Antler Restrictions among Most Divisive Hunting Issues
I can vividly remember sitting in a packed fire hall in Pennsylvania back in the early 2000s waiting to hear Dr. Gary Alt’s presentation about why the state needed to implement antler restrictions. I was already letting younger deer pass at that point in my hunting career so the new rules wouldn’t matter much to me, but I wanted to see what all of the fuss was about. It seemed that for every hunter I knew that supported the idea, I knew another who was opposed. Before antler restrictions were implemented, surveying by the Pennsylvania Game Commission revealed that hunters favored them by about a three to one margin. Now, 15 years later, that percentage has remained virtually unchanged.
Mandatory antler restrictions are back on the radar screens of hunters, largely stemming from the introduction of a bill by New York Senator Thomas F. Omara that seeks to establish a yearling buck protection program in the state. There was also a bill introduced in Maine to impose antler restrictions in certain counties, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources is currently surveying hunters in 12 northwest counties to determine if restrictions should continue. We have heard from hunters on both sides of the issue, and there is more than enough passion to go around.
The National Deer Alliance’s (NDA) position is this. Because it is a deer management bill introduced by a legislator and not the state wildlife agency, we will not support it. Allowing legislators into the wildlife management decision-making mix is a slippery slope at best, and not one we want to traverse. Put another way, if a state wildlife agency, based on the expertise of their trained personnel and following suitable polling of hunters, proposes antler restrictions because it’s what is best for hunters and the deer herd, then we would likely support it. In the specific case in New York, we have made it easy for hunters to contact their legislators and let them know how they feel about the issue through our Grassroots Advocacy Center.
Our recent member surveys on the subject of antler restrictions have been revealing. We learned the following:
- 61% support mandatory antler restrictions and 26% are opposed, with 12% unsure.
- 75% support mandatory antler restrictions when proposed by a state wildlife agency, and 17% do not.
- 72% said that they would not support antler restrictions mandated by legislation, while 17% say that they would.
- 46% support voluntary, or self-imposed over state mandated restrictions, while 44% say that they do not.
- 91% indicated that they have chosen to pass on a good shot opportunity on a buck legal to harvest because they were either waiting for a larger buck (69%), are striving for older age class bucks in their area (61%), or they simply weren’t ready to fill their tag (25%).
- Those who have not passed on a buck legal to harvest indicated that filling the freezer (41%), lack of time (29%), or assuming that another hunter would just shoot the buck that they passed anyway (27%), were the top reasons.
Even with strong support for antler restrictions, there is no perfect way to implement them, which only clouds the issue. One person wrote, “I manage my farms based on age structure, not antler points. I have bucks that are 6+ years old that need to be harvested that would not make a minimum antler point restriction.” The merits and deficiencies of counting points or estimating spreads or beam length make for great debate, and it might be a lot to ask the casual hunter to be proficient at age estimation, especially when the emotion of a hunting situation is figured into the equation.
As hunters, we all have different goals and visions of what the ideal deer hunt looks like, and because expectations vary greatly across our ranks, we should be respectful of others who may not share our opinion. “I believe that a hunter/land owner that is in their 70s or 80s that has paid thousands of dollars in taxes and still has the desire to hunt, should have the opportunity to kill whatever deer that they prefer. Self-imposed restrictions is the best option and more education not regulation,” wrote one person who responded to our survey. Another wrote, “Mandated restrictions are necessary. Without the threat of punishment, some hunters will shoot deer that they should pass on for the good of the herd.”
Those on both sides of the debate make strong points to substantiate their positions, but rarely is there a clear right or wrong answer. NDA will continue to be part of the dialogue on the issue of antler restrictions, but the most important thing hunters can do is engage with state wildlife agencies and work together to achieve an outcome that works for hunters, and deer.