Unintended Outcome

Mississippi instituted a statewide 4-point rule in hopes of growing bigger bucks, but research shows the restriction is having the opposite effect, giving pause to Louisiana trophy hunters hoping to implement a similar plan here.

It was several years ago when Wild Turkey Hunting Club decided to move from an anything-goes buck management plan to a requirement that bucks have at least 6 points before members could shoot them. The goal of the club’s move was to try and produce some bigger-antlered bucks, but I was curious as to how effective the move would be.

A call to the Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ Dave Moreland gave me some reason to worry.

“You’re going to be shooting your better-quality deer,” Moreland said. “Those 6-points are generally still 1 1/2-year-old deer, but they’re the ones you shouldn’t be shooting.”

The conversation didn’t change the club’s decision, but a study of Mississippi’s statewide 4-point rule suggests it probably should have.

Hunters in Mississippi have been prohibited from shooting bucks with less than 4 points since 1995, and hunters seem to be happy with the program.

But a study published in 2001 suggests that the state’s hunters could be shooting themselves in their proverbial feet.

The study, titled Effects of selective-harvest strategies on white-tailed deer antler size, was published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, and includes data from 1991 through 1998.

Stephen Demarais of Mississippi State University’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries teamed up with several other researchers to examine exactly what has happened on several public areas since the 4-point-or-better rule was instituted in 1995.

The study looked at Sunflower Wildlife Management Area in the fertile delta plain hugging the Mississippi River and Choctaw WMA in the moderately fertile upper coastal plain located in the northeastern portion of the state.

Chickasawhay, Old River and Caney Creek No. 3 WMAs were pooled to represent the lower coastal plain, which is located in Southeastern Mississippi, and is the least-fertile of the study areas.

The most obvious change has been the reduction in the number of yearling bucks killed annually.

“We’ve greatly reduced the harvest of 1 1/2-year-old deer,” Demarais said.

Most deer hunters would be tempted to cheer such protection, since the goal of any trophy program is to protect the younger bucks from harvest in the hopes that these animals will grow larger antlers the following year.

And statistics alone provide apparent encouragement.

“The percent of 1 1/2-year-old deer in the harvest decreased dramatically, while the percentage of 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old deer increased,” Demarais said.

However, Demarais said he and his fellow researchers looked past the percentages, which actually provide a skewed outlook.

“On these management areas, we haven’t significantly increased the overall harvest of 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old deer,” he said. “It’s sounds better than it really is.”

In other words, the number of 1 1/2-year-old deer harvested did drop, but that was because many deer in that age class don’t grow antlers with more than 3 points.

“If the number of 1 1/2-year-old deer harvested declines, and the harvest of 2 1/2-year-old and 3 1/2-year-old deer stays the same, then the percentage of these older bucks in the harvest automatically increases,” Demarais explained.

The number of deer protected by the 4-point rule varied from the fertile delta plain to the lower-quality habitat of the lower coastal plain.

For instance, researchers found that the 4-point rule protected 79 percent of the 1 1/2-year-old bucks in the lower coastal plain, while only 58 percent of the Delta-region yearling bucks were protected and 66 percent of the 1 1/2-year-old bucks in the upper coastal plain were protected.

That might sound pretty effective, but Demarais pointed out that the 21 to 42 percent of yearling bucks eligible for harvest under the regulations were the cream of the crop.

“The problem is which deer are we protecting?” he said. “There is the concern that the smaller-antlered yearlings that survive will grow smaller antlers at older ages than the deer that would have survived if you had not harvested them.”

This “high grading” of the deer population could, so the theory goes, eventually mean smaller racks on older, mature bucks.

To determine if there was a biological basis for this concern, the researchers developed a computer simulation model based on 220 pen-raised bucks with known antler measurements through 4 1/2 years of age.

The computer model was used to randomly remove portions of the year classes to determine the effect on antler development at 4 years of age. The model based the theoretical harvest on various management schemes including a random harvest without any antler criteria and three schemes that protected the smaller-antlered yearling bucks: a minimum 4-point rule, a minimum 6-point rule, and a minimum 13-inch-inside-spread rule.

Three harvest rates of 25, 50 and 75 percent also were represented to determine if harvest rate affected the outcome.

The simulation was completed by calculating the average antler development for those bucks that “survived” to reach 4 1/2 years of age.

The study found that, at the 75-percent harvest level, the management schemes protecting smaller-antlered, younger males produced significantly smaller antlers at 4 1/2 years of age compared to the random harvest that included no antler restriction.

