Few wildlife conservation-related topics elicit the degree of passionate disagreement and debate as the merits of mandatory antler point restrictions.
Some supporters extol the virtues of antler point restrictions as if they were a magic bullet curing many longstanding problems in the management of Michigan’s whitetail deer population.
Some detractors say they are a pie-in-the-sky idea imposed on hunters to increase rack sizes at all costs, including the overall health of the herd.
The reality? Antler point restrictions have been around for several years and there is dependable data regarding how they affect the population — at least in the short term.
There is also a lot of research that has yet to be done to determine the impact they could have on other issues critical to the health of Michigan’s deer.
Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine talked with advocates on both sides of the issue, as well as the DNR, to find out the current status of this controversial topic.
Antler point restrictions exist in many Michigan counties in a variety of forms — from hybrid programs that limit harvestable deer depending on the type of tag one purchases, to totally mandatory programs that do not allow the majority of hunters to take deer with less than three or four points on one side.
Such is the setup in the aptly-named “Northwest 12,” where mandatory antler point restrictions were implemented in 2013, and then made permanent in 2017.
The counties that comprise the Northwest 12 are Mason, Lake, Osceola, Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Antrim, Charlevoix and Emmet. Leelanau County, which is in the same area as the Northwest 12, had implemented a similar antler point restriction program some time previously.
In order for antler point restrictions to be implemented on a trial basis, more than 66 percent of hunters surveyed in the Northwest 12 counties had to support them, and in 2013, 68 percent said they did.
Four years later, that support grew from 68 to 76 percent, and the Natural Resources Commission approved making antler point restrictions permanent.
What critics say about APRs
Bruce Levey, 64, has fond memories of his father — a dedicated hunter who only shot a handful of bucks in his entire life.
In his final years, Levey said it would have been heartbreaking for his father to have to pass up on a nice, six-point buck because some law dictated it wasn’t mature enough to be harvested.
“It should be up to the individual what’s a trophy, not somebody else,” Levey said. “We need to keep the fun in hunting.”
At his home in Clinton County, no antler point restrictions exist, although Levey said if he sees a year-and-a-half old buck with a doe, he will voluntarily shoot the doe and leave the male for another hunt.
“I don’t mind neighbors getting together and voluntarily deciding not to (shoot younger bucks),” Levey said. “But I’m not in favor of it being mandatory for everyone.”
Levey added that some areas of the state don’t have the type of soil that is high enough quality to support the growth of big racks.
“APR by itself is not a good way to establish quality, big bucks,” Levey said.
Tuscola County resident Jerry Keck, 84, also added that he believes antler point restrictions primarily benefit those with food plots, while the majority of hunters don’t have the luxury to pass up on the opportunity to take a buck if they see one.
“Most people just don’t hunt that way,” Keck said. “APR people say they’re all about herd health to camouflage their antler obsession. They think there will be a dumb, big-rack buck behind every bush. It’s just a pipe dream. They’re doing this for themselves at the expense of everyone else. I think it is very wrong to impose what you want on other people.”
Critics of antler point restrictions also say they have led to deer overpopulation, increases in deer/vehicle collisions and destruction of crops.
What supporters say about APRs
A group that is spearheading the implementation of antler point restrictions throughout the country is the Quality Deer Management Association.
QDMA Director of Conservation Kip Adams said the goal of antler point restrictions is to protect at least 50 percent of 1.5-year-old bucks.
He said protecting this age group leads to larger numbers of older bucks and a more “natural age structure” for the entire herd.
“This makes for a healthier herd,” Adams said.
Adams said in the Northwest 12, the percentage of yearling bucks harvested dropped significantly since antler point restrictions were implemented, while the overall harvest numbers have remained steady, as well as hunter success rates.
During the first few years of mandatory antler point restrictions, Adams said the antlerless harvest also spiked considerably as a result of hunters having to pass up on younger bucks and instead taking does (more on this later).
Adams said antler point restrictions might also be helping to retain hunter numbers, as participation has remained relatively stable in the Northwest 12; in other parts of the state, it has dropped over the last several years (more on this later, as well).
While voluntary antler point restriction programs are very effective in certain areas where hunter density isn’t very high, Adams said in areas such as the Northwest 12, the sheer volume of hunters would make compliance much more difficult.
What the DNR says about APRs
Officially, the DNR’s stance on antler point restrictions is that they support voluntary compliance but also recognize there is a process to make it mandatory, said Deer, Elk and Moose Program Specialist Chad Stewart.
While debate about the merits of the policy are ongoing, Stewart said there is no doubt that antler point restrictions have been very effective in increasing the average age structure of male deer.
Previous to 2013, around 60 percent