Should Maine Impose Whitetail Antler Restrictions?
By Bob Provencher

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife is under new management. In response to a growing public outcry over the decline of Maine’s whitetail deer herd, IF&W, under newly appointed Commissioner of DIF&W, Chandler Woodcock, has quickly put forward a deer management plan to address the issue. “Maine’s Game Plan for Deer” (a 38 page document) does a good job of describing the context and the history of the problem. It acknowledges a $200 million dollar economic impact to the State. But what it doesn’t do is provide a course of action that will bring the herd back to legendary standards that existed in its “hay day”. Those of us that have been around realize that that ship has already sailed! The question we need to focus on now is what to do with what we have left.

Unfortunately, the “Game Plan” seems a rehash of old department strategies such as cooperative agreements with landowners, half-hearted predator reduction, and a decades-to-come time frame for results. The plan may be well intended, but to my eye it’s more of the status quo and misses the point that we need to take action now.

Addressing the coyote issue is at the top of the list of actions that will immediately impact the health of the deer herd. (Talk with the Maine Trappers Association about real solutions!) Habitat is another area of concern being scrutinized that will hopefully boost deer numbers. (Don’t hold your breath!) But a quality herd cannot just be defined by numbers of deer alone. The proper management of the Maine deer herd must also address both the age structure and sex ratio imbalances as they exist today. “Bucks-only” or “any-deer permit” management serves only to address the total number of deer in a population by protecting breeding does. Antler restricted hunting, when combined with the current doe-permit system, would accomplish all of these goals.

Those deer hunters old enough to remember unrestricted either sex hunting will recall a quality Maine deer herd. Buck-to-doe ratios were significantly higher, with a healthy distribution of different age classes within both sexes. What was different back then was: 1) fewer coyotes; 2) more and better habitat; and 3) less hunting pressure on bucks. Mature bucks were always a sought after prize, but so was a big doe.

I would argue that “bucks-only” (and later the any-deer permit system) changed the culture of Maine deer hunters by turning our focus to buck hunting. The doe restriction gave IF&W a proactive population management tool that produced measurable results in the annual deer harvest total numbers. But it also started us down a slippery slope to where Maine’s harvest totals today are predominately made up of 1-1/2 year-old bucks and a managed doe (antler-less) kill. The number of yearling bucks taken annually today exceeds reasonable limits.

Most experienced deer hunters will tell you that yearling bucks are much easier to kill than 2-1/2 year-olds. Few bucks make it to 2-1/2 years of age under the current doe permit system. The lack in recruitment numbers to the 2-1/2 year-old stage results in a decreased number of older bucks in the harvest (and in the herd).

An inordinate yearling buck harvest is not without consequences.

The importance of a more naturally balanced age structure in the deer herd becomes apparent in the northeast when we’re visited by a severe winter. Deer winter kills are primarily made up of young deer and older deer that are least equipped to make it through to spring. Yearling bucks, because of their smaller body weights, fall into this category of susceptible deer. While I can’t give specific numbers, if say for the point of example the age-structure ratio of bucks in the herd has evolved to where only 20% of the buck population is 2-1/2 years or older, then one bad winter’s deer kill numbers will include a much higher percentage of the herd’s bucks (80% of which are fawns or 1-1/2 year-olds) than of its does (which are more evenly distributed across all age classes). This translates to a much higher percentage of winter killed deer relative to the total herd population than would occur in a herd with a better balanced range of ages present in both sexes.

As bad as this scenario is, the cause and effect doesn’t end with just another bad winter for bucks, because this sets up a domino effect where breeding is concerned. On the heels of a bad winter, the reduced number of breeding bucks now means that some does won’t get bred in the first estrus cycle the following fall. If there aren’t enough bucks to go around, some does won’t get bred in the second estrus cycle either. It’s possible that some does might not be getting bred at all! The few bucks that are breeding all these does are worn down by this extended rutting period to the point that they might not have the fat reserves left to make it through a Maine winter.

I recently heard that a buck was seen mounting a doe in February in Aroostook County where deer were being fed this past winter. If this is true, and this doe conceived in February, any fawns born to her in August surely won’t make it through the next winter. Even lambs conceived in the second estrus cycle will have the cards stacked against them going into their first winter. They will not have the same higher body weights as fawns that were conceived in November.

What can Maine do to remedy the age structure imbalance of bucks in the deer herd?

Limit the harvest of antlered deer to those with racks sporting a minimum of 3 points on one side. (Nearly all 2-1/2 year-old bucks will carry antlers during the hunting season that will meet this criterion.) Allow exception to the regulation via any-deer permits that will allow the harvest of spike or fork-horned bucks as well as does. Alternatively create an “any-buck” permit to augment the any-deer permit management system.

Antler Restrictions, used as a management tool, would be effective in improving both the age-structure (for bucks) and the sex ratio of the Maine deer herd. These two elements are essential to rebuilding the herd. By restricting the harvest of 1-1/2 year-old bucks, we can recruit deer to the 2-1/2 year-old stage. A larger population of 2-1/2 year-olds will on its own reduce winter kill numbers and breeding issues. Once 2-1/2 years-old, a Maine buck is more likely to survive hunting pressure and severe winters. The gravy for Maine deer hunters will be an increase in the numbers of trophy deer available as more 2-1/2 year-olds will lead to more 3-1/2 year-olds, 4-1/2 year-olds, etc...

It’s that simple.

Antler restrictions are not without opponents in Maine.

One oft heard argument is that the antler restriction proposal is elitist and promotes trophy hunting, which is a hot button topic exploited by anti hunting advocates. The truth is that the proposal is good management policy that will benefit all deer hunters and deer lovers alike by stabilizing a more balanced herd.

Nowhere within the Maine Department of Inland Fish and Wildlife’s “Maine’s Game Plan for Deer” is there mention of sex or age imbalances in the deer herd. Nowhere is there mention of antler restrictions as a management tool to improve the herd. Why?

The basic argument against AR is that it simply won’t work in Maine. Forget that it’s been well received and is yielding fantastic results in States like Pennsylvania, “AR will never be accepted by hunters in Maine”.

The dense Maine forest will no doubt make it difficult for hunters to identify 3 points on one side before taking aim at the buck they just jumped up out of a cedar swamp. But if you’re a hunter in a shooting scenario like that, you’d best have a doe permit in your pocket to begin with as antlers can be hard to see at all on a running deer. So why not manage AR via the any-deer permit system already in place? Why not create an any-buck permit for those Wildlife Management Districts (WMD) where doe hunting is not allowed?

Antler restrictions can and will work in Maine!

Most Maine deer hunters will embrace AR once they understand the management goals and benefits. A broader awareness of the AR concept is underway, but it needs further exposure to generate the ground swell of enthusiasm that this strategy will need to be implemented… or perhaps even considered by IF&W.

Bob Provencher lives in Freeport. He is a scorer for MASTC.

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