Poll: Should Yearling Buck Protection Be Voluntary or Regulated by the State?

I thought the thermometer and Peyton Manning's bid for best quarterback ever were the only things bottoming out. But according to a press release from the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA), the percentage of yearling (1-1/2-year-old) bucks in America's annual whitetail harvest is lower than ever.

Among the fascinating stats in the QDMA's annual "Whitetail Report," a yearly compilation of all things whitetail, only 37 percent of bucks killed by hunters nationwide during the 2012-13 season were yearlings. Back in 1988, when the QDMA started tracking this number, 62 percent of bucks shot by hunters were yearlings. That's a 25-percent drop in as many seasons.

Kip Adams, QDMA's Director of Education and Outreach and a certified wildlife biologist is naturally pleased with the numbers. "Hunters in some states still shoot a high percentage of yearling bucks," he says. "But overall, the trend is moving toward protection of at least some yearling bucks, as hunters are recognizing the benefits of having some mature bucks in the population--and it's not just about antlers."

According to Adams, the yearling buck kill has dropped steadily over the years due to a combination of better-educated hunters willingly passing on young bucks and state-mandated regulations, typically in the form Antler Point Restrictions, or APR's, that protect a percentage of young bucks from harvest. "While many hunters see APRs as the primary reason, it's interesting to note that two of the top five states with the lowest percentage of yearling bucks in the harvest--Kansas and Oklahoma--do not have any units under APRs. The majority of hunters in those states simply don't shoot many young deer. And the national rate has been decreasing in recent years, even without the addition of antler-based restrictions."

Since it's the middle of winter, I've got plenty of time to contemplate questions like "Which is better, education that leads to voluntary restraint, or formal regulations like APRs?"

And my answer, derived after hours of thought, is a resounding, "Yes!" I know it's a little wishy-washy, but hear me out.

Yearling-Buck Protection Defended

First, I contend that protecting some yearling bucks is absolutely worthwhile--and is not all about producing trophy-class racks. Whitetails evolved as a species to have all age-classes of deer present in the herd, a fact proven by historical research. This natural balance was undermined during the second half of the last century, however, by decades of traditional management designed to increase deer numbers by protecting does. The inevitable result in most places was more deer but fewer bucks, mostly young ones, a great many of which got shot year after year. With the whitetail boom came a necessary shift from traditional management aimed at increasing deer numbers by protecting does to balancing herds with habitat by shooting more does. Many hunters believe that yearly buck protection is all about big racks, but ask any deer biologist and he will tell you that APRs, for example, are primarily about shifting the harvest toward does.

At this very moment in time, there are hunters (especially in the Midwest) who would argue that we've gone too far in that direction. But in the big picture, there's no question that the overarching result has been more bucks on the landscape, including some older ones. This better reflects a natural, healthy herd, and it just so happens that such a herd is significantly more fun to hunt. The rut is more intense, all deer are more active, and signs (mainly rubs and scrapes) is much more abundant. Sure, some of those bucks wind up growing some magnificent headgear, and some hunters are lucky enough to shoot them. I don't see a problem with that. So to me, the question isn't whether to protect yearling bucks in some areas.*

But how?

Voluntary Restraint

I'm a former teacher, so I'm all for education and non-mandated harvest restrictions. As an example, I grew up hunting an area in central Wisconsin where, in the late 1980's, where our large group of family and friends decided on our own to curtail the harvest on yearling bucks. What started as an informal camp rule became a generally accepted practice. Youngsters and new hunters can kill any buck they want, but most veterans can't remember the last yearling they shot. Passing on young bucks was not a decision that was adopted instantly or universally, but in time it became standard practice. Letting folks come to these decisions on their own often takes time, but the result is usually more lasting.

State-Mandated Antler Restrictions

On the flip side, I now live and hunt in southeastern Minnesota, an area that's been under APRs for four seasons now. For the most part, I like them. APRs made sense here because our state was an annual, national leader in the harvest of yearling bucks. There were a lot of reasons for this, but the primary one, in my opinion, was our early and long gun seasons. Hunters were loath to alter the firearms season framework, but the majority liked the idea of APRs. So a three-year trial period was put in place, then evaluated. Support remains reasonably strong, so APRs have stuck. I suppose you could call this a state mandate, but it was really more of a request; as in most states, we have APRs because the majority of hunters asked for yearling buck protection.

Generally, I equate yearling buck protection to the catch-and-release ethic that's developed in muskie fishing. I live in a state packed with huge muskies, and there are very, very few of these trophy gamefish killed any more. But it's important to remember that this ethic did not evolve overnight. It started with regulations that protected immature fish and eventually developed into something larger. It's not a perfect comparison, but I think deer hunting works in similar fashion. Regulations can be very useful in giving us a start. And then hunters decide what happens from there.

So let's hear from you.

* It's important to point out that there are some places where APRs, for example, make no sense. In the big woods of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, deer densities are low and asking a hunter to pass on the only buck he may see in a season is simply too much. The QDMA recognizes this. Adams has told me multiple times that the organization is seen by some as "that APR group." In fact, when asked for their input by states considering APRs, QDMA has expressed disapproval more than they've offered support. QDMA only supports APRs when they make scientific sense, the results can be measured, and the majority of hunters want them.