Do Texas Antler Restrictions Work? TPWD responds to critics
A revolutionary idea designed to improve Texas deer hunting is now well established in 117 counties in the eastern half of the state. Antler restriction regulations, known as AR’s among hunters and game biologists, turned deer hunting on its head beginning in 2002. AR’s restrict hunters to just two types of bucks — those that have an inside spread of 13 inches or more, and those with at least one un-branched antler (most usually spikes or three pointers).
The regulations dramatically changed the hunting tradition for thousands who, for generations, were accustomed to shooting just about any deer with horns. And many of them did just that. Despite the extreme revision, a majority of hunters seemed to embrace AR’s in exchange for the promise of increasing the number of deer that reach maturity.
After a sectional implementation (the most recent 4 counties, which previously had no open deer season, were placed under AR’s for the 2012-13 hunting season), most hunters said they noticed a significant and nearly immediate change in buck age structure. Suddenly, after just a season or two, older deer sporting wider antlers were hitting the ground.
But, there is a vocal minority of AR opponents who — aside from their disdain of government intervention — claim that the restrictions have actually made things worse where they hunt. If so, how is it that AR’s seem to work well in one place but don’t in another?
Mitch Lockwood is the big game program director for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Below, he addresses numerous concerns about AR’s.
Basecamp Texas: How would you describe the overall impact of AR’s? What evidence do you have that they have been effective? What percentage of hunters would you say are in favor of AR’s?
Mitch Lockwood: This particular harvest strategy has been extremely effective at achieving our primary goal (improving buck age structure), as well as our other two main goals (increasing hunter opportunity, and encouraging landowners and hunters to become more actively involved in better habitat management). Buck age structure is determined through our age-weight-antler data collection efforts which we conduct annually at cold-storage facilities and other places where hunters frequently take their harvested game. We collected data from several thousand deer annually, since the early ‘70s. Increasing hunter opportunity is simple; we added a second buck to the bag, allowing hunters an additional benefit for spending more time in the woods. We know that more landowners and hunters in those counties are more and more interested each year in getting more actively involved in good habitat management based on the requests for technical assistance that we receive.
We haven’t conducted a public opinion survey in the past few years, but our last survey indicated that 78-93 percent of the responding hunters and landowners in those counties supported this regulated harvest strategy.
BCT: Let’s address the claims of some of the hunters. Are bag limits too high considering a hunter can now harvest four deer – two bucks and two does? Are any of your deer counts actually showing fewer deer?
Mitch Lockwood: Buck harvest does not affect population growth, and the antler restriction regulation does not address antlerless-deer harvest. Some of those counties have an either-sex season, and many allow for antlerless-deer harvest by permit only. Antler restrictions with a 2-buck bag (the second bucks having at least one unbranched antler) is protecting far more young bucks than did the 1-buck bag with no antler restrictions, and total buck harvest is not greater than it was prior to implementing this harvest strategy.
The incidence of spike-antlered bucks is much lower than what many people think. Prior to antler restrictions, 100% of the yearling bucks were vulnerable to harvest. This strategy is designed to protect 60-80% of the yearling bucks (depending primarily on the climatic conditions) in those areas – which happen to be the better quality yearlings.
Our deer survey data indicate stable to increasing populations throughout the Resource Management Units (RMUs) where antler restrictions are in effect.
BCT: What about the older, inferior bucks that will never be legal? They are allowed to produce other genetically inferior deer. Is it possible that some regions of the state simply don’t produce bucks with 13-inch spreads?
