The Key to Larger Bucks

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1995

Last revision: Oct. 20, 2010

Most serious deer hunters have questions about the animals they hunt, and the questions often center on big bucks. Were deer larger in the past? Are big deer becoming more scarce? Why is it hunters see so many small-racked bucks?

Whether a deer population increases, decreases or remains stable depends on the balance between births and deaths. Deer reproductive rates in Missouri are high and deaths, in the absence of hunting, are generally low.

In most of Missouri, hunting is the leading cause of deer mortality. Each year hunters take 40 to 70 percent of the antlered bucks and up to 25 percent of the does. In most areas these harvest rates balance birth rates, resulting in nearly stable deer numbers from year to year. It is apparent, therefore, that hunting is the primary factor governing the abundance of deer.

The Conservation Department statewide deer management program attempts to keep the number of deer at levels high enough to provide adequate opportunity for hunters and people who enjoy watching deer. Conversely, numbers must be low enough to minimize crop damage and deer/vehicle accidents.

Of course, the public is not always in agreement about how many deer are too many or not enough. We monitor attitudes of the two groups - farm operators and hunters - most affected by deer abundance through periodic mail surveys. Results of these surveys serve as the basis for setting deer population goals.

Legal hunting is the best way to keep deer numbers at desirable levels. Doe harvests affect population change far more than buck harvests and control of doe harvests is necessary to avoid overharvest and to ensure an adequate harvest.

Deer in Missouri are managed on a unit basis. The state is divided into 57 deer management units. The Conservation Department annually sets a quota of any-deer permits in each unit. Any-deer permits allow the holder to harvest any sex or age of deer. Bonus permits, which restrict harvest to antlerless deer, are issued in units where quotas exceed applications for any-deer permits, and where a higher doe kill is needed.

We determine how many does we want taken out of each unit. Information gathered from computer models, public opinion, conservation agents, hunting statistics and deer/vehicle accidents are used to set harvest goals. We know, from past hunting seasons, the average success rates on any-deer and bonus permits and the percentage of does in the kill. Therefore, we can set quotas to reach the desired doe harvests.

Some 93 percent of Missouri is in private ownership. As a result, deer hunting activity varies from property to property. This is partly because deer hunters have diverse attitudes toward deer. Some just want the opportunity to shoot a deer for the freezer; others want that trophy buck.

Whatever the goal, there are management techniques that can help hunters and landowners. Some goals may be reached simply by adjusting harvests; other times it may require a carefully controlled deer limit and cooperation from hunters on adjacent properties.

The ability to regulate deer numbers on a property depends on its size and shape and the quality of habitat. Conditions on surrounding properties, including habitat quality and hunting pressure, also are important factors to consider.

Size of land ownership has the greatest impact on whether you can produce more adult bucks on your property. Deer move over large areas, and the ability to manage deer increases proportionally with ownership size. For example, a person with 10 acres will have less control over deer on his/her property than a person with 1,000 acres.

The amount of hunting or other activity that occurs on adjacent properties is a second important factor to consider. Light or no hunting pressure on surrounding land can make it easier for someone to produce large bucks or to increase deer densities. On the other hand, people trying to reduce deer numbers on their property may find it difficult if hunter access is limited on surrounding properties.

The shape of the property may affect how often a deer moves onto adjacent land. A long linear shape, as opposed to a more compact shape, may have more individual deer use of the area but less time per individual. When surrounded by heavily hunted ground, deer associated with a linear holding would spend more time off the property and therefore would be exposed to greater hunting pressure.

Quality of deer habitat and primary sources of food will affect how much time a deer spends on a given area. Deer will shift movement patterns according to the location of food. For example, in a year with a good acorn crop, deer may select oak-hickory forests for foraging in the fall, instead of agricultural fields. Deer may favor agricultural fields other times of the year and in years of poor acorn production.

Considerable interest in managing for large bucks has developed in recent years. Two schemes are popular: "quality" and "trophy" management. The concept of quality deer management began in the southern United States and its primary principle is to manage deer populations, habitat and the hunting experience for quality.

