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Antler restrictions find their mark

Bob Hildenbrand likes things to be simple.

He lives in Madison, a borough with one blinking traffic light. He avoids the politics of any organization he joins. And he hunts with a long bow, considered primitive even by archery standards.

Given all that, you might think asking him to count antler points before shooting a buck — something he hadn’t had to do in 28 years of hunting Pennsylvania’s white-tailed deer before last fall — might have been upsetting.

It wasn’t then and isn’t now, he said.

“I’m not one for change, myself,” said Hildenbrand, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Traditional Hunting Archers. “But if it’s biologically sound and good for the herd, so be it. And if it results in bigger bucks, so be that, too.”

Hildenbrand apparently is not alone in his thinking. One year after antler restrictions were the most hotly debated topic in Pennsylvania’s hunting community, most hunters seem to have adapted to the new regulation.

“I’ve heard not a peep on antler restrictions either way,” said Bob Gilford, a member of the Pennsylvania Game Commission board, which establishes the state’s hunting regulations. “Hunters are taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

That’s quite a change from one year ago.

For decades prior to the 2002 hunting season, antlered deer became legal game as soon as they sported a rack that had two points on one side, or a spike at least 3 inches long. The problem, according to Dr. Gary Alt, head of the Game Commission’s deer management section, was that the regulation promoted the overharvest of bucks.

Hunters were shooting about 90 percent of the state’s male deer every year, and 85 out of every 100 taken were yearlings.

“We shot bucks into oblivion,” Alt said. “If you saw one with a spike that was 3 1/4 inches long, you flattened it before someone else did.”

In January, Alt suggested limiting hunters to shooting deer with at least three points per side in most of the state, and with four points to a side in 10 counties with better habitat.

The goal, he said, was not to produce “trophy” bucks. Instead, he said antler restrictions — in conjunction with increased antlerless deer harvests — would balance the number of bucks and does, and establish a more natural breeding ecology.

The commission board approved antler restrictions, but only by a 4-3 margin, and only after each commissioner went into great detail explaining his vote.

Contrast that to what happened in April. In voting on seasons and bag limits for 2003-04, commissioners not only didn’t argue about antler restrictions, they expanded them without a word of dissent.

In 2003-04, the standard will be a buck with three points to a side in all areas except wildlife management units 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B, and 2D. Those units — which cover all the counties on the western edge of the state, from Erie to Greene — are considered the state’s best deer habitat.

Places that previously were considered “special regulations” areas — like Allegheny County √≥are no longer exempt from antler restrictions.

Commissioners changed the definition of a point, too. Last year, hunters could count a brow tine — the antler point closest to the skull — as a point, regardless of its length. This year, brow tines must be at least an inch long to count.

“There’s no doubt, in my mind, that in the long term this is going to lead to more eight-points in the herd than we’ve ever had,” Alt said. “Most hunters have never killed a buck that’s 3 years old. If we can push the envelope, we can have bucks that are bigger than most people have shot in their life.”

Hunters should start to see bigger bucks this year, although not in the numbers Alt had hoped, thanks to a “killer combination” of factors.

First, an abundance of wild foods in fall 2001, followed by a mild winter, allowed a lot of deer to grow just big enough to meet the minimum antler standards last year.

Second, perfect hunting conditions during most of the 2002 deer seasons made it easier for hunters to find deer. They killed 165,416 bucks, down from 203,247 the year before, but still about 35,000 or so more than desired, said Marrett Grund, a biologist in the commission’s deer management section.

Finally, the harsh winter of 2002-03 probably decreased buck survival in areas of marginal habitat.

Add those things together and this year’s class of bucks will be less impressive than it might have been, Alt said. Still, the short- and long-range outlooks are pretty good.

“If hunters like this fall, they’re going to love next fall,” Alt said. “We were dealt a very bad deck of cards, and that’s bad for the fall of 2003. But it’s very good for the fall of 2004. We’re kind of stockpiling bucks for 2004.”

Hunters can wait, said Mike Foust, of Johnstown, president of the United Bowhunters of Pennsylvania. Most realize that it’s going to take several years for antler restrictions to prove their worth, he said.

He suspects, too, that hunters realize the real goal is ensuring the health of the state’s deer and forests.

“If we take care of all those other issues, we’ll have plenty of deer to hunt,” Foust said. “Let the numbers fall out where they will, and we’ll make do with whatever deer are available to hunt.”

The members of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs supported antler restrictions last year and are eager to see what they produce, said Ray Martin, chairman of the club’s game/trapping committee.

“A lot of people are anxious to get out and see what kinds of bucks are out there,” Martin said.

The Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania was the biggest critic of antler restrictions a year ago, and it remains unconvinced they will work.

Ralph Saggiomo, president of the group, said his members worry antler restrictions will force hunters to shoot the best bucks, leaving the less desirable animals to do most of the breeding.

“I’m 5-foot-7 1/2. I’m never going to play in the NBA. Neither are my children. I didn’t pass on the genes,” he said. “The same thing goes with wildlife. You’ve got to have the genes.”

Alt admits genetic background is important to growing healthy deer, and he is asking hunters to pass on bucks that boast small racks, even if they meet the minimum point standard, because they may be good, young deer.

But he said good habitat and the chance to live longer than 18 months are just as critical to developing a strong herd. Pennsylvania’s bucks didn’t have either of those things before antler restrictions, he said.

Only time will tell what impact antler restrictions have, said Ralph Muir, a hunter from Pennsview, in Indiana County. But he’s willing to giving them a try, especially if that’s what Alt — who is renowned internationally for his study of black bears — recommends.

“I’ve already seen more bucks this year than I’ve seen in years, and I’ve seen bigger ones, too. Trophy bucks,” Muir said.

“Alt did a lot for bears, so I’m willing to see what he can do for deer.”

Article by Bob Frye,
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