Mitch Lockwood: Some people interpret the antler restriction regulation as a strategy that will select for branched-antlered deer with less than a 13 inch spread. Well, it will – until those deer reach the age at which their spread exceeds 13 inches. In other words, this strategy will select for better quality (i.e., branched antlered) young bucks, and will allow many of them to mature before they are available for harvest. It will eliminate the risk of high-grading, which is a likely outcome when many hunters choose to use their only buck tag on a 6-point or 8-point yearling instead of using it on a spike. Hunters are correct when they say there are some “narrow-rack” older bucks out there. They are also right when they say a portion of them will be protected under this strategy, which is not desirable. We don’t claim that this strategy is flawless. We must be mindful of the long-term effects. The antler-restriction strategy will allow hunters to “turn-over” the population. Based on 38 years of solid data from research that was designed to answer these questions, those older “narrow-rack” deer likely were spikes as yearlings. If hunters take advantage of the extra tag and harvest spikes at 1 ½ years of age, this may reduce the incidence of those older “management / cull” bucks slipping through the cracks and contributing to the gene pool later in life. While this is not a trophy-buck management strategy, most hunters and landowners probably would agree that it would be irresponsible of TPW to propose a regulation that would have an adverse effect on antler quality. Protecting the bottom end of the herd (i.e., spikes and 3-pointers) would do just that. Therefore, we implemented a more proactive approach to improve the age structure of the buck herd, while not compromising the quality of those bucks that reach maturity. By the way, the incidence of mature bucks that would not be legal under this strategy is much lower than what one may expect. In most of the areas where we implemented this harvest strategy, less than 5% of the mature bucks were not “legal” based on the criteria. But in those same areas, only 5% of the harvest consisted of mature bucks prior to this regulation change!!! They simply weren’t living that long.
BCT: There has been a lot of research on spikes and their potential at maturity. The debate continues, at least among hunters. What is the TPWD stance on this issue? What is the chance a spike or three-pointer will ever become a quality deer? With AR’s, are hunters taking more spikes? Aren’t buck-to-doe ratios worsening?
Mitch Lockwood: In addition to the research conducted by TPWD for the past 38 years, there are many non-TPWD research projects that clearly indicate that, with few exceptions, yearling antler quality is a good predictor of future antler quality. The debate has been over for quite some time. The question isn’t whether spikes “catch up” but rather, how much culling intensity is required to improve antler quality within the population by XX%. That question remains unanswered. Can a spike grow up to be a quality deer? Sure (depending on your standards)! But with very few exceptions, they won’t grow up to be as big (antler-wise) as their 6-point and 8-point yearling counterparts. And 6-point and 8-point yearlings are more common than many people realize. Many mistake those deer as 2.5-year olds.
If buck to doe ratios are out of whack, then it’s time to intensify doe harvest! But I argue that sex ratio is overrated. The name of the game is not allowing the total number of deer to exceed the level that your native habitat can support. Why would one want to maintain a buck for every doe, if half the bucks don’t meet your criteria for quality-bucks? The does will be bred, even when there’s not a buck for every doe!
BCT: Another major concern among AR opponents involves younger hunters who conceivably have less of a chance to shoot a buck. Is there any thought to ease restrictions for younger hunters?
Mitch Lockwood: The last thing TPWD wants to do with the antler-restriction regulation is discourage youth from hunting, or anyone for that matter. So far, our hunting-participation data for counties with antler restrictions are in effect are encouraging. However, TPWD will continue to monitor youth-hunting participation statewide.
During initial discussion and public hearings about antler restrictions, there was some concern by a few that the regulation would impact youth hunting. However, the overwhelming majority of hunters, landowners, and others were in favor of the regulation. In fact, some of the more common arguments were, “My child has been hunting with me for 3-4 years and he’s never even seen a buck. I want him to understand the need for this regulation – and follow the same rules – so there will be a day when he finally sees bucks when he goes hunting. I realize that the first bucks he sees may be too small to shoot, but at least he’ll be seeing some bucks.” Another argument was, “I appreciate the extra opportunity my kids have with the early youth-only season – giving them the first shot if a “legal” buck is anywhere around. They have been seeing only young bucks and they take pride in letting them walk another year. But then they get discouraged when a young buck leaves and a gunshot is heard several minutes later in that direction. I want my kids to be able to have more opportunity during that youth-only weekend – by having more mature bucks around.” Another fairly common argument was, “It seems a little hypocritical that I teach my kids the importance of letting most bucks mature, but then I say, ‘It’s alright – go ahead and shoot that young one.’” Keep in mind that with antlerless deer harvest opportunities available as well as the 2-buck-bag limit with antler restrictions provides lots of deer harvest opportunities for youth. Hopefully, folks can see the benefits in the time spent with their kids in the woods and benefits of good stewardship of the resources for them to pass on to their children.
