Pennsylvania's 2012 deer season marks a decade under the controversial management strategy called "antler restrictions." Game commissioners put the higher standard in place in 2002 when they changed the threshold for a legal buck from one spike of 3 inches or any antler with at least two points, to a three- or a four-point minimum in two hunting regions. Commissioners imposed the four-point rule in five Wildlife Management Units in Western Pennsylvania, while placing a three-point restriction on the rest of the state.
Some hunters have applauded the move while others have condemned it. Game Commission biologists have remained steadfast that antler restrictions achieved their objectives.
"The primary goal of antler restrictions was to increase the number of adult bucks [defined as 2.5 years old] in the population," said Game Commission deer and elk section supervisor Chris Rosenberry. "To achieve that, the minimum standard needed to protect most yearling bucks [1.5 years old] from harvest."
PGC biologists initially considered two options -- number of points and antler spread -- as alternative criteria to cut the harvest of yearling bucks.
"The decision to use points instead of antler spread was made because in some units antler spread would have protected more adult bucks than we wanted," Rosenberry said. "The objective was to protect at least half the yearlings but still make most adults available to hunters."
In most states where antler spread is used to identify legal bucks, the antlers must extend to or beyond the tips of the ears. Rosenberry explained that such a rule, while it would have protected yearlings, would have also left too few adult bucks available for hunters to take.
Antler restrictions have successfully altered the age structure of bucks in the state's deer population. According to the PGC, before antler restrictions, fewer than 20 percent of yearling bucks survived the hunting seasons. But observations of hundreds of bucks captured, radio collared and monitored in PGC research projects over the past 10 years show that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of yearlings carrying their first set of antlers now survive a first hunting season to become adults.
"Today, the number of adult bucks taken by hunters is almost twice what it was 15 years ago," Rosenberry said.
In other ways, antler restrictions have not significantly changed the herd's biology. Deer managers initially thought that a higher percentage of adult bucks in the population might influence breeding ecology, avoiding an extended breeding season after which many fawns are born too late the following summer to develop fully or survive their first winter.
But examinations by the PGC of pregnant does following road kills and other non-hunting mortality factors document that timing of breeding remains virtually unchanged. Before antler restrictions, the average conception date for Pennsylvania does was Nov. 17. Does examined since antler restrictions were imposed have shown an average conception date of Nov. 16.
Still, Rosenberry maintains that antler restrictions have brought other important benefits to the deer herd and its habitats.
"For more than 20 years, this agency had in place objectives regarding deer numbers and declining habitat quality that had never been achieved," Rosenberry said. "Past efforts to reduce deer numbers, where needed, had been unsuccessful. Antler restrictions have helped to finally achieve those objectives because they provide to hunters something hunters had not had before -- the opportunity to harvest adult bucks."
Some hunters consider that a fair and needed exchange.
"I can see no good reason to shoot a spike or forkhorn buck instead of a doe," said Denny Fillmore of Enola, a Cumberland County delegate to the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmens Clubs who has hunted from a camp in Tioga County since 1960. "But some hunters will still be upset that they aren't seeing the numbers of deer they once did, regardless of having more decent bucks available."
Fillmore is not alone in his acceptance of the change. In several random surveys by the PGC since 2002, hunter support for antler restrictions has never dipped below 60 percent.
Others who gauge hunter attitudes, though, don't see such strong backing.
"I've received more feedback about antler restrictions than any other topic I've written about, and it's about a 50-50 split for and against," said Justin McDaniel, assistant editor of the National Rifle Association's NRAhunterrights.org, a website that tracks and comments on hunting issues. A native of Washington County, Pa., McDaniel opposes Pennsylvania's antler restrictions but still hunts in WMU 2A every season.
"The main reason I oppose antler restrictions is because it takes away opportunity from the average hunter," McDaniel said. "A lot of guys can't devote the time it takes for antler restrictions to pay off for them. You're diminishing their opportunities."
Success rates of Pennsylvania buck hunters, though, have remained constant. Before antler restrictions, about 13 percent of hunters tagged a buck each season, nearly identical to today's rate.
"For the hunter that has to pass up a buck, knowing that doesn't help him," Rosenberry conceded. "But overall, in the big picture, hunters have adapted to this well and they're satisfied."
But McDaniel maintains that antler restrictions have other, long-lasting consequences.
"Through our website [NRAhunterrights.org], we've heard a lot of comments that hunters are not buying a license in Pennsylvania because antler restrictions have diminished their enjoyment," McDaniel said.
Fillmore is not among them.
"Antler restrictions have in no way reduced my enjoyment of hunting deer," he said. "If anything, seeing nicer bucks has added to the enjoyment. ... They're out there."
Last season, the Game Commission tweaked the restriction in Western Pennsylvania's four-point zones so that hunters no longer need to count a brow tine. In WMUs 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 2D, a buck with three points on the main beam is legal to shoot. McDaniel likes the eased requirement.
"I was against the four-point rule, especially, because of the focus on the brow tine," he said. "With the type of hunting we do in Pennsylvania, you may only see a deer for a few seconds and the need to count a brow tine made it a lot more difficult."
From a biological standpoint, Rosenberry sees the change as acceptable.
"Given the data we had, we didn't anticipate the 'three-up' rule would have a big effect on what antler restrictions are meant to accomplish," Rosenberry said. "The main points I want to get across are that hunters, by and large, support antler restrictions. Success rates before and after [antler restrictions] are comparable and hunters are harvesting more adult bucks."