A change in antler restrictions could reinterpret the brow tine

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I learned a valuable lesson about the physics of hunting during last year's opening day of rifle deer season.

No matter how thoroughly I pre-scouted my hunting area, practiced at the shooting bench and prepared for a relatively scent-free hunt, I could not squint into my scope hard enough to grow another antler on a deer.

But like a lot of hunters in areas where antler restrictions require four points on one side, boy did I try.

A proposal to augment the four-point rule to three points up, not including a brow tine, would better the odds of bagging a buck for some hunters. The new rule wouldn't eliminate the four-point rule, but it would reinterpret the role of the brow tine in making the critical decision to shoot or not to shoot.

The new rule is up for a vote by the board of Pennsylvania Game Commissioners in April.

From the 1940s through the 1990s the Game Commission banned most doe hunting, resisting the advice of its biologists who preached against protecting the does. The implementation of antler restrictions early in the last decade, said Cal DuBrock, the agency's director of wildlife management, was primarily intended to help readjust the sex ratio of white-tailed deer in Wildlife Management Units where populations had been unnaturally skewed by decades of antlered-only deer hunting.

Antler restrictions were created to impact breeding ecology.

"Part of the hypothesis was ... older, more mature bucks would be doing most of the breeding," said DuBrock. "What we noticed is that this is not exactly what happens. In fact, most of the males are participating in breeding. Deer are promiscuous -- multiple males, including less mature animals, will breed with does. ... Interestingly, multiple ovulations can occur, meaning twins can have different fathers."

Despite some legitimate complaints from hunters, antler restrictions have resulted in bigger, healthier bucks in some areas.

"Basically, it was our attempt to protect yearling bucks and allow more of them to survive their first hunting season," said DuBrock. "Up to that point, the largest proportion of bucks were yearlings. It varied by WMUs, but statewide about 80 percent of bucks harvested were 1 1/2 years old. In some WMUs, it was 90 percent."

The old no-doe rules also failed to control population growth, impacting the habitats of all animals, including deer, in many areas.

The "three up" proposal would impact hunters and deer in western WMUs 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2D, where current rules require four points on one side for a buck to be legal. The change would require hunters to identify "three up" on one antler beam not including the brow tine -- the point immediately above the antler burr.

Game commissioner Ralph Martone, of New Castle, said the proposal originated with complaints from hunters about the difficulty of identifying small brow tines in field conditions. Members of the commission board asked DuBrock if there was any "wiggle room" in antler-restriction policy.

"Recently [DuBrock] reported on research showing that such a change would affect only a small percentage of antlered deer," he said, in a written statement. "Commissioner Robert Schlemmer [of Export] and I asked executive director [Carl Roe] to prepare language eliminating the need to identify brow tines in the four-point areas."

DuBrock said the research Martone is referring to came from the original studies that led to antler restrictions a decade ago. The proposal wouldn't eliminate the four-point rule, but it would "liberalize it to a degree."

"When you look at deer in the four-point area, at legal adult bucks 1 1/2 years and older, close to 90 percent of those deer with four points [on one side] had a brow tine," said DuBrock. "A small percentage didn't have a brow tine. Under the new rule, if it's approved, deer having three points on one antler not including a brow tine would be legal. Three on an antler including a brow tine would be illegal."

The proposal to augment a key part of the Game Commission's deer management plan isn't sitting well with some hunters, who question the science behind the plan.

"The PGC needs to get out of the game farm business," said Randy Santucci of Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania. The group's lawsuit against the commission's management plan was recently thrown out of court.

"Antler restrictions were a falsehood presented by [former Game Commission biologist] Gary Alt to sell this management program, and unfortunately we bought in," he said in a written statement. "Of course, private land owners can manage how they choose, but antler size should be as it was, to discern bucks from does to manage harvest ratios, nothing more, nothing less."

John Hayes: jhayes@post-gazette.com . First Published March 6, 2011 5:00 AM


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