many adverse effects, including poor hunter satisfaction. Research results indicate that poor age structure among bucks results in longer breeding seasons, and therefore, longer fawning seasons - which is a factor contributing to poor fawn production.

In response to an overwhelming request for a change, the TPW Commission adopted an experimental antler-restriction regulation in 2002 which read as follows:

The primary goals of the experimental antler-restriction regulation were:

  1. Improve the age structure of the buck herd;
  2. Increase hunter opportunity; and
  3. Encourage landowners and hunters to become more actively involved in better habitat management.

This regulation was designed to reduce the intense hunting pressure on bucks, particularly young bucks. As can be seen in the chart below, the proportion of bucks <3.5 years old in the harvest dropped from 79% (prior to the experimental regulation) to <30% during the past 4 hunting seasons. Prior to the regulation, only 20% of the harvested bucks were at least 3.5 years old. However, during the past 4 hunting seasons, more than 70% of the harvested bucks were at least 3.5 years old. It appears that the 2005-06 modification to the regulation (described below) provided more relief to the 2.5- and 3.5-year-old bucks, while a few more yearlings (i.e., "spikes") were harvested, as expected. It is important to note that buck harvest dropped 38% during the first year of the experiment, as compared to the average harvest from 1997-2001. However, harvest during the second year of the experiment (2003-04) exceeded the 5-year average prior to the regulation change. This may be considered a 1-year "sacrifice" for those accustomed to bagging a buck annually; however, the severity and duration of this "sacrifice" period is largely dependent on fawn production the year prior to the regulation change and the first year of the regulation. Modifications to this regulation (described below) appear to minimize the severity of the "sacrifice."

Age Structure of Bucks Harvested Under Antler-Restriction Regulation

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Where Next?

Landowners and hunters throughout Texas have been following the results of this experimental regulation with much interest. We have been receiving requests for such a hunting regulation in numerous counties for the past few years. In considering these requests, we decided to give most attention to one-buck counties in which at least 60% of the buck harvest is comprised of bucks <3.5 years of age. Hunting pressure of this magnitude has deleterious effects on the population, including those mentioned above. The map to the right shows the counties (in green) currently affected by this regulation as well as the general areas (in orange) where TPWD is considering antler restrictions for the 2009-2010 hunting season. The regulation proposal reads:

Examples of Bucks That Do and Do Not Meet the Aforementioned Criteria

If this type of hunting regulation is proposed for any other county in Texas, the proposal will read exactly as written above. You will notice that the criterion for 6 points on an antler was removed in an effort to simplify the regulation. Three years of harvest data indicated that less than 2% of all bucks harvested were legal based on that criterion alone (see table below). In other words, most bucks with 6 points on one antler also have an inside spread of 13 inches or greater. There was no biological reason for maintaining that as a criterion for a legal buck; therefore, we simplified the regulation by defining a legal buck based on only the 2 criteria listed above.

How Can TPWD Assume What Works in Those 6 Experimental Counties Will Work in Other Ecoregions Within Texas?

Heavy hunting pressure is not a factor of habitat conditions. When so few bucks "slip through the cracks" and reach maturity, there is an obvious problem with hunting pressure on young bucks. This strategy will reduce hunting pressure on most immature bucks, whether they're walking in the Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, Cross Timbers and Prairies, or Edwards Plateau. Furthermore, data from the other areas (55 counties) affected by this regulation are showing similar improvements in the population.

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The Specifics...

Why add a second buck to the bag? And why make "spikes" legal?

YearAt least one
unbranched
antler
Inside spread
>= 13"
6+ points on
one side,
inside spread
< 13"
Total
deer
2002-032573349600
2003-0426056711838
2004-051324997638
2005-06213610N/A823
2006-07271653N/A924
2007-08149475N/A624
The table to the right shows the number of legal deer brought to the voluntary check stations during each year of the experimental regulation. During the first year, roughly 43% of all bucks checked were "spikes." For the purposes of this report, the term "spikes" includes all deer with at least one unbranched antler. The statewide harvest data indicates that 95% of all deer with at least 1 unbranched antler have less than a total of 4 points. During the second year of the regulation, only about 31% of all bucks brought to check stations were "spikes." The harvest of spikes dropped to only 20% (of the total buck harvest) during the final year (2004-05) of the experiment. This is not a result of there being fewer spikes during the second and third years. Rather, this is a result of far more bucks with an inside spread of 13 inches or greater - simply because there were a lot more 3.5- and 4.5-year-old bucks than ever before. With so many more "quality" bucks available for harvest, and only 1 buck tag available, few hunters chose to use their only buck tag on a spike. The likely result was high-grading of the buck population. Therefore, the regulation was modified (adding a second buck to the bag, which must be restricted to a buck with at least 1 unbranched antler) to allow more hunting opportunity while minimizing the risk of high-grading. As a result, the incidence of "spikes" in the harvest increased slightly as expected.

Many of the southeastern states have antler-point restrictions, where they protect they bottom end of the herd, and make the better quality yearlings vulnerable to harvest. For example, one state has a rule that protects all bucks that don't have at least 3 points on one antler. Therefore, the 6-point and 8-point yearlings are available for harvest, while the bucks with less antler potential (e.g., spikes) are protected. Another state has a 4-point rule, which protects all bucks with less than 4 points. These and other southeastern states are taking a hard look at their data, and questioning whether they should be continuing with such a harvest strategy. Most biologists agree that improving the age structure of a buck herd is beneficial; however, many southeastern biologists simply don't think that protecting only the poor-quality yearlings has been the best approach. We (TPWD) agree.

