III. Methods for Regulating Buck Age Structure
These methods strive to reduce antlered buck kill, so that more survive to become a year older.
There are a variety of methods that can and have been used to protect bucks from harvest in the hopes of increasing their survival and allowing them to live to older ages. All have advantages and disadvantages. These advantages and disadvantages are generally associated with factors such as ease of understanding, ease of enforcement, effectiveness, perceived “fairness”, potential effects on other aspects of a deer management program and loss of hunting opportunity. The various methods break down into two main groups, those that seek to decrease the mortality rate of all age classes of bucks by reducing total buck harvest and increasing the chance for bucks of all ages to survive to become a year older. The second group of methods is designed to decrease the mortality rate on one or more particular age classes, usually yearlings. Brief descriptions of methods in each of these two groups are given below.
A. REDUCING TOTAL BUCK HARVEST
These methods reduce buck kill across all age classes, allowing more of each age to survive.
Many methods are designed to reduce the total buck harvest, hence reducing the overall buck mortality rate and allowing more bucks of all ages to survive from one age class to the next. As a consequence of the increased survival rates across all ages, the result may be that there are more total bucks in the population and more bucks can potentially live to become “prime” animals at age 4.5 and older. These methods include buck bag limits, buck quotas, changes to season timing, changes in season length, changes in allowable weapon type(s) and “earn-a-buck” programs. These methods to reduce total buck harvest are described in more detail below.
- Buck Bag Limits
Many states have buck bag limits which limit the number of antlered bucks each hunter can take during a given year. This is may be as few as one (1) buck per hunter per year regardless of weapon type. Limiting hunters to one buck a year can reduce total buck harvest and allow more bucks to survive to older ages. Bag limits also have the advantage of being easy to understand and enforce. Bag limits do however limit the opportunity for hunters to take multiple antlered bucks and may shift hunting pressure to antlerless deer, increasing the doe kill. Bag limits have proven successful but these cases were generally in states that had very generous buck bag limits that were dramatically reduced.
- Buck Quotas
Buck quotas are similar to buck bag limits in that they limit the total buck harvest but do it by limiting the number of hunters permitted to take antlered deer. This method is more common out west where a limited number of buck tags issued by lottery may be available for specific areas each year. Buck quotas are also easy to understand and enforce but limit opportunity by reducing the number of hunters who can legally take an antlered buck. Hunting pressure would also likely be shifted to antlerless deer increasing the doe kill unless antlerless seasons were adjusted. This method also carries high administrative costs and permits have not proven to be popular among NH deer hunters for controlling the harvest of antlerless deer.
- Changes in Season Timing
Open seasons can be shifted so that seasons are held outside the period of peak rut. This can significantly reduce total antlered buck harvest by reducing the kill during a period when they are most vulnerable. This type of change to season dates is easily understood and easy to enforce but limits opportunity at a time when hunting can be at its most exciting. If overall season lengths are to be maintained, shifting seasons out of the rut could result in seasons running well into December. In New Hampshire, snow conditions may be such that deer are moving to or already in deer wintering areas at that time of year and their high vulnerability under those conditions could offset or exceed any reductions in buck kill gained during the rut.
- Changes in Season Lengths
Total antlered buck kill can also be reduced by shortening hunting seasons. While easily understood and enforced, this clearly reduces hunting opportunity. However, there is not a direct relationship between reducing season length and reducing buck kill. For example, shortening a 20 day season by 2 days (a 10% reduction) probably won’t reduce the buck kill by 10% due to shifts in hunting pressure. Shortening seasons when bucks were most vulnerable, for example during the rut or in December, could make this method more effective.
- Allowable Weapon Types
New Hampshire, like most states has archery, muzzleloader and regular firearm seasons. Most hunters would agree that over the past few decades, the efficiency of archery equipment and muzzleloaders has improved dramatically. They bear little resemblance to the “primitive” weapons that they once were. Even the efficiency of rifles and shotguns has undergone significant improvement since the .30-30 days. Allowable weapons and accessories such as ammunition and sights can be restricted to reduce their efficiency, and hence reduce total buck kill. With long seasons, this may be less effective as hunters can simply hunt longer to offset reduced weapon efficiency. This method is also easy to understand and enforce, but clearly those who have already invested in modern weapons would be adversely impacted. In addition, more efficient weapons can result in less wounding and crippling loss if hunters use that enhanced capability to help achieve clean kills.
Some states have implemented programs known as “earn-a-buck” in which hunters may be required to kill an antlerless deer in order to earn an antlered buck tag. The purpose of these programs is to increase the doe kill in areas with over abundant deer but as a side-benefit, they can reduce total buck kill and hence allow better survival of bucks into older age classes. Programs such as this are generally not desirable in areas without deer overpopulation problems as antlerless kill can be dramatically increased resulting in deer population reduction when this is not desired.
B. REDUCING THE HARVEST OF PARTICULAR AGE CLASSES
These methods reduce the kill of a specific age class, usually yearlings.
