On the Antlers of a Dilemma
Maybe Missouri, this Johnny-come-lately among deer hunting states, had something going. Missouri already had the No. 7 typical rack, taken by Jeff Brunk in Clark County in 1969, which scored 199 4/8. There also were several Missouri racks in the 186-187 range, almost all from north Missouri.
Gibson's rack, taken behind his Randolph County house, scored 205 points and missed being No. 1, according to the complicated Boone and Crockett Club scoring, by less than two points because of an abnormality on one tine, which cost just enough points to bump it to second.
When the No. 1 all time non-typical white-tailed deer rack appeared on a dead deer in St. Louis County in 1981, it sent a nonarguable message: Missouri is big deer country. The rack scored 333 7/8, shattering the previous record of 286 points from a Texas rack taken in 1892.
But inevitably with fame comes infamy. Not only is Missouri a fine place to take a trophy buck legally, it also is fertile ground for illegal activity. Today, conservation agents feel there is heavy traffic in poached trophy deer racks.
Hunters have been fascinated with the headgear of hoofed animals since the dawn of man. Gods of the Greeks and Romans often wore horns. In Asia, powdered antlers are considered a potent potion (and a market for illegal horn/antler collectors).
Horns and antlers are similar, except that horns are for life; antlers are shed each year. Deer and their relatives - elk, caribou and moose - have antlers while cows, sheep and antelope have horns.
Antlers as trophies date at least to the 1500s when Queen Elizabeth (the first one) ordered officials in the New World colonies to send the finest heads home to England.
Missouri has about 400,000 deer hunters, a $7 million contribution in permit fees alone. According to an accepted formula, deer hunters spend around $100 million each season.
No one believes hunters will quit hunting because they think crooks are stealing the big bucks...but the economic reality of deer hunting makes any thievery a cause for concern. "We think the trophy market hunters detract from the true spirit of why we manage wildlife," says Ron Glover, chief of the Conservation Department's enforcement arm. "Hunters who hunt for the sport or the chase aren't interested in selling trophy racks."
For many, it is incomprehensible why anyone would want to display a trophy deer he didn't kill, but there are antler collectors who will pay big dollars for trophy racks, no matter how they were acquired. And, for unscrupulous collectors, that includes poaching.
Trophy buck clubs think the poaching problem is overstated and also downplay the estimated values of mounted heads. "A typical eight point buck mount might sell for $200," says St. Louisan Paul Schwarz of Schwarz Taxidermy, the nation's oldest shop (it dates to 1888 and is in the fourth generation of Schwarzes). "But the poacher wouldn't get more than $30 for it."
On the other hand, the experience of an undercover conservation agent indicates antlers can have substantial value. In 1992, agents arrested a Northwest Missourian accused of stealing several sets of antlers from a taxidermist. Agent Steve Nichols posed as a gun shop owner and bought one set of antlers for $750, which resulted in the arrest. The man was convicted and received two four-year jail terms, suspended on four years probation.
"He had a whole stack of antlers," Nichols says. "He didn't pressure me to buy any particular ones because he said he had the rest of them sold. They weren't even that nice. I don't think any would have made the Big Bucks Club."
The Show-Me Big Bucks Club began in 1967 to honor trophy hunters, while the national Boone and Crockett Club dates to 1888 and was founded by Theodore Roosevelt.
A deer must score 140 minimum south of the Missouri River, 150 north to make the Show-Me Big Bucks typical rack list (Boone and Crockett minimum is 160/170 for a typical rack). A non-typical rack must score 160 minimum south of the Missouri and 170 north (Boone and Crockett minimum is 185/195). The first figure shown for the Boone and Crockett scoring goes into an awards book that is only kept for three years. The second figure is for an all time records book that is kept in perpetuity.
Nichols once worked undercover with a poacher who spotlighted and shot three bucks in one night. "He left them lying there," Nichols says. "Said they weren't big enough." And that's just one poacher on one night in one county.
Agents say a favored poaching trick is to take a legal buck during season, then kill a trophy buck out of season and claim that head as the one legally taken.
The problem is not unique to Missouri. Ollie Torgerson, the Conservation Department's chief of wildlife and former deer biologist, thinks it happens most often in the Corn Belt states, which are well-known for big deer. He has heard of poachers videotaping large bucks and showing the tapes to prospective buyers so they could pick the rack they want.
Iowa has reported antler poaching and there was an incident in another state where a "big buck" contest led to several antler-poached deer until the contest was canceled.
Conservation agents, through experience, think a rack scoring beneath the Missouri Show-Me Big Bucks Club minimum might bring as much as $500. A rack scoring above the Big Bucks minimum, but under Boone and Crockett's minimum can be valued at $500-$1,000.
The big dollars come from racks scoring above the Boone and Crockett minimum - from $1,000 to perhaps $50,000. A record buck - say, Gibson's rack or the No. 1 non-typical one - is basically priceless (both are in possession of the Conservation Department).
People hunt deer for meat, but many deer hunters prefer a buck and some are after the "buck of a lifetime," the bragging deer. Leave it to the psychologists. You could say it's male machismo, except that women hunt trophies too. Maybe it centers on the American penchant for competition: take any sport, no matter how restful and non-competitive, and Americans will figure a way to keep score.
The problem isn't with legal trophy hunting. It's when competition generates cheating that wildlife agents get irritable. "We decided to take a survey of our conservation agents to see how extensive poaching for antlers is," says Glover.
"We told the agents to report just what they physically saw," Glover says. "Reports averaged about four deer poached for antlers per county, with a high of 20." St. Louis County, as urban as it is, was one which reported 20.
The total of these deer taken for their antlers was a disturbing 406. That doesn't sound like many when the deer herd numbers over half a million. "Figure that's maybe one-tenth of what actually was poached," Glover says. "And these are the deer that every legal hunter wants to find."
What makes a trophy? Probably a combination of genetics, nutrition and longevity. Bucks steadily increase antler size for the first half-dozen years of their lives before old age begins to shrink their headgear. Of course, most bucks don't live a half-dozen years and others don't have the big-antler genes or lack high-quality food. So, like the New York Stock Exchange, there are only a few blue chips among many so-so investments.
That rarity is what warms a hunter's heart. If trophies were easy, they wouldn't be trophies. And that rarity also should be what warms a hunter's anger when he thinks of some crook shooting the buck-of-a-lifetime for no reason other than profit.
Aside from being illegal, it cheapens hunting. "I don't understand it," says agent Nichols. "Hanging a rack you didn't take on your wall is like hanging a plastic bass and telling people you caught it. Why not get one of the replica racks and hang that? You can't tell them from the real thing anyway."
Of the 406 deer taken for their antlers and found by conservation agents, about 10-15 percent were road-killed; agents say the rest were illegally taken.
New Missouri regulations still allow the sale of legally obtained deer antlers. Legally obtained antlers may be "bought, sold or bartered when accompanied by a bill of sale showing the seller's full name, address and the number and species of these (antlers) and the full name and address of the purchaser."
A person who buys a deer head must "retain a bill of sale for the period the heads or antlers are in his/her possession. The bill of sale shall include the transaction date and a signed statement from the seller attesting that the deer heads and/or antlers were, to his/her knowledge, taken according to the regulations of the state or country where taken."
No regulation will suit everyone (none ever does). And Missouri always will have a few big old bucks that survive to create other big bucks and to serve as a challenge for honest hunters. And poachers will continue, regardless of the potential penalties.
So, trophy antlers will be what they always have been: the horns of a dilemma.