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Culling - A Practical Management Alternative?

At this time, the Seasons and Bag Limits have not been finalized and are subject to change pending final review.

Deer hunters love a good debate. From food plot seed choices, to rifle calibers, to effects of moon phase, disagreements over almost anything related to deer hunting or deer management is likely to pop up any time two or more of these folks get together. In most of these arguments, there really are no right or wrong answers, just a lot of personal preference. That’s not the case with a relatively new “hot button” topic of many deer-related discussions – cull bucks.

The idea of culling bucks historically was not something Alabama’s deer hunters thought about, let alone debated, 25+ years ago. At that time, most older hunters were still questioning the need for doe harvests and the idea of passing up younger bucks was still a new concept for most. Attitudes about both of these topics have changed significantly. Harvesting does and passing on young bucks are commonplace among nearly all groups of deer hunters, from those that hunt public land to those managing and hunting large tracts of private property

As attitudes about deer management changed, so did the deer herds. The days of rarely having opportunities to see, let alone harvest, 3+ year old bucks are long gone in much of Alabama. Deer hunting and management are no longer things Alabama’s deer hunters only think about between football and turkey seasons. Deer management is now a year-round obsession with many deer hunters and managers looking to take the next step in their deer management journey. For many, this means addressing the issue of cull bucks.

So what is a cull buck? To cull is to remove something, usually of lower quality or with less desirable traits, from a population, and the word also refers to the individual being removed (culled). For deer, the trait that is most often used to determine a buck’s value to the herd is antler size or shape. As a result, some deer hunters view any buck with antlers that do not meet their vision of what a buck should look like as one that should be removed from the herd for the herd’s sake – a cull. Unfortunately, this thought process has numerous flaws.

Determining the cause of a free-ranging buck’s antler abnormality or deficiency by looking at the live deer on the hoof is practically impossible. Deer are subjected to many factors which may impact antler development. Injuries, drought, and poor-quality habitat all can cause a buck’s antler to develop abnormally. Many of these are uncontrollable by the deer manager or hunter. What is controllable is whether the hunter pulls the trigger or not. Having too many bucks is rarely an issue. For this reason, bucks that have not reached the target age for harvest should be given the benefit of the doubt in regard to lower quality or abnormal antlers in most situations.

Injuries to the deer’s body, the antler while in velvet, or the antler pedicle usually are the main culprits for malformed antlers. Some injuries, such as injuries to the body, typically cause antler abnormalities in the year immediately following the injury. Given time, the buck will heal and usually grows a more typical set of antlers in subsequent years. The same thing applies to most growing antler injuries as well. Antlers grown in years following this type of injury generally return to their usual conformation.

Some types of injuries, such as those to the antler pedicle, can cause malformed antlers for several years following the injury. If an antler is shed prematurely or is broken off at the pedicle/antler junction, a piece of the pedicle or skull often is lost with the antler. This type of injury almost always affects antler development from the damaged pedicle in subsequent years. These deer usually are 2 ½ years old or older and have a “normal” antler with three, four, five, or more points and an “abnormal” antler, which often is a long spike or main beam with one short tine. The normal antler should be used to assess the buck’s potential for antler growth, not the one that is malformed as a result of the injury. Given time, the deer may overcome the injury and develop normal antlers on both sides. Spike on one side, or more commonly seen acronym, SOOS, are commonly observed in many parts of Alabama and are representative examples of what can happen following a pedicle injury.

Another argument against culling bucks is the lack of understanding about white-tailed deer antler genetics. White-tailed deer genetics, including antler genetics, remain poorly understood. As for the trait of antler development, what is known is the dam provides as much or more genetic influence for antler development as does the sire. If it is possible to impact a free-ranging deer herd’s antler genetics by removing specific deer, one would also have to identify and remove the doe that produced the “cull buck” in question. Throw in the constant influx of new bucks and their DNA into free-range populations through dispersal of young bucks and excursions by adult bucks, and the idea of quickly changing the genetic makeup of a free-range deer population by selectively harvesting bucks based on antler characteristics is an unattainable objective.

Multiple studies have examined the impact of aggressive culling programs on antler quality of future generations of free-range deer. One recent project conducted on three south Texas tracts compared antler quality on each tract following seven years of varying levels of culling. One property utilized an aggressive culling strategy that removed bucks from all age classes that did not meet established antler criteria for each age. Another property removed only 3.5 years or older bucks that did not meet the established antler criteria for their ages. The third property did not cull. After seven years, there were no measurable differences in antler quality even though most male fawns were sired by bucks that exceeded the culling criteria. Basically, culling of free-range deer to improve genetic potential for antler growth doesn’t work.

If just improving antler quality of bucks harvested from a property is the primary goal, simply increasing the average age of bucks that are harvested is the most effective approach. Learning to distinguish an exceptional young deer from an average or below average older deer is essential for making harvest decisions when managing for older bucks. Time after time, bucks that are targeted because of less than desirable antler traits are younger than the hunter thinks. They needed time to develop and, in many cases, overcome a slow start in life caused by a late birth date or less than ideal habitat conditions. Just as common are the many well-formed, smaller antlered bucks hunters pass because they judged them to be young, but with good potential. Many of these bucks end up being adult deer with below average antlers. They are doing all they can antler-wise but are simply below average. Getting older doesn’t help.

Improving and maximizing the potential of the habitat first will do more than any other management action. Simply put, deer are what they eat. The impact of habitat quality affects deer well before they are born. The physical condition of the doe prior to conception, during the pregnancy, and during nursing will impact a deer throughout its life and the lives of its offspring. If habitat quality is poor, deer are never able to come close to their potential for antler growth, body size, or fawn production. Deer living under the best quality habitat conditions have a much better chance of reaching their potential.

Is culling of bucks in a free-range population ever warranted? Never say never when discussing deer management, but for the overwhelming majority of situations the answer is “No”. Bucks face many challenges from conception until they reach maturity. If managing to produce adult bucks is the goal, taking steps to allow as many as possible to reach the target age class should be priority. Relaxing harvest rules to allow for removal of bucks based on some arbitrary cull buck or management buck rule is most often detrimental to the management program’s long-term success.

A common analogy used to explain the process of developing a deer management program for any property is to compare it to a bucket filled with holes. The lowest holes on the bucket are the most important and must be plugged first if there’s any hope of the bucket holding water. For most properties, habitat quality, buck age structure, and deer densities are near the bottom of the bucket, while culling and genetics are at the very top of the bucket. Attempting to plug the top holes without first addressing the bottom holes results in an empty bucket. Don’t get left holding an empty bucket.