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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Some Questions About Antler Genetics

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, January 23, 2010.)

Genetics are the third component of
antler potential, following age and nutrition.
As a young hunter I was like many others. We read everything we could get our hands on about deer hunting. But some of what we learned was simply not true.

One of those untruths was that our particular subspecies of whitetail deer in Pennsylvania were smallish, compared to whitetails in other states, and they lacked much genetic potential for large antlers.

Actually, that was only partly true. Pennsylvania’s variety of whitetail deer were smallish, but only because they were mostly youngish. And they were youngish because the standard of what was a legal target put the focus on harvesting young bucks.

In those days if a buck had a three-inch spike antler he was legal. With a million hunters targeting any legal buck, most bucks we shot were wearing their first set of antlers.

What has the antler restriction policy accomplished?

“Antler restrictions” changed the minimum standards for defining a legal buck. Now, a buck must have branched antlers, with three points on a side in some areas and four points in others. So for one thing, it has increased the average age of bucks.

For another, it has made getting a buck more difficult. Instead of seeing a flash of antler before shooting, a hunter must count points. Even if it takes just a few seconds, that’s a few seconds the buck can use to escape to live another day – maybe another year.

Once a deer survives one season, he is better equipped to survive another season. As he becomes older, he gets savvier and more difficult to harvest. It takes four or five years for a buck reach full maturity. Only then, and only if he gets adequate nutrition, can he afford to put more resources into growing the headgear he has the potential for.

Has the antler restriction policy improved genetics?

No – it can’t, and it was never intended to. Genetics are the third component of antler potential, following age and nutrition. Having increased the age of our whitetails through antler restrictions, and having reduced the competition for nutrition through herd reduction, we’re now seeing more evidence of the antler genetics Pennsylvania whitetails have always had.

Since antler restrictions were put into place, Boone & Crockett record book whitetails are coming from areas where we’ve never seen them before.

That’s proof enough that Pennsylvania has good antler genetics. But I’m not saying Boone & Crockett is the standard for a successful deer program. A successful program is not defined by producing record book whitetails. Nevertheless large whitetails are coming from places where they’ve never existed in modern times. Forest County has produced its first two B & C bucks in a couple of generations, if not the first ever. Last year another was harvested in Jefferson County on public land.

Good antler genetics has always been here, but for decades most bucks were harvested before they grew up. We’re killing fewer deer now, but our bucks are getting older and exhibiting their genetic potential.

Going way back, the best place to see the evidence for impressive Pennsylvania whitetail antler potential is in photos from “the days of yore” in books like Pennsylvania Deer and Their Horns (Henry W. Shoemaker, 1915, reprinted 2002 by Wennawoods Publishing).

Will Pennsylvania ever become a “trophy state” on par with Iowa, Illinois, or even our neighboring Ohio?

No, and it’s not only because those states manage deer differently than we do here in Pennsylvania. It’s also because those states have very fertile soil compared to most areas of Pennsylvania.

For comparison, sprawling Ohio farms produce almost twice as many bushels of corn per acre than Pennsylvania farms. That means better nutrition for does carrying fawns, for first year fawns, and for adult bucks. One Ohio hunter told me he never sees spikes or four points in Ohio because deer eat better there. And adult bucks not only grow large antlers. They also pack on the weight. He harvested a 313-pound buck last October.

Wildlife management can influence age and nutrition, but no state has implemented a policy to control antler genetics in a wild deer herd.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

What did he score?

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, January 9, 2010.)

Deer hunting is not about
who hangs the biggest antlers on his wall.
It’s a question often asked about whitetail bucks. Sometimes it’s a good question, and sometimes not so good.

Deer antlers are measured or scored according to several systems. The Boone & Crockett Club uses the most well known system, and scores animals taken by any fair chase means. The Pope & Young Club measures animals taken only with archery equipment. The Safari Club International and Buckmasters, to name a couple of others, also use scoring systems.

With some variations, these organizations measure antlers with a cumulative tally of width, main beam lengths, a series of circumference measurements to gauge mass, and the sum of the tine lengths to produce a total gross score.

Although I appreciate knowing how antler scores are determined, I seldom mention antler measurements in this space. It’s not a means of pointing out the superiority of one animal over another, or one hunter over another.

Trophy status has more to do with how we experience the hunt and the challenge of the hunt than with a high Boone & Crockett score. But the main benefit of scoring is that it’s a fairly objective way to compare one buck with others, and put a picture in the mind’s eye of relative size. But objectivity isn’t everything.

Years ago hunters talked mainly about how many points a buck had, but that doesn’t reveal much. My eight-point might have a width of 10 inches, tines just 2 or 3 inches long, and circumferences under 3 inches. Yours might be 20 inches wide, with tines ranging from 6 to 12 inches, and circumferences of 5 or 6 inches. The difference between the two racks is enormous, so the question “How many points did he have?” is irrelevant.

My buck might have been a 1½ year-old, yours might have 4½ or 5½ years of wisdom and survival experience. (Deer are born during the spring so they’re always at half-years during deer season.)

Which 8-point is the greater trophy? Even knowing their ages doesn’t tell the story. Let’s say you harvested yours in the first hours of opening day from a comfortable tree castle, and the buck was punching a timeclock at a luscious, irresistible food plot. I shot mine in the final hours of the last day, with my boots on the ground, in a raging blizzard, one man battling the elements.

Now, which is the trophy? Knowing some of the details of the hunt might make a difference in how you answer.

Famed Vermont hunter Lanny Benoit, who detests today’s emphasis on antler scores, thinks northeastern deer tracking culture has it right. He told me people in Vermont and Maine don’t ask about antlers. Instead they inquire, “How much did it weigh?” That’s another way of asking “How much food did you get?” There might be something to that.

Certainly, bigger antlers and bigger bodied deer both are products of maturity. Deer must live several years to maximize their antlers or their body size. The truth is that deer are a prey species that survive countless threats to reach that stage.

And maturity correlates to smarter, savvier animals that are harder to harvest, and often more impressive trophies. No one looks at common spike antlers and says “Wow!” Everyone looks at Boone & Crockett antlers and says “Wow!”

Antlers are impressive. Antlers are fascinating. But deer hunting is not about who hangs the biggest antlers on his wall. Indeed, the story about harvesting that yearling buck might be more wow-worthy than a story about a Boone & Crockett giant.

The question “What did he score?” is not so good when it makes antlers a matter of competition. And although the Boone & Crockett Club is probably best known for ranking trophies, that hasn’t been its primary aim since Teddy Roosevelt first founded it. The organization is foremost a conservation organization dedicated to the practices of sound wildlife conservation. Scoring trophies is a way of acknowledging the products of that conservation.