The average projected Boone & Crockett score under the random harvest was 126 points, in contrast to 120 points for the 4-point rule, 122 points for the 6-point rule and 119 points for the 13-inch-spread rule.

However, Demarais and his fellow researchers quickly recognized that the use of computer models alone would not be sufficient.

“Generally, it is challenging to do a controlled study in a pen and then go out into the wild because there are so many variations in the environmental conditions in the wild,” Demarais said.

So the team also looked at real harvest data from the WMAs included in the study.

What they found was astonishing.

“In the computer models, we found almost exactly what we found in the wild,” Demarais said. “That flabbergasted me.”

The study showed marked declines in B&C scores for harvested 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks in the better-quality habitats after the 4-point rule went into effect.

The most notable change came in the delta, which saw the average score of 2 1/2-year-old bucks drop from 86.7 points before the regulations to 77.5 points after the regulations.

Bucks that reached 3 1/2 years of age experienced even more dramatic declines, with pre-regulation bucks averaging 113 B&C points and post-regulation deer averaging 94 points.

While the results in the moderate-quality upper coastal plain were not as dramatic, declines were still noticeable.

Upper coastal plain bucks that reached 2 1/2 years of age dropped from 65.3 B&C points to 58.4 points, while 3 1/2-year-old bucks fell from 92.4 points to 83.6 points.

There were no measurable changes in antler development in the lower-quality habitats of the lower coastal plain.

Demarais said high grading was most noticeable in the delta region simply because those deer have the best opportunities to grow larger antlers.

“In the poorer soil regions, the bucks aren’t able to express their genetic potential in the 1 1/2-year age group,” he explained. “So there are few 1 1/2-year-olds that are vulnerable.”

The situation is exacerbated in the lower coastal plain because of late fawning periods, with antler size of many 2-year-old bucks still falling below the 4-point minimum.

But the results were clear: Protecting smaller-antlered, young bucks and allowing those young deer with larger antlers to be killed significantly reduced the size of antlers in older age classes in the better-quality habitats.

“In the delta, we shot off about 10 inches of antlers in the 2 1/2-year-old deer and about 20 inches in the 3 1/2-year-old deer,” Demarais said.

Demarais and his team revisted the study and examined kill data through the 2000-2001 season for more state WMAs, and the results were even more dramatic.

“It’s so consistent. There are negative effects on even more WMAs than our first study,” he said. “We’re actually showing significant effects in even our lower coastal plains.”

Demarais said the post-study work proved that the longer the regulations are in effect the greater the high-grading effect.

“The longer we keep a 4-point rule in effect, the more noticeable the effects will be,” Demarais said. “You cannot regulate antler management statewide with a single antler-based criterion.”

That doesn’t mean that antler-based restrictions don’t have worth, but that their value is limited.

“Any antler restriction to protect young deer needs to be considered a short-term tool,” Demarais said. “Anything you use that removes larger-antlered yearlings will degrade the average antler size of the deer herd.”

The study has enforced this researcher’s belief that management of deer on a statewide basis is a difficult task to accomplish.

“What do you do statewide? I don’t know,” Demarais said. “I don’t know if we should (manage on a statewide basis), but if we do, I don’t know how.

“Maybe we should reduce the number of bucks in the season bag limit.”

However, he admitted that might be no more successful than the current three-per-year limit now in effect in Mississippi.

“The average hunter doesn’t harvest more than one buck anyway, so the bag limit is meaningless,” Demarais said.

The good news is that high grading only seems to be a problem on the state’s public areas because much of the private lands are already being managed under the state’s deer management assistance program.

“We’re not seeing a high-grading effect on private lands,” Demarais said. “Most of our DMAP clubs are restricting their harvest even more than state law requires, so their harvest of yearlings is minimal.”

But the study has sparked some response by Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries & Parks officials, who created regulations for the delta WMAS that protect better-quality young deer while allowing the harvest of inferior young deer.

A limited number of permits for these WMAs are issued, allowing hunters to shoot any buck with no more than a spike on at least one side. This means spikes, 3-points and bucks with one spike and any number of points on the opposite side of their racks can be taken. They can also shoot any buck with an inside spread of at least 15 inches.

At the same time, hunters without tags can only shoot bucks sporting racks measuring at least 15 inches inside spread.

“That lets you remove the inferior yearling deer and any funky deer, but protects those nice, young deer,” Demarais said.

Will this bring antler sizes back up to what they were before the 4-point rule was implemented?

Only time will tell.

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.