bucks looking at camera in the dark

Fall is here and with it comes dreams of finding and harvesting a deer with big antlers. Yes, I’m here again with another antler post. Sigh… 

Hunters, old and young, are heading afield. And antler fever is slowly infecting everyone. You can tell me all you want that you are happy and satisfied with harvesting a doe, but no hunter is immune. If a well-fed (aka fat) doe comes walking by your stand followed by a well-adorned (giant antlered) buck, we all know which is coming home with you. 

Really. It’s fine. Males are expendable in a polygamous mating system. That’s why you need an antlerless license to harvest that fat doe. 

In the past, Pennsylvania took its love of antlers and antlerless deer to the extreme with hunters harvesting any deer with just a tiny bit of bone on its head (at least 3 inches; 80% of the harvest was yearling bucks and 80% of all bucks in the population were harvested every year prior to antler point restrictions). Some refused to harvest any antlerless deer (a regular doe season did not exist until the 1950s and then it was only a few days). 

At the turn of the last century, deer management in PA underwent a complete makeover with the implementation of antler point restrictions and concurrent antler and antlerless gun seasons. Twenty years and many a growing pain later, the ridiculously productive deer population in PA is sustaining more opportunity for those that choose to pursue them. 

But this isn’t a treatise on deer management in Pennsylvania.

Researchers recently published a paper on antler point restrictions (APRs) in Michigan. They investigated the effect of APRs on age structure of harvested male deer, antlerless harvest, and hunter numbers. Here is the long and short of this study. Yes, APRs result in an older age structure of harvested males; No, they did not increase antlerless harvest; And no, they did not recruit more hunters to the area. 

When you protect yearling males from harvest, they are not harvested, and more adult bucks show up in beds of pick-up trucks. So that is not surprising. 

The other 2 results and their conclusions as to why are…interesting. And possibly due to Michigan’s different approach to managing deer populations.

APRs in and of themselves don’t increase antlerless harvest. Remember what I said about dreaming? Hunters don’t give up on their dreams! Unless it’s the last hour of the last day of the season. But really PA hunters don’t have to hold as tight to their dreams as MI hunters because of PA’s allocation system. 

When a hunter purchases a PA license, it includes one antlered deer harvest tag. In Michigan, hunters need to decide at purchase if they want one or TWO deer kill permits. These permits can be used for an antlered OR antlerless deer. In Michigan, there is also a universal antlerless deer license which entitles hunter to take an antlerless deer on public or private land in any deer management unit open to antlerless deer hunting in all deer seasons.

Pennsylvania’s antlerless harvest is tied to the antlerless allocation. If it goes up, so does the harvest. This is not the case in Michigan. If a MI hunter opts for a one-deer kill permit license, I’d bet my paycheck he’s going to save it for an antlered deer. Even if he gets a 2-deer kill permit, he is hoping for a 2 buck year. Why would the antlerless harvest increase in areas with APRs in Michigan? There was no incentive for hunters to change their behavior (i.e., harvest an antlerless deer), only the type of buck they harvested. 

One of the uncertainties in deer management is called controllability: How many antlerless deer will die when you issue X licenses? In Pennsylvania, we know how many antlerless licenses it takes to result in 1 antlerless deer being harvested (3-5, depending on the mgt unit). That information helps reduce uncertainty related to controllability in that we can track success rates of hunters (# antlerless deer harvested / # antlerless permits issued) over time and apply that rate to future antlerless allocations. Michigan has greater uncertainty when it comes to controllability because they issue statewide antlerless permits and can only open/close management units to harvest.
As a deer manager, I’d take Pennsylvania’s system over Michigan’s. As a deer hunter, I’d prefer Michigan’s system (except when they close my mgt unit)!

Duane diefenbach

In Pennsylvania, you don’t have to “save” your harvest tag for a buck. Nor can you use your buck tag on a doe (with exception of the flintlock season). When PA instituted APRs, antlerless hunting opportunity increased (in season length and allocation). So antlerless harvest simply followed the allocation. Expecting APRs to alter hunter behavior with regard to antlerless deer harvests with no change in opportunity is probably asking too much.

As far as increasing hunter numbers in areas with APRs – unless the area is paved or some other life changing event occurs, hunters don’t change where they hunt. The chance at harvesting a larger antlered deer is not a life changing event. Even dreams have their limits. 

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PA Game Commission

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