By Chris Cook, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
The deer hunting public’s interest in deer management increases each year. This is evident by the countless magazine articles and television shows that discuss topics related to deer management. The need for an increased doe kill, protection of young bucks, and improved deer habitat are detailed extensively. Many deer hunters grasped these concepts and implemented each on their hunting properties. They improved the habitat on their property, as well as the quality of the deer herd. Their deer herds are balanced with the habitat, the buck age structure is much improved, and the adult sex ratio is well balanced. Many groups are completely satisfied with their progress, while some groups want to go further.
One of the main reasons for dissatisfaction with a deer management program is the size or shape of the antlers on the bucks observed and killed each year. Bucks that do not possess what are deemed “normal” antlers are judged inferior by many deer hunters and managers. In their opinion, any buck that does not meet a specific minimum for antler size must surely be genetically inferior since they are subjected to the same environmental and habitat conditions as bucks with bigger, better-formed antlers. Removing these deer as “culls” to improve the herds’ antler genetics is the next logical step in many of these hunters’ and managers’ minds. Before proceeding, they should stop and ask two questions: “Are the problem antler traits genetically caused?” and “Will culling correct the problem?” The answers to both questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer in most situations.
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 every day of their lives to many things with the potential to impact antler development. Injuries, drought and poor quality habitat all can cause a buck’s antler to develop abnormally. Many of these factors are uncontrollable by the deer manager or hunter. For these reasons, most bucks, especially 2½-year-old and younger deer, should be given the benefit of the doubt in regards to lower quality or abnormal antlers in most situations.
Injuries to the deer’s body, the growing antler, or the antler pedicle usually are the main culprits. 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 injuries to the antler pedicle, can cause malformed antlers every year following the injury. Trauma from fighting or antler rubbing can damage the pedicle. This alone may not cause an abnormal antler growth, but in some cases, an abscess will develop at the point of an injury around the antler base. The abscess often causes more significant damage to the pedicle and, in turn, causes abnormal antler growth in subsequent years.
Some deer researchers feel pedicle injuries associated with an abscess is the most likely cause of the “spike on one side” bucks some hunters observe in the field. These deer usually are adult bucks (2½ years old or older) and have a “normal” antler with three, four, five or more points and an “abnormal” antler, which is usually a long spike or main beam with one short tine. Nothing is wrong with the bucks.
Another argument against culling bucks is the lack of understanding about white-tailed deer antler genetics. White-tailed deer genetics, including antler genetics, are 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. Additionally, one would have to believe that it is possible to quickly change thousands of years of genetic development with a rifle and bow. It simply doesn’t work that way.
Most “culling” experts tend to target bucks with unbalanced or abnormally shaped antlers rather than bucks with smaller, well-formed antlers. The unbalanced or abnormally shaped-antlered bucks are labeled “genetically inferior” or “limited potential” bucks, although their antler abnormalities may have nothing to do with genetics. On the other hand, most well formed but smaller antlered bucks are judged to be young, but with good potential. Unfortunately, this is completely wrong in many instances. Some of the “genetically inferior” or “limited potential” bucks are just young and need time to overcome injuries or a slow start in life. Conversely, many of the well-formed, smaller antlered bucks judged to be young are actually average 3½-years-old or older bucks that have grown their best antlers.
Causes of abnormal antlers in white-tailed deer are numerous. Unfortunately, nearly none of the causes can be identified by simply observing bucks in the field. This, however, does not prevent many deer hunters and managers from making misguided management decisions in the name of “culling.” In nearly all situations, the effort expended on trying to improve the genetics of a deer herd would be better spent on practices that can return tangible results, such as habitat improvement and shooting antlerless deer.