Of course, perceptions of quality vary, but the idea is to manage deer in a way that promotes hunting ethics and responsible herd management, including control of deer populations by harvesting does. Trophy management is more restrictive, with primary emphasis on producing a buck with the largest possible rack.

Growing trophy bucks requires nearly complete control over harvests of bucks and does and is not practical in Missouri. Trophy management works best on large land ownerships in the southern and western United States.

Under our statewide deer management system in Missouri, antlered buck harvest is not regulated because buck harvest has little influence on total population levels. The result is high hunting pressure on antlered bucks with few surviving to older age classes.

The key to managing for large bucks is to allow males in the 1.5 to 2.5 year-old age classes to live longer. Managers can accomplish this by not shooting young bucks during the hunting seasons. This may seem simplistic, but deer survival is high when they are not hunted. Chances are good that a buck will survive if not taken during the hunting season, and will likely grow larger antlers the following year.

When regulating buck harvest, the same factors that affect populations on a property apply. However, bucks are more active and have larger home ranges than does. This is especially true during the breeding season, which coincides with the firearms season.

As a result, the minimum acreage required to effectively manage for older bucks is higher. Unless ownership is large (at least 1,000 acres), growing bigger bucks will require cooperation from surrounding landowners. Landowners wanting this type of management should contact neighbors with similar goals and develop a plan that protects 1.5 and 2.5 year-old bucks during the deer hunting seasons.

This will require that hunters be able to identify and age bucks "on the hoof." Probably the best way to learn to do this is to spend some time at deer check stations where deer are aged.

Controversy currently exists over whether spike bucks (usually yearlings, with unbranched antlers) should be culled when managing for quality deer. One theory suggests that these deer are genetically inferior and should be removed. Another maintains that many of these spike bucks are late-born fawns whose antler development is retarded the first year but will eventually catch up with other bucks.

No doubt if we take 100 bucks and feed them the same rations until they reach 4.5 years of age, antler development will vary; much of that variance is probably caused by genetics. In Missouri, however, most bucks that reach 4.5 years of age will be trophies to most hunters. Given most hunter expectations, the best strategy is to pass up these seemingly inferior spike bucks during the hunting seasons. The result may be the production of large antlered deer several years down the road.

Assessing the success of a deer management program on a property is an important part of the effort. This assessment can be as simple as keeping track of the number of deer seen and taken each hunting season, to more scientific efforts, such as aerial censuses of deer. Most deer hunters/landowners will prefer the former, but some, whose primary use of a property is deer hunting, may choose a more careful evaluation of their deer management efforts.

Annual records of deer harvested, their sex, age, weight, antler beam diameter and date taken are useful. They provide information on herd structure and condition that can be used to gauge the success of a management effort.

Managing deer on the property you hunt can be fun, rewarding, and productive. In time, each manager will develop a deer management program that works for them, from non-selective harvest of deer to careful control of buck harvests.

The important point is to develop a good program that provides the kind of hunting you want, yet maintains deer numbers at levels satisfactory to you and your neighbors.

Lonnie Hansen and Jeff Beringer manage Missouri's deer population and are both avid deer hunters.

Keep a Wildlife Diary for Conservation

Conservation Department biologists annually recruit archery deer hunters to keep track of the wildlife they see while hunting deer. Participants are sent a diary form. For each hunting trip they record on the form the date, the amount of time hunted, the county and deer management unit they hunted in and the number of deer and other wildlife seen.

At the end of the season, the hunter sends the form to Conservation Department biologists, who tabulate the data and use the results to determine trends in the abundance of the various wildlife species monitored. The diary form is then returned to the hunter.

This is a great way to keep track of your hunting activities and the number of deer and other wildlife seen. If you are an archer and would like to participate, send your name and address to:

Bowhunter Wildlife Observation Record

Missouri Department of Conservation

Fish and Wildlife Research Center

1110 S. College Avenue, Columbia 65201

Phone: 314-882-9880

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