Jeremy Hurst – Wildlife Biologist
Seven Years of data have clarified several things about the impact of mandatory antler restrictions (ARs) in New York. First, mandatory antler restrictions (ARs) will substantially reduce harvest of yearling (1.5 year old) bucks, and the majority of the bucks that get harvested will be 2.5 years or older. After a few years, if the total deer population grows, hunters may take similar numbers of bucks with mandatory antler restrictions as they did without. Also, once mandatory ARs are implemented, most hunters seem interested in seeing the program continued.
Second, mandatory ARs are not necessary to maintain a healthy deer herd in New York. Statewide pre-season adult sex ratios average about 1.6 adult doe per adult buck; yearling antler beam diameters indicate deer are in good physical condition; and more than 94% of adult female deer are being bred with more than 86% of conceptions occurring within a 28-day period centered in mid-November. Also, the yearling portion of the statewide buck take has been dropping, without mandatory ARs, from greater than 70% in the early 1990s to less than 55% in 2011.
Still, DEC frequently hears comments from hunters such as, “we need antler restrictions, because the adult sex ratios are strongly skewed and deer breeding is compromised,” or “because the older bucks have all but disappeared in my area”, but data do not support these perceptions. In fact, hunters are taking more older-age bucks in NY now than ever before in our recorded history of deer hunting (see An Approach Towards Identifying an Optimal Buck Harvest Strategy).
Regardless, many hunters would prefer to see DEC enact regulations to further reduce harvest of yearling bucks. A 2010 survey by Cornell University found that 57% of hunters across the state think mandatory ARs are a good idea. But the survey also found that 54% of hunters think voluntary ARs are a good idea and 50% like a 1-buck per hunter rule. Hunters are apparently open to a variety of approaches.
It is important for hunters to recognize that mandatory ARs involve some potentially significant trade-offs, particularly in terms of their freedom to choose what type of buck they want to harvest. This freedom of choice is a core value for many hunters. That same 2010 survey found that more hunters said having “the greatest freedom to choose” (50%) was the most important aspect of buck hunting, compared to having “the greatest prospect of taking an older buck” (40%) or “opportunity to harvest more than one buck per year” (10%). Striking the balance between an AR mandate and freedom of choice is a challenge for both the hunting community and the biologists tasked with managing this important resource.
To date, nearly all the attention on reducing harvest of young bucks has focused on mandatory ARs, and at the urging of local hunters, New York now has mandatory ARs in 11 WMUs in the Catskill region. Yet, mandatory ARs are not the only option, and alternative strategies may provide meaningful reductions in harvest of yearling bucks while still preserving hunters’ freedom of choice.
To that end, DEC’s recently adopted deer management plan recommends an approach that may deal more fairly with diverse and often competing hunter values. It states that efforts to reduce harvest of yearling bucks should generally remain voluntary and not occur through regulation or legislation. Though, in areas where significant interest exists for alternative buck management, the plan also calls for DEC to develop and use objective criteria to identify optimal strategies for reducing harvest of yearling bucks in accordance with hunter desires. The word “optimal” is key, because what is optimal (the best balance) for hunters in one area may not be optimal for hunters elsewhere.
Recognizing strong hunter desires for both freedom of choice and greater chance of observing or taking older bucks, DEC is developing a more systematic decision-making process to determine appropriate yearling buck harvest strategies in various portions of NY (see An Approach Towards Identifying an Optimal Buck Harvest Strategy). This process explores likely outcomes of several options to reduce yearling buck take, including mandatory ARs. The process balances what hunters feel is important with what each alternative might accomplish, to identify the optimal strategy to manage buck harvest in a given area. Mandatory ARs may be the optimal strategy in areas where hunters strongly value the opportunity to see and shoot older bucks above other objectives. In other areas, a different and less restrictive strategy may be more appropriate and acceptable to hunters.