Will This Strategy Select For "Narrow-Rack" Bucks?

Some people interpret this as a strategy that will select for branched-antlered deer with less than a 13" spread. Well, it will - until those deer reach the age at which their spread exceeds 13". In other words, this strategy will select for better quality (i.e., branched antlered) young bucks, and will allow many of them to mature before they are available for harvest. It will eliminate the risk of high-grading, which is a likely outcome when many hunters choose to use their only buck tag on a 6-point or 8-point yearling instead of using it on a spike. Hunters are correct when they say there are some "narrow-rack" older bucks out there. They are also right when they say a portion of them will be protected under this strategy, which is not desirable. We don't claim that this strategy is flawless. We must be mindful of the long-term effects. This strategy will allow hunters to "turn-over" the population. Based on 34 years of solid data from research that was designed to answer these questions, those older "narrow-rack" deer likely were spikes as yearlings. If hunters take advantage of the extra tag, they will reduce the incidence of those older "management bucks" that slip through the cracks. By the way, the incidence of mature bucks that would not be legal under this strategy is much lower than what one may expect. In most of the areas where we're considering such, less than 5% of the mature bucks would not be legal based on these criteria. But in those same areas, only 5% of the harvest consists of mature bucks!!! They simply aren't living that long.

Having carried the "high-grading" discussion this far, we must be very clear with one important point...This antler-restriction regulation is NOT a trophy-buck management strategy. Will it result in better quality deer? Possibly. It will result in more mature age-class bucks and age is one of the 3 main factors contributing to antler development. While this is not a trophy-buck management strategy, most hunters and landowners probably would agree that it would be irresponsible of TPW to propose a regulation that would have an adverse effect on antler quality. Protecting the bottom end of the herd (i.e., spikes and 3-pointers) would do just that. Therefore, we're considering a much more proactive approach to improve the age structure of the buck herd, while not compromising the quality of those bucks that reach maturity.

Won't the Second Buck in the Bag Result in an Over-Harvest of Bucks? HOW CAN YOU REDUCE HUNTING PRESSURE ON BUCKS BY ALLOWING AN ADDITIONAL BUCK TO BE HARVESTED?

The incidence of spike-antlered bucks is much lower than what many people think. Currently, 100% of the yearling bucks are vulnerable to harvest. This strategy is designed to protect 60-80% of the yearling bucks (depending primarily on the climatic conditions) in those areas - which happen to be the better quality yearlings.

Why Not Just Provide a Free "Spike Tag" - With no Spread Restriction?

Antler restrictions may be considered in some counties because landowners and hunters wanted an extra tag to help them better manage the herd. Based on years of population data and harvest data, we cannot justify giving a "free spike tag." Such a tag would have to come with stipulations to eliminate the risk of over-harvesting the buck segment of the population, as well as the risk of high-grading. So while some may think that the extra buck in the bag is a "ploy" to make antler restrictions more palatable, we are actually considering antler restrictions in some cases to make the extra tag feasible. We're simply trying to come up with a strategy that meets the needs and wishes of those managing the resource.

What About the Kids? Why Would You Want to Restrict Our Youth From Taking a Buck of Their Choice?

So far, all indications are that youth hunters are benefiting from this regulation. A comment that we routinely hear from the experimental counties is, "My kids are finally seeing bucks when we go hunting! We sat for years without seeing any buck, but now we see numerous bucks during our hunts." Other comments from those accustomed to seeing bucks - but young ones - include, "We're actually seeing rutting activity now! Improving the age structure of this buck herd is making our hunts much more enjoyable, because we're seeing activities that you just don't see when you have such a young buck population." In fact, 70% of survey respondents (in the 6-county experimental area) in the fall of 2004 said that they enjoy hunting more now than they did prior to the experimental antler-restriction regulation! Furthermore, data from our Big Game Harvest Surveys indicate no adverse effects to youth-hunting participation. TPW would not consider a regulation that was expected to have an adverse impact on youth hunters, and we will continue to closely monitor youth-hunting participation in an attempt to evaluate the effects of our regulations on youth hunters.

Shouldn't We Be Concerned About Inadequate Doe Harvest?

Hunters and landowners are right to assume that a buck-harvest regulation does not directly address the need for doe harvest in many areas of the state. We are addressing the concerns regarding more flexible doe-hunting opportunities with other proposals, some of which were adopted by the TPW Commission in April 2005. Some areas have deer populations expanding beyond the level of which that habitat can support, and we are addressing that problem. Other areas do not have a population that can withstand more liberal doe harvest. So we have to balance our population data, with our knowledge of habitat conditions, and with our goals of increasing hunter opportunity.

Conclusion

The content within this document describes an opportunity for Texas landowners and hunters. Feedback obtained from public scoping meetings, public-opinion surveys, and unsolicited public comments continue to indicate strong support for this antler-restriction regulation.

Some information within this document refers to 34 years of research, which has been designed to study the effects of genetics, age, and nutrition on a white-tailed deer population. The Kerr Wildlife Management Area has been conducting such research since 1974, and they make their data available to all. If you want to see these data, and discuss the research projects thoroughly with the scientists involved, please come to one of our range and wildlife management seminars at the Kerr Wildlife Management Area. To find out about meeting dates and times, please call the Kerr WMA at 830-238-4483.

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