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October 5, 2012

Myths surround deer antler genetics

NORMAN — When the 2012 Oklahoma deer season opened this week thousands of bowhunter’s hit the woods pursuing our state’s most popular game species. In fact, I’m already receiving success stories from lucky hunters having tagged large, mature bucks on opening day. For most, this success came from years of hard work and implementing Quality Deer Management (QDM) strategies.

QDM is hugely popular as more hunters are taking on the role of herd and habitat manager. As with anything, there are myths and misconceptions that may arise over time and deer management is no different. One common question hunters ask regarding herd management is the myth of whether “cull” bucks exist. These hunters are referring to a buck which appears to carry “genetically-inferior” antlers.

This trend in deer hunting likely began with hunters watching shows filmed on high-fenced properties. This myth and others such as “inferior spike bucks” probably began in South Texas where many properties have intensive breeding programs in place and are high-fenced. After watching these shows, hunters then began trying to apply these strategies on much smaller (and much lower-fenced), real-world properties while hunting free-range deer. Under these conditions (most common in Oklahoma) hunters, by implementing these “culling” practices, are only decreasing the potential pool of mature bucks they could be hunting years later. There is no genetic benefit or alteration taking place at a whole-herd level by harvesting a few “scrub” bucks. Removing one or even fifty bucks from a free-ranging herd based on good or bad antler genetics is like taking a drop of water out of Lake Eufaula. You have done something, but what you did made no impact on a broad scale.  

Many hunters think a small or abnormal-racked buck is somehow genetically inferior to other “good” bucks when in fact, the deer is likely just young. Remember, the buck in question had a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother that all carried his genes and identifying these individuals in a free-range situation is impossible. Bottom line, the family tree of an individual deer is enormous and there is no way to manipulate it without a high fence.

Along with the desire to balance buck to doe sex ratios by harvesting an adequate number of does, most hunters are also passing young bucks today more than ever. While this is a good thing, some hunters are still not ready to take that next step and pass young bucks. As deer biologists and other natural resource professionals are strongly encouraging hunters to take does for the freezer and pass young bucks, some hunters are using the term “cull” as justification to harvest a young, small-racked buck. Bottom line, if hunters want to harvest any-age bucks, they should do so because they want to, not because they’ve somehow been led to believe they are manipulating “genetics”. Genetics are complicated, especially when it comes to wild animals and their genotypic makeup is extremely variable and largely misunderstood. In fact, many small-racked bucks may carry genes for large antlers and even though they may not express them, this does not mean their sons or grandsons will not. Some small-racked bucks may sire world-class sons or vice-versa. Also, hunters should remember that a buck’s mother provides half of his genes and there is no way to “cull” does based on antler size or shape.

Another set of factors hunters do not consider is that most bucks with small or miss-matched side to side antlers are exhibiting those traits due to, but not limited to, herd density/dynamics issues, environmental constraints, or from some form of physical injury. These are normally caused from an antler pedicle injury, bodily injury, or other environmental factors which have nothing to do with genetics. Obviously these injury or environmentally-induced antler characteristics will not be passed down to their offspring. In other words, if you lose part of an ear during a boxing match, this trait won’t be passed on to your children as it has nothing to do with genetics.

All young bucks grow larger antlers as they age until some point in their lives when this growth peaks. If managing for larger-antlered bucks, hunters should set age requirements for harvesting any buck. Bucks meeting the estimated age category chosen (4.5, 5.5 etc.) are eligible for harvest; and those who do not should be passed regardless of antler size or shape. If the basic principles of deer management such as balancing sex ratios, reducing herd densities, allowing all bucks to reach mature age classes, and completing extensive habitat improvements are not being addressed, things like “genetics” should never be considered. In fact, unless you hunt a high-fenced property, antler genetics should not be discussed at all.

Many studies, including two from Texas on the King and Comanche Ranches, have proven “culling” did not improve antler size in successive generations. To put things in perspective, from 2006 to 2010 on the Comanche Ranch, researchers using helicopters and net guns captured 2,113 bucks on 113,000 acres and removed individuals based on various “antler culling” criteria. The results after 4 years of intense culling showed no changes in the average antler score for the age classes among treatments. Few properties can replicate this level of management or study further solidifying the fact that “culling” has no place in managing and hunting free-range deer.

Heath Herje is an agribusiness educator for Cleveland County Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. He writes a periodic column for The Transcript. He can be reached at 405-321-4774.

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