It has been two decades since stricter antler restrictions were put in place across Pennsylvania. The results have been dramatic, but even so, there are still hunters who do not appreciate what has happened.
I started hunting when the only antler restriction required at least one spike to be 3 inches or longer, or an antler to have more than one point. The vast majority of hunters harvested bucks that were yearlings (one-and-a-half years old). Spikes, three- or four-pointers and an occasional six-point rack were the most common harvests. My father had a bushel basket full of such racks. There were too many deer and the habitat in much of the state was very degraded.
In 1999, Gary Alt became the supervising biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s new Deer Management Section. Alt assessed the situation, gathered evidence and set out on a statewide speaking tour. His presentations provided two main goals — to lower the deer herd to bring it into balance with forest habitat and initiate stricter antler restrictions so that more bucks would see their second and third birthdays.
I attended several of Alt’s programs. Antler size and point count are based on genetics, nutrition and age. Alt’s proposals would address two of those factors.
A healthier forest would produce more food as well as more nutritious food, and antler restrictions would allow more bucks to reach maturity. Alt would hold up a nice eight-point rack and a tiny four-pointer and ask the hunters, “Do you want this, or this?”
Commissioners backed Alt’s proposals. More antlerless deer licenses were issued, concurrent buck and doe seasons began in 2001, and antler restrictions were put in place in 2002.
In most of the state, bucks had to have at least three points on one side, and in five wildlife management units in the western third of the state, the rule was four to a side. In 2011, this western rule was changed to “three up” to make identification easier for hunters. In those wildlife management units, at least one antler had to have three points, not counting the brow tine.
From 1985 through 2001, an average of only 19% of the bucks harvested were two-and-a-half years old or older. The range was 17 to 22%. On average, a full 81% of antlered deer harvested were yearlings. The 20 years of data since then paint a clear picture of antler-restriction success.
During the first year of the stricter antler regulations, that percent of older bucks in the harvest jumped to 32%, 44% the following year, and then 50% in 2004.
Although more gradual, the upward trend continued from 2005 through 2017, ranging from 44% to 59%. Another significant jump occurred in 2018, when the percentage of older bucks in the harvest hit 64%, and the percent has stayed in the 60s through the 2021 season.
“We put an antler restriction regulation in place with a goal of protecting over half of our yearling bucks,” Deer and Elk Section Supervisor David Stainbrook said. “The regulations are working. In 1990, 80% of the harvest was made up of yearling bucks and only 20% of older deer. In some wildlife management units, such as 2G, those percentages are now reversed.”
According to Stainbrook, the recent hunter survey showed that 67% of responding hunters agreed with antler restrictions and only 16% disagreed. A slightly higher percentage of younger hunters supported antler restrictions as compared to older hunters.
Some hunters have even claimed that somehow it is their “right” to be able to harvest a spike. Hunter holdouts wrongly believe that their chances of bagging a buck would be greater if spikes and forkhorns were still legal.
The harvest data shows otherwise. During the 1987-88 deer seasons, 16% of hunters harvested a buck. In 2007-08, it was 15%. Over the past five seasons, the hunter success rate on bucks has averaged 24%. Eight-point racks are common.
I still firmly support antler restrictions, but there is another side to this story. In mid-December, I spent the better part of an evening with someone who manages a deer hunting preserve. I’ll share that insight in an early 2023 blog.