Large Buck Whitetail DeerOver the past weekend, I posted a brief article along with a link to a story in a Pennsylvania publication about whether archery hunters were destroying our deer herds. Some believed that to blame archery hunters was simply a matter of being jealous because archery hunters got to go first. I have no idea whether that had anything to do with the writer’s thought process but from what I understood, his gripe was two-fold with bow hunters.

One was that bow hunters tend to hunt for only the larger trophy bucks and by taking the big bucks out early, they are not around to breed the does during rutting season, therefore leaving the breeding duties to the younger bucks.

Is there credibility to this claim? I asked readers to log in and leave comments and some did. I was also prompted to seek out some expert advice and so I turned to Lee Kantar, deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. This is what I asked of Mr. Kantar.

Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and WildlifeCan you answer a question for me? I read an article this weekend from a person who is claiming that archery hunters are ruining the big buck deer pool by taking out only trophy bucks. I’m not sure why he picked on archery hunters other than perhaps he is jealous that their season comes before rifle in most states. I have heard this argument before that with the mindset of the hunter searching for only the “trophy”, it is reducing the average size of the deer, etc.

First of all, is there real evidence that indicates that hunters are more fixated with taking only trophy deer, more so than in previous years? Secondly, if that were true, is there scientific evidence to suggest that this is weakening the genetics?

I have heard counter argument that if a hunter takes a mature buck, meaning perhaps as old as 5,6,7 or older, that buck has mated with many does and has already spread his genetics. I think it is a fascinating subject and one I don’t have many answers for. Any help or directions to find reading resources on this subject would be kindly appreciated.

I provided Mr. Kantar with the link to the article I referred to in my previous post. Initially, I was going to post only bits and pieces of his response to me but then I realized any interested readers should be able to easily digest everything that he said.

For the record, I have a great deal of respect of Mr. Kantar. He has always been helpful in answering so many of my questions. I appreciate him taking time out of a busy schedule in order to help me. I personally believe him to be one of best deer biologists around. Here’s what his response was.

Hi Tom,
There are a number of things going on here. This article is from PA which certainly has its share of controversy regarding whitetail management and represents something much, much different from deer hunting in Maine. Lets look at our archers as a comparison. Last year we estimated archer participation at about 15,000 hunters (based on license sales-so probably lower). Of these a total of about 2,500 deer were registered by them or about 8% of the total harvest spread out across the state. Of the deer taken by bowhunters 830 were bucks or about 33% of the total archery harvest. So if we harvest 830 bucks pre-rut out of a population of about 260,000 total animals with about 66,000 yearling and older bucks that is 1%. The point here is archers in Maine are removing 1% of the yearling and older bucks from the population of bucks yet to breed in the fall. That alone would sufficiently explain the lack of impact archers have on the buck population.

Now trophy bucks…let’s assume that this guys start looking really nice at 4.5 years and older (although I am sure many of us would be happy with 2.5 or 3.5 year olds as well). Now each year our harvest of yearlings changes, this is influenced primarily by overwinter survival. But during the last 5 year increment from 2001-2005 our average annual yearling harvest was about 43%. That essentially indicates that 57% of the 2.5 year and older bucks escaped or survived for another year. IF you compare these numbers to other states it will tell you that Maine is looking pretty good as far as herd age structure and annual survival. Much of this has to do with our hunter force and moderate amount of hunting pressure compared to other jurisdictions. Now this isn’t to say that there may be pockets where the herd structure looks different, but statewide it is pretty good. Many states remove as much as 70% of the yearlings which can alter a good age structure.

Twin Deer FawnsNow hunter behavior is a tough one. Are hunters today more fixed on getting a trophy animal versus a young one? We do think that the age of our hunter force has changed-the so-called graying of the hunter, if that is true do older hunters hunt differently than younger hunters? Are they more apt to wait for a trophy or take the next deer that comes along? We do know that overall the structure of the hunt itself (#of doe permits, season length), as well as the local herd structure and hunting conditions has much to do with the outcome of these questions regarding hunter behavior. We all know that trophy bucks didn’t survive because they were dumb. As tough of a life as it is for bucks they do have a few things going for them. Physiologically their large body size over females means that they can subsist on poorer forages by eating larger volumes of food. This means that instead of tempting fate at the edge of a beautiful meadow, bucks can hang back in the woods in better cover to forage, thereby increasing there ability to stay concealed and run for even thicker cover when sensing danger. In addition when eating lower quality forage a buck can cover larger distances and not have to focus on a smaller patch of high quality food. Older bucks also start to travel solo more in the fall and it is far easier to see a group of deer (a doe with fawns) than it is to detect a single deer.

Now genetics. Good question. As you pointed out the bulk of the bucks that are harvested are killed during the firearms season, combined with muzzleloader about 93% of the bucks are taken in November-December and therefore have most likely had the opportunity to breed. Behaviorally these trophy bucks are covering a lot of ground during the rut and because of their social dominance they are having the first crack at does coming into estrus. Past research in Maine has shown most females come into estrus during the 3rd week of November. Although does are coming into estrus probably in the beginning of November well into December. Last year about 45% of the bucks were harvested after November 13th when the height of the rut was coming on, this provides ample opportunity for mature bucks to breed does. Does that come into estrus earlier will most likely be bred my mature bucks earlier in the season based on social dominance. In the big game management world researchers have been looking more at potential consequences of trophy hunting and how it affects social hierarchies as well as the genetic structure of a particular herd. In order for real effects to take place, a significant number of older age class animals would need to be removed from the herd consistently over a number of years to start to have effects. In isolated herds with low total population numbers this could certainly be of concern and researchers have looked at some bighorn sheep populations to identify how these issues effect things, I do not know of such studies on whitetails, perhaps down south in areas where harvest is much more intensive.

Let me know if you have more questions and best of luck this fall!

Lee Kantar
Deer Biologist-Mammal Group
Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife
650 State St.
Bangor, Maine 04401-5654

Tom Remington