The Button Buck Dilemma

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Eric was a longtime deer hunter who had grown up when there weren’t many deer, and he always felt it was just not right to kill a doe. After all, he figured, does produce the deer of the future, and shooting one might reduce his chances of taking a deer down the road.

Recently, though, Eric had been reading magazine articles about deer management. The authors stressed the importance of taking does to maintain a healthy herd. He decided that the time had come to start harvesting does on the 200 acres that had been in his family for several generations.

Eric took a nice buck during the first weekend of the November portion of the firearms deer season, so he decided that during the second weekend he would try to take his first doe. The next Saturday morning, Eric was in his favorite tree stand on the edge of a corn-stubble field when a nice-sized deer without antlers walked into the field. It was around 75 yards away and stood broadside. Eric made a good shot.

When he went to inspect his harvest, he was shocked to find that the deer had two small knobs on its head. He was disappointed and muttered to himself, “This is what I get for trying to shoot a doe.”

The deer was a button buck, which is a male deer born the previous summer, making it around 6 months old. On a button buck, the only evidence of antlers are small bumps on top of its head. Although these buttons can sometimes be seen in a hunting situation, they are sufficiently difficult to recognize that button bucks are classified, along with does, as antlerless deer and can therefore be taken on any type of deer hunting permit during the archery or firearms seasons.

In other words, it was perfectly legal for Eric to take the button buck. He also was bringing home some excellent table fare. But, like many other hunters, he wondered how taking button bucks affects the deer management strategy of maintaining the optimum ratio of bucks to does.

Hunters are harvesting a lot of button bucks. During Missouri’s 2005 deer season they took 44,359 button bucks, which was 16 percent of the overall harvest.

Are we reducing potential future buck numbers by taking so many button bucks? To learn the answer, we need to look at the some of the facts about how button buck harvest affects overall deer abundance and the future availability of adult bucks.

Whitetail Model

One way to evaluate the effects of hunting on deer numbers is by using a population model. A population model is a mathematical formula used to predict the growth or decline of a deer herd. The formula takes into account natural mortality, reproduction and hunter harvest. Our population model is based on research on Missouri deer.

Studies have shown that Missouri deer are very productive. Most mature does (at least 2 years old) produce twins, and 10 to 15 percent produce triplets. In our most productive range in northern Missouri, about 35 percent of 1-year-old does produce a fawn.

Other Missouri studies have shown that hunting is a big part of total mortality among rural deer. During a typical deer season, hunters take about 20 percent of the button bucks, 50 percent of the 1.5-year-old (yearling) bucks, and 20 to 25 percent of the does 1.5 years of age and older.

Under this harvest pattern we would expect the deer population to remain stable, with about 35 percent of the fall population being 6 months old, 12 percent of the population consisting of yearling bucks, and 9 percent of the population being bucks age 2.5 years and older (adult). Adding the last two percentages tells us that about one in five deer would have a visible set of antlers.

Now that we have an idea of the “normal” deer population, we can determine what might happen if we changed the harvest by deer hunters. For example, what effect would cutting button buck harvest in half—from 20 percent to 10 percent—have on overall deer numbers and the number of adult bucks?

Our model shows that after several years of reduced button buck harvest, the fall deer population would still be stable but it would be 3 percent larger than the“normal” population due to a 12 percent increase in the number of adult bucks. So, cutting button buck harvest in half would result in a small increase in the number of adult bucks.

On the other hand, if we reduced yearling buck harvest by half, after a few years we could see a 50 percent increase in the number of adult bucks, a significantly greater impact than achieved by a reduction in the button buck harvest.

The reason for the difference is that hunters take a much smaller proportion of button bucks than yearling bucks. In other words, there is less potential to reduce overall button buck harvest.

Another factor is that button bucks have to survive one more year than yearling bucks before they become adults.

It’s also easier for hunters to identify yearling and older bucks because their antlers are more visible. Although many hunters are able to spot the small nubs of button bucks, it may not be practical to require them to do so. It makes more sense to restrict the harvest of young antlered deer.

Another consideration is that young bucks are highly mobile in Missouri. As many as 75 percent of radiotracked young buck deer move away (disperse) from their birth place. By the time bucks reach 2 years of age, they usually have a home range in which they remain for the rest of their lives, although they might move widely during the breeding season.

The average distance moved by dispersing bucks was 9 miles, but some deer moved more than 100 miles. This means the button bucks you protect during the hunting season probably will not be on your property the following hunting season. However, the yearling buck on your property during the gun season probably has already become established in the area. If not harvested by you, it may very well be on your property next year as a 2.5-year-old buck.

For all these reasons, protecting yearling bucks has a more immediate and greater payback in terms of future adult buck availability on your property than protecting button bucks.

You might wonder if it helps at all to avoid taking button bucks where you hunt. The answer depends on your management objectives. If your goal is to produce older-aged bucks, then reducing the harvest of yearling bucks is your best strategy.

This is not to say that reducing button buck harvest won’t have any effect. If everyone over a large area surrounding your property reduces button buck harvest, the result could be an improvement in the number of adult bucks on your hunting area. Also, there may be some button bucks on your land that will likely stay put and grow older there.

Reducing the Herd

In counties where we need to stabilize or reduce deer numbers, the Department of Conservation would prefer to see more does and fewer button bucks taken.

Again, the model helps demonstrate the dynamics. If button buck harvest is cut in half and those hunters who don’t take button bucks instead take adult does, overall deer numbers would decline by 3 percent annually. Advantages of this reduction include fewer problems with overpopulated deer. In addition, fall breeding activity would probably become more intense, because the more balanced buck-to-doe ratio would result in greater competition among bucks for does.

Many Missouri deer hunters just want to take a deer, no matter what size or gender. If this describes you, especially if you live in an area where deer numbers are low, then you should harvest any legal deer. In fact, if you are in an area where you would like to see more deer, taking a button buck or yearling buck instead of a doe may be a better choice.

Eric’s Conclusion

Eric’s shooting of a button buck when he meant to shoot a doe won’t have much effect on the deer population on his family property. That deer likely would have dispersed to someone else’s property the following year. But, Eric, wanting a more balanced population, decided he would look more carefully at the next “doe” he decides to shoot.

In many parts of the state, adequate doe harvest is essential if we are to continue to manage deer at levels that best meet the desires of Missourians. In these locations, shifting harvest pressure from button bucks and yearling bucks to does will help us to achieve these management goals.

Deer management is an important outcome of deer hunting, but most of us hunt deer because we enjoy being outdoors with family and friends. Putting restrictions on ourselves that go beyond the deer hunting regulations may not be appropriate if they significantly detract from this enjoyment.

Never forget that as a deer hunter you play an important role as a deer manager, but please continue to enjoy the great deer hunting experience.

Identifying Button Bucks

  • The nubs on a button buck often are visible with careful examination, especially through binoculars.
  • A button buck’s head is flat on top between the ears, while a doe’s head is more rounded.
  • Button bucks are more likely to be by themselves than other antlerless deer.
  • If more than one fawn is present in a group, the larger of the fawns is likely to be a button buck.
  • Button bucks are often the first to enter a field or feeding area.

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