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  4. 1999
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Passing the Buck

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Sitting in a deer stand provides ample time to ponder important issues. One that I ask deer hunters to consider this fall is their important role in deer management. Every time hunters pull the trigger or decide not to, they are making a management decision affecting the future of the herd they are hunting. In deer management circles, "passing the buck" has a positive, rather than a negative, connotation.

Much of our service area has a distorted population of adult deer comprised of 80 percent or more does. This imbalance has been created by years of buck-only or buck-heavy harvesting. Wildlife biologists sold a generation of deer hunters on the idea that does should be protected, a valid concept during the "restocking days." Unfortunately, the hunting public, who had limited understanding of the biology behind the concept, accepted this management procedure as a silver bullet. A whole generation of hunters was taught that shooting a doe was a social evil and forgot that doe protection was a temporary management guideline.

Deer biologists are attempting to overcome this belief through education, and there are some signs of success. Oklahoma's 1998 doe harvest was 17 percent higher than that in 1997, but it represented only 36 percent of the total deer harvest. Statewide, probably fewer than twenty out of 100 adult deer are bucks, but 64 percent of the deer harvested are bucks, so there is still a significant bias against doe harvest.

Another silver bullet was the notion that genetic inferiority of spike bucks mandated culling them from deer herds whenever possible. This suggestion was based on data indicating a group of pen-raised bucks in Texas that were spikes as yearlings had mature antler sizes that were inferior to those of fork-antlered yearlings. Data from another group of deer in Mississippi conflicted, sparking a heated debate. In my opinion, this is much ado about nothing, for in a free-ranging deer herd, attempts to manipulate genetics through culling are inconsequential. Unfortunately, many deer managers began shooting spikes as a panacea for their management program and were disappointed in the results.

The most recently touted cure-all is the concept of "passing yearling bucks," a tenet of the quality deer management movement. This idea is soundly based on the fact that deer develop small antlers as yearlings, and relatively larger antlers in future years. The idea is to forego harvesting yearling bucks to allow them to become trophy quality later. Again, this is not the whole answer.

Unfortunately, if the management plan protects only yearlings, it produces only two-year-olds. Granted, they are bigger and warier than yearlings, but penned-deer studies show that most bucks don't reach maximum antler quality until they are at least four years old. A management program that protects yearling bucks but allows many to be shot at age two generally won't produce many trophy-class bucks. If a management plan allows hunters to shoot bucks they don't consider trophies, they should shoot yearlings rather than two- or three-year-olds, because there is less time invested in yearlings.

The best way to improve buck quality on a particular management unit is to limit the number of bucks harvested and secondarily, to require hunters to pay a taxidermist to shoulder-mount all bucks harvested. Age or antler size is very difficult for most hunters to judge "on the hoof" and therefore harvest restrictions based on these parameters are difficult to enforce. Harvest limits and a mounting rule are understandable and enforceable.

The next time you find yourself wishing you had seen a few more bucks among the does you watched from your stand, ask yourself how your harvest affects the herd.