QUESTION: We are on a game management program through the Mississippi Department of Wildlife. It started out 10-12 years ago to obtain doe permits to reduce the population of our herd. We remove the jawbones and send them off every year and get a report back showing the ages of the deer taken and recommendations as to how many deer need to be taken the next year.
As far as I know the biologist has never set foot on our property. Without the biologist seeing what is out there, I do not see how they can give us accurate information.
Our minimum buck rule is an eight-pointer with at least a 13-inch inside spread, with no culls allowed. Over the last several years we've seen several mature 4- to 5-year-old bucks sporting spikes and fewer than 8 points with 16- to 19-inch inside spreads and short main beams. We are not allowed by club rules to remove these deer from the herd without incurring a $100 fine. We have tried to get a cull rule passed but the club president (also a major land owner) refuses to entertain the thought. He claims the biologist is telling him these bucks might have inferior racks this year, but could be good deer the next.
My question is, should mature bucks with poor antler growth be removed, or is the biologist correct?
ANSWER: The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks established a Deer Management Assistance Program, (DMAP) to help landowner/cooperators manage their lands "for a healthy deer herd, while maintaining habitat integrity."
They begin by working with the cooperator to set goals and objectives. Next, they use data collected from harvested deer to establish a baseline; then meet with the cooperator to establish harvest strategies designed to meet specific goals.
If your property is under DMAP, I expect in addition to jawbones, you are also collecting weights, antler measurements and evidence of lactation, as well as providing a complete summary of harvest data.
Comparing weights and antler measurements from your property to those from other DMAP properties in the area will show relative health of the deer and available nutrition on the property. Lower than average rates could mean too many deer and not enough food. Lactation rates will show productivity - the number of does breeding and producing fawns. Determining age from jawbones shows age structure of the harvest, and thus, the population.
Harvest data can also be used to determine age and sex ratio. From this information alone, biologists can generate a fairly accurate assessment of the deer population without ever setting foot on the property.
As most folks know, antler quality is controlled by three factors: age, nutrition and genetics. Any of these, or more likely some combination of some or all may be contributing to the occurrence of inferior quality racks on your property.
If poor nutrition is the cause, you need to remove more deer and/or increase habitat quality. That is best accomplished by killing does, as they represent the reproductive potential of the population. Fewer deer means more food for those that remain, which will translate into heavier weights and potentially better antler quality.
Allowing more bucks to reach older age classes should also result in better antler quality. Yearling bucks may exhibit "poor" antler quality for a variety of reasons. They may not be getting sufficient nutrition, or they could simply have been born late. On good range they should catch up to their cohorts in later years.
Even with improved habitat quality and more balanced age classes, you may still see a few older bucks displaying poor antler quality. Culling these older bucks is not an uncommon practice. However, it is not particularly effective.
Because of factors like emigration, genetic drift and the fact that females contribute at least 50 percent to antler quality make controlling genetics virtually impossible on free-range deer, (and extremely difficult even in enclosures). In short, removing "cull" bucks would have little if any effect on genetics.
It is also a less effective means of removing deer to increase nutrition. Again, that is better accomplished by removing does. It has the net effect of removing one deer, which has little effect on habitat quality.
On the other hand, I see no reason to protect older bucks displaying poor antler quality. In my book, a mature buck is a trophy, regardless of his rack size. If they meet legal minimums, they should be available for harvest. If your club minimums exceed those of the state, perhaps you could make these older bucks available to youth or handicapped hunters.