It happens about every year at this time. The onset of hunting fever sets in and with it, inevitably, comes much discussion about how trophy hunting, i.e. that search for big-bodied, big-antlered deer and elk, is going to mess up the gene pool that continues giving us the big-bodied, big-antlered deer.

I am going to save my neck, arms, wrists and fingers and post for you several links, and not a long grocery list, where you can retrieve tons of factual information about skewing the gene pools of species such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, etc. I will introduce each link with a bit of background and hopefully the progression of links will become quiet educational. Or, you can continue to claim you know it all and argue vehemently with all your hunting buddies about how allowing hunters to kill all those big bucks is making for smaller deer.

Before I begin laying out the links, it should be said that with any species, a deliberate and gross manipulation of the natural processes of growth and development, can skew things way out of proportion. It does however take smaller samples of a species over a period of time to begin to skew results. But, it can be done. History has shown us that and it has also shown us it can be reversed.

Back in the fall of 2007, I asked Lee Kantar, head deer and moose biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), what his take was on hunters taking only “trophy” deer and how it would affect the trophy gene pool. While Mr. Kantar did not say it couldn’t be done, he did say it would require deliberate manipulation of the age structure of the deer herd by protecting all smaller animals and harvesting only older, larger antlered deer. He also emphasized that this could only be accomplished in smaller segments of the deer population over extended periods of time.

For information on this article and information provided by Lee Kantar, please read, “Some Science About Weakening the Big Buck Gene Pool“.

Just the other day I was reading on a Maine outdoor sportsmen Internet “forum”, given by a contributor of the forums, that it was a well known fact that the vast majority of hunters only kill “trophy” deer while letting the females and smaller deer go. I would suppose that for the purpose of this article some sort of definitions should be attempted as to what a “trophy” deer is. Under the general discussion of “trophy” (within quotes), let’s consider the majority of all these scientific discussions, refer to large antlered and large bodied animals that exceed what most would consider normal. It should be noted that any game harvested by some is often considered a trophy- perhaps more than you might think.

Having set that record straight, an article in “Outdoor Magazine”, called, “Antler Envy: The Death of Hunting?” publishes results of a “Public Opinion Poll” in which they asked hunters to respond to specific questions about their sport.

In contrast to what the forum participant I referred to above said, those who participated in the Public Opinion Poll seemed to have a different take on the topic. 83% of respondents claim that any deer harvested was a trophy. 84% think that too much emphasis, especially on TV and other media, is placed on shooting big-antlered and big-bodied deer. While it was evenly split about what hunters considered “quality” deer, between weight and age, only 16% believed that antler size was a measure of deer quality.

If the results of this Public Opinion Poll are a reflection of the attitudes of hunters in general, then the majority of the everyday, run of the mill hunter isn’t out in the woods looking only to harvest a “trophy” deer. In support of the trend revealed in this poll, Kantar pointed out the during a 5-year period in Maine (2001-2005) the average percentage of the deer harvest that was made up of yearling deer was 43%. Certainly this is not an indication that hunters are only killing “trophy” animals.

In reference to Mr. Kantar’s comments, he pointed out that skewing the genes of a species like deer would require killing large amounts of mature bucks over a very long period of time before we would see any difference.

If this distribution of hunter perceptions remains the same and our fish and game management biologists are doing a good job, scientifically it appears difficult to turn all our deer into 20-pound weaklings. As you read much of the information to come, you will learn how there are pockets of exceptions and natural influences that give us what might appear to be “unexplained” anomalies in deer, elk, moose, etc.

Late in 2008, Newsweek Magazine published an article called, “It’s Survival of the Weak and Scrawny“. This article was about a study done on Ram Mountain in Canada with bighorn sheep. Even though the scientists who worked the study said it didn’t really prove anything about taking bigger sheep resulting in a “weak and scrawny” batch of sheep, Newsweek instead chose to publish the article making claims that hunting trophy animals weakened the gene pool.

In January 2009 Dr. Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary, offered his scientific rebuttal to the Newsweek article. Geist’s rebuttal shows the flaws in the Ram Mountain study and chastises Newsweek for publishing incomplete and misleading information leading us to believe the goal was more politically motivated than educational on the part of Newsweek.

For more information on how, if at all, “trophy” hunting disrupts the gene pool, I did an article in January of 2009, called, “Does Trophy Hunting Spoil the Gene Pool?“.

This article is loaded with valuable information including a link to a “Nature” publication on the Ram Mountain Study, along with more scientific facts from Dr. Geist, and from Wayne Heimer, Sheep Biologists for Alaska Department of Fish and Game (1971-1997), Director Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. In addition to Geist and Heimer, you’ll find input from Dr. Charles Kay and many other scientists across the country.

The last link I’ll give you kind of pulls all this information together into one article that I hope helps explain how flawed studies can produced flawed results and that sometimes when certain topics are political, scientific academic is left behind in favor of selling newspapers.

The human being is a highly educated creature that has the capability to manipulate science in order to produce certain results. It certainly can be said that it is highly possible to destroy the gene pool of deer or other species. It is however, just as highly unlikely that with the implementation of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, gene pools aren’t being destroyed. Are there pockets of exceptions? Yes, there are and from these we must learn.

Dr. Geist shows us that if it were determined that a specific area became skewed genetically, it can be reversed, as studies have shown.

So, why do certain areas of your state or this country, traditionally produce “trophy” game? Is it good management? Is it because too few hunters take “trophy” game? Is it habitat? Food quality? Unusual levels of certain minerals that make for bigger antlers? Are our biggest bodied, biggest antlered deer the strongest of the species? Are they the only ones that mate with the females to always give us “trophy” animals?

You can find answers to these questions by taking the time and researching the links I’ve provide for you.

I’ll leave you with a question that was asked of Dr. Geist: If hunting “trophy” game over the years is leaving us with a “weak and scrawny” population of game, we do we continue to see year after year trophy records being broken?

Tom Remington