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Buck age structure management can benefit deer and deer hunters, but always involves trade-offs for hunters
Buck age structure management (BASM) can potentially benefit both deer populations and hunter satisfaction levels. However, any actions taken to increase the average age of bucks come with trade-offs for hunters. Biological benefits may result in cases where a significant majority of bucks are yearlings, in which case breeding ecology can be improved by increasing the proportion of older-age bucks in the population. This, however, is currently not an issue in New Hampshire.
The potential benefits to New Hampshire hunters are generally associated with increased satisfaction with their deer hunting experience. This may include seeing more buck sign due to more older-age bucks or increased chances of taking an older buck, even if the overall chances of taking an antlered buck may actually decrease. However, if your level of satisfaction is more related to the opportunity to take any antlered buck rather than an older, large-antlered buck, you may not view BASM as a benefit to your hunting experience.
Many factors will influence the effectiveness of buck age structure management in New Hampshire
Many factors influence the effectiveness of buck age structure management in New Hampshire. Some are not as important as in other states, while others are more important. Many states use buck age structure regulations in conjunction with efforts to reduce or control deer populations by increasing the doe kill. Hunting pressure that was directed at bucks is shifted to antlerless deer, helping accomplish an increase in doe kill and as a side benefit, reducing buck kill and allowing more bucks to survive to older ages. In New Hampshire, deer populations are below the objectives called for in the management plan in most wildlife management units. As a result, increased doe kill is not compatible with achieving the primary population management objective of increasing these populations. In addition, most states engaged in BASM are more productive than New Hampshire, and deer can reach larger body size and have greater antler development at earlier ages than in New Hampshire.
Significant increases in 4.5+ year old bucks is probably not practical in New Hampshire
Bucks don’t reach full maturity and maximum antler development until they reach an age of 5.5 or older. However, in many states bucks in the 3.5 year-old age class have antler characteristics that satisfy the desires of the vast majority of hunters and are considered “prime aged” animals. Bucks in New Hampshire, with our hard winters, sparse agriculture and less-productive soils, really need to reach 4.5 years of age or older to be considered “prime.” Getting significant increases in the number of bucks surviving to 4.5 years would likely take drastic and probably unacceptable reductions in buck harvest. Therefore, hunters should temper their expectations, age structure management is not trophy management, particularly in New Hampshire – they don’t call it the Granite State for nothing!
Lastly, most of the areas using one or more of these methods of regulating buck age structure have far less winter mortality than New Hampshire. Winter mortality in New Hampshire often is a significant contributor to buck mortality, and when combined with predation by black bears and coyotes, road kill and other forms of mortality, harvest is only about half the of the total annual buck mortality rate in many Wildlife Management Units. As such, many of the bucks “saved” as a result of changes in buck hunting regulations will be lost to other causes. These non-hunting mortality factors affect older bucks to a greater extent than younger bucks, increasing the difficulty in getting any significant increase in “prime” age bucks. All that said, we know there is a strong desire on the part of some hunters to actively manage buck harvest to increase the percentage of older bucks. What we don’t know, but will find out through the survey being done in the fall of 2010, is just how many hunters want us to pursue that objective and their preference for how best to accomplish it.