Other methods of buck harvest regulation available to affect buck age structure are designed to protect a certain age class (usually yearlings), allowing a greater proportion of bucks in that protected age to survive to be a year older. These methods result in an increase in the number of 2.5 year old bucks, but may not result in much change to the number of older bucks as hunting pressure is shifted from yearlings to the older bucks, resulting in an increase in their mortality rate. The effects of winter mortality, predation and other forms of mortality are also compounded each year. These strategies involve regulations that require hunters to determine whether individual bucks meet some physical criteria to be legally taken. The effectiveness of these methods is enhanced significantly when deer can be observed for extended periods of time prior to harvest. These methods may not be well suited to most New Hampshire hunting situations where the opportunity to view deer prior to having to take the shot or pass up the chance are typically short. Following are overviews of each method.
- Antler Point Restrictions
Antler point restrictions (APRs) are by far the most commonly implemented method of this group and have by far the most press. They generally involve establishing a minimum number of antler points (usually on one side) to make a buck legal to take. In some cases APRs have been implemented as a method of modifying buck age structure in conjunction with efforts to increase antlerless harvest. Because APRs make it illegal to take a certain proportion of antlered bucks, hunting pressure can be shifted to antlerless deer increasing the doe kill and helping to control deer populations. The added benefit is the increased survival of young bucks to the next older age class. However, this method can still be applied even if there is no desire to increase the doe kill. It must be recognized however that the reduced opportunity to take an antlered buck will shift some hunting pressure to antlerless deer, potentially increasing doe kill when this is not desired and thereby reducing the number of either-sex days that can be offered.
APRs are best implemented when they protect a significant majority of the yearling age class. This can make a large proportion of all antlered bucks illegal, but avoids the possibility of high-grading yearling bucks by selectively harvesting those with the largest antlers. While APRs can be designed to protect yearling deer from harvest and increase the number of 2.5 year olds, the increased hunting pressure on older bucks combined with other mortality can result in no significant increase in the number of bucks surviving to 4.5 years old or older. It’s quite possible that total antlered buck kill will be reduced due to non-hunting mortality, net increases in yearling dispersal and increased hunting pressure on older bucks.
By implementing APR’s designed to protect yearlings, it is a mathematical certainty that the percentage of 2.5 year-olds in the harvest will increase because most yearlings would be illegal to harvest. It has also been documented in some cases that APRs have increased the percentage of age 3.5+ year old bucks in the harvest but the actual number of bucks harvested in these age classes did not always increase. The number of yearling bucks harvested (and their percentage of the harvest) went down and the number of older bucks harvested stayed the same (although their percentage in the harvest went up) with the net result being that the overall antlered buck harvest decreased. The final results in any particular situation depend on the relationships among a variety of factors and are difficult to predict.
Antler point restrictions require hunters to accurately determine the number of legal points a deer has which can be particularly challenging in a heavily forested situation. However, of the methods designed to protect a particular age class, APRs are the easiest to understand and judge correctly. In spite of this, some states have found significant levels of illegal kill and hunters must overcome the urge to shoot until they are sure they are looking at a legal buck. This was a problem in some western states where increased hunting pressure on older bucks in combination with high levels of illegal and accidental kill of yearlings resulted in APRs not producing any increase in older bucks. While this occurred decades ago when the hunting culture may have differed, it remains a potential factor which could limit the effectiveness of APRs in protecting yearling bucks.
In other cases, positive results have been obtained with not only increases in the percentage of older age bucks in the harvest, but increases in the actual number of older age bucks harvested as well. These beneficial results become more likely when the starting buck age structure is heavily skewed toward yearlings (60+ percent yearlings). Many factors are involved in whether a program fails or succeeds and the results of any of the methods of buck age structure management need to be monitored to determine if in fact they are having the desired effect.
- Antler Spread Restrictions
Like a minimum number of antler points, a minimum antler spread can be used to limit the kill of younger bucks. While spread is a better indicator of buck age, it can also be more difficult to judge as hunters need practice and experience and may need a better view to make such a determination. Few states employ general spread restrictions due to this and difficulties associated with enforcement.
- Age Restrictions
Age restrictions, while providing the best method for protecting bucks of a particular age, are the most difficult to implement. They depend on a hunter’s ability to judge the body size and conformation of bucks to determine their age and whether they are legal to take. This clearly requires the most skill and restraint on the part of the hunter and is very difficult to legally define and enforce. The methods requiring greater levels of skill and judgment are more appropriately implemented on a voluntary basis on private or club lands. In those situations, mistakes are likely to result in a reprimand or the potential loss of club membership or a lease, but not a license suspension.
All these methods have advantages and disadvantages.
The effectiveness of the various methods of buck age structure management can be judged from both a biological and social point of view. Biologically, the effectiveness may be judged on actual changes in the buck population and harvest age structure while socially, it may be judged on the basis of hunter satisfaction. Hence a program could be deemed effective if it raises the level of hunter satisfaction, even if only the harvest of 2.5 year old bucks increases while total buck harvest remains the same. Simply seeing more buck sign as a result of more 2.5 year old bucks can increase hunter satisfaction. Combinations of more than one method can increase the effectiveness of both, perhaps making such a combination an attractive option in some cases. The fairness of the various methods is a matter of perspective. Generally speaking, most people’s perception of a fair method would probably be one that treats all hunters equally. All these methods result in the loss of opportunity in one way or another and various people are going to view different types of loss differently, depending on whether their personal hunting experiences are impacted.