Some Questions About Antler Genetics
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, January 23, 2010.)
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.
Genetics are the third component of
antler potential, following age and nutrition.
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.