Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Passing the bucks: It’s happening here

Yearling buck harvest decline suggests a change in hunter attitudes in N.Y.

Waverly, N.Y. — New York deer hunters are shooting fewer and fewer yearling bucks every season, statistics from the DEC and the Quality Deer Management Association show.

Some of that decline can be attributed to the expansion of antler restriction – three points on one side – regulations in additional wildlife management units in southeastern New York.

But other anecdotal information suggests changing attitudes, particularly among young hunters willing to pass on spikes and forkhorns with the prospects of encountering a bigger buck sometime during the season.

“I’m seeing it as a generational thing,” says Scott Benjamin of Mountain Max Taxidermy in Waverly. “The 20- and 30-year old hunters are looking for that big buck, will pass on smaller bucks and shoot a doe for meat. But there’s still the oldtimers who are meat hunters and could care less. And they see a young buck as offering more meat than an adult doe.”

New York’s 2013-14 deer harvest figures showed a record number – 55,300 – of bucks killed were 2.5 years and older. That was nearly half the statewide buck kill total, and compares to just 33 percent (45,350) in 2000 when the state’s deer population was at its peak.

Those numbers suggest that, in addition to the units where mandatory antler restrictions are in place, more and more hunters are passing on young bucks voluntarily.

“Although mandatory antler restrictions in 11 WMUs in southeastern New York are a contributing factor, many hunters outside those areas are voluntarily choosing not to take young bucks, thereby letting these bucks get another year or two older before they are taken,” DEC’s harvest report for last season read.

That’s seemingly part of a growing movement among the nation’s hunters to pass on yearling bucks. The Quality Deer Management Association, in its 2014 Whitetail Report, offered up statistics showing hunters are letting more 1.5-year-old bucks walk than  at any time in modern history.

The QDMA report used harvest numbers from the 2012-13 season, the most recent data available at the time for all states. Those numbers showed only 37 percent of antlered bucks killed by hunters in the U.S. were yearlings, down from over 62 percent in 1988 when the association was founded.

Kip Adams, a wildlife biologist and QDMA’s director of education and outreach, said those numbers show “a clear trend” in hunters willing to pass on young bucks to boost numbers of older, mature bucks in the field.

“There’s been an evolution toward voluntarily passing on yearling bucks – not just in New York but in other states as well,” said Adams, who is based just across the New York state line in Knoxville, Pa.  “QDM has become a household word among the hunting community, and hunters are seeing the hearing of its benefits, seeing older deer in the field and the benefits of it.”

Benjamin says he believes “the vast majority” of New York hunters he talks to in his taxidermy and venison processing shop “would like to see some form of antler restrictions.”

But the mandatory versus voluntary debate in New York has continued to simmer, and DEC has been hesitant to impose mandatory antler restrictions unless they see a strong majority of hunters in a specific region favor that move.

Thus far, that’s been limited to WMUs in southeastern New York. Movements from hunters in central New York have failed to yield antler restrictions, either via the DEC regulatory process or through legislative action.

The primary argument from hunters opposed to mandatory antler restrictions is that hunters in favor of three-points-on-one-side rules are free to hunt with that self-imposed limit without mandatory regulations. And antler restrictions opponents feel the DEC would be dictating a return on their license-buying investment if antler restrictions were made mandatory.

Adams feels the DEC should play more of a lead role on the issue.

“QDMA, Whitetails Unlimited and New York Bowhunters represent only a fraction of the hunters,” he said. “Hunters often look to their state wildlife agency for direction, and it’s very confusing to hunters in New York. Many states promote the voluntary passing of yearling bucks, and New York is not really there. They really don’t tout the benefits of protecting yearling bucks.”

Those benefits, according to QDMA, are a more intense rut in which hunters get more responses to rattling and grunt calls, see more scrapes and rubs and bucks chasing does, find more shed antlers, and see and kill mature bucks more frequently.

“Deer hunting is just more fun and exciting when you protect most yearling bucks,” he said.

Adams admitted even QDMA chapters within New York state have differing views on mandatory versus voluntary antler restrictions. And there’s indications DEC is moving toward tackling the issue as soon as the 2015 season, surveying hunters and looking at “alternative buck harvest strategies,” with antler restrictions among those options.

The department a year ago announced a decision-making process that will almost assuredly lead to some regulations changes by the 2015 season, with a focus on yearling buck protection. Indications are that hunter sentiment will play a major role in those decisions, particularly if their desires mesh with DEC’s deer management goals.

DEC officials have in the past has gone on record that there is no biological reason to impose antler restrictions and has maintained a policy of mandating them only if a solid majority of hunters want those regulations.

Among the management alternatives outlined were:

• mandatory antler restrictions for the entire deer season.
• mandatory antler restrictions for all of the archery deer season through the first week of the regular deer season.
• a one-buck bag limit for deer hunters.
• a shortening of the firearms deer season by one week in the Southern Zone and two weeks in the Northern Zone.
• an active promotion of voluntary antler restrictions.
• no regulatory changes at all, maintaining the status quo of deer regulations.

Adams pointed to Oklahoma as a model in promoting the voluntary passing of yearling bucks through its educational program: “Hunters in the Know…. Let Young Bucks Grow!”

“Many states promote voluntary passing on yearling bucks,” he said. “But New York really doesn’t tout the benefits. More states lean closer to Oklahoma then New York. New York is in a way different place.”

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