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Saturday, December 23, 2006

Are Antler Restrictions Working?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA., December 23, 2006.)
The purpose is not to create trophy bucks,
but to protect immature bucks carrying
their first set of antlers, and provide them
with better odds of becoming mature.
Now that the rifle deer season is over, it's time to make some observations about the Pennsylvania Game Commission's "Antler Restriction" (AR) policy relating to our area.

The border between two Wildlife Management Units runs right through Warren County. To the west, WMU 1B is what hunters often call "farm country." To the east, WMU 2F is what we often refer to as "big woods."

Under AR, a legal buck needs at least 4 antler points to a side in WMU 1B and at least 3 points to a side in WMU 2F. The purpose is not to create trophy bucks, but to protect immature bucks carrying their first set of antlers, and provide them with better odds of becoming mature. And mature bucks are bigger bucks.

For Warren County, it was a banner year for big bucks on both sides of that line. Although I am not aware of any that scored 170" – the minimum for entry into the Boone and Crockett record book – a few came close. (The score is a set of cumulative measurements that assess a rack's width, beam length, tine length, mass and symmetry. Official measurements are taken after a 60-day drying period.)

In the Clarendon area Jim Connolly killed a buck scoring 166", which may surpass every Warren County buck on record in the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Big Game Records Program. Chris Cole of Akeley shot a 160-class ten-point. Bob Kane of Sugar Grove took a 153" nine-point. Russell resident Ray Shield killed a ten-point that measured above 140". Also from Russell, Randy Lookenhouse killed a 143" 13-point in archery season.

Jason Morrison, taxidermist and owner of Buckhaven Wildlife Art in Sugar Grove, told me that three-quarters of the deer he's mounting from the 2006 season lived 3½ years or more. In past years that hasn't been the case.

Besides these bucks, others have been pictured in this newspaper, and undoubtedly more have found their way to taxidermy shops outside the area. Clearly, some very impressive bucks were killed locally this year -- more than before AR, which began in 2002.

All of these high-scoring bucks were at least 3½ years old, an age class that bucks seldom reached prior to the AR policy. Records show that prior to AR, most bucks were a year and a half old when harvested because virtually every young buck sporting its first set of antlers was fair game. Thus, the majority of bucks harvested were mere teenagers in maturity level. In many places not more than 10% or 15% of the antlered bucks survived their first season.

Unless they're protected, yearling bucks are the most vulnerable. Crowned with their first small antler racks, they have recently dispersed from their home ranges and are newly liberated from Momma. They're learning to fend for themselves. Prior to dispersal, they had been exposed to danger only under the care of their mothers.

When hunting season arrives, recently dispersed young bucks find themselves in new and unfamiliar territory. I call them "pinball bucks" because they tend to run willy-nilly, bouncing from one orange coat to another. Prior to the Antler Restriction policy, if a yearling buck had visible antlers, a bullet would usually find its mark. That's why few survived to 2½ years old, and fewer still made it to a basic level of maturity at 3½.

Even though these young bucks are now protected, most hunters are not seeing the numbers of legal bucks that many expected under AR, whether in a 3-point area or a 4-point area. Why aren't we seeing more 2½ and 3½ year old bucks?

This analogy is probably not perfect, but I'll say it this way: compare a 1½-year-old buck to a high school sophomore, a 2½ year old buck to a high school graduate, and a 3½-year-old buck to an Iraq war veteran. That may approximate the difference between yearlings and older bucks -- at least to show why older bucks are cagier.

Having survived one or two hunting seasons, older bucks know how to adapt to hunting pressure and where to go to avoid hunters. Now that we are hunting deer that have reached this basic level of maturity, we are hunting a different animal than when we hunted adolescent bucks.

The AR policy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission appears to be having its intended results in northwest Pennsylvania. AR may have its detractors, and it's fruitless to argue that it's perfect, but it's effective in allowing more bucks to reach maturity.


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