TPWD would not consider a regulation that was expected to have an adverse impact on youth hunters, and we will continue to closely monitor youth-hunting participation in an attempt to evaluate the effects of our regulations on youth hunters.
BCT: Was Texas the first to have AR’s? Any other states have a similar program, and if so, has it been successful?
Mitch Lockwood: A common strategy applied by many hunters attempting to reduce buck harvest is an antler-point restriction. In fact, several southeastern states have implemented statewide antler-point restrictions. Unfortunately, this approach has not worked too well, as there is no correlation between age and number of antler points. Conversely, there is a very strong correlation between age and inside spread. An “8-point or better” rule, for example, allows for the harvest of many yearling bucks; whereas, a 13-inch spread restriction does not. Several states (Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, etc.) have (or have had) antler restrictions based on number of points. The deer biologists in some of those states have been presenting data that shows how poorly their antler-point restrictions have been working. I’ll use one strategy as an example to explain what’s happening. Let’s say that you may not harvest a buck unless he has at least 3 points on one side. The intent of this regulation is an attempt to move more bucks into older age classes. Now, under this rule, which bucks reach maturity? ONLY THE BUCKS THAT DON’T HAVE AT LEAST 3 POINTS ON 1 SIDE are allowed to live to older age classes under their regulation. This strategy promotes high-grading of the buck population. Only the poorest quality bucks are allowed to mature, and they are the ones passing on their genes. Mississippi has been under this sort of point restriction regulation the longest, with a 4-point rule (although their regulation has changed drastically over much of their state in recent years). They witnessed (through harvest data) a SIGNIFICANT decline in antler quality for mature age-class bucks because they are protecting spikes and 3-pointers, and making the better quality young bucks legal. While we, in Texas, are NOT suggesting a trophy-buck management strategy, it would be irresponsible of TPWD to propose a regulation that would result in a decrease in antler quality. Mississippi has actually been modifying their point-based AR to a spread-based AR with a “slot limit” after reviewing our data.
BCT: Every AR hunter lives in fear of shooting a non-legal buck. What is your advice to someone who kills a 12 ½ inch deer? Any thought as to how many non-legal bucks are harvested each year?
Mitch Lockwood: The responsible thing to do is process this deer like any other deer. If you run across a TPWD wildlife biologist or game warden, it would be wise to make that person aware of your harvest. Some people argue that this regulation causes people to leave undersized (harvested) bucks in the field to spoil. TPWD does not know how many hunter-harvested deer are being left in the field. But the fact that the number is too small to affect the goals of the antler-restriction regulation is indisputable. You simply cannot have such a shift in age structure if a significant number of bucks are dying (even if hidden) at young ages. If that were occurring, then the regulation could not possibly meet the intended objectives. In fact, the buck population would be even lower than ever, because one who leaves a harvested deer in the field might go for another (because there’s still an unused buck tag). If you are aware of this sort of activity, you are strongly encouraged to contact your local Game Warden to follow up on these incidences.
BCT: It seems clear that most hunters embrace AR’s. Are you ready to call it a successful program, or do we still need to monitor results? Do you forsee a time when AR’s will be tweaked or eliminated in some counties?
Mitch Lockwood: We have been collecting harvest data since the early ‘70s. These data have proven to be extremely valuable and we intend to continue collecting harvest data well into the future.
This program has certainly been successful. TPWD does not have any intention of rescinding antler restrictions at this time, as this regulated harvest strategy is meeting the intended goals. However, TPWD does monitor this regulation and all regulations to ensure they are not impacting hunting opportunity and the overall benefit to deer populations and deer hunters. Should we see adverse impacts to the buck herd, or to hunting opportunity, TPWD staff will reassess the harvest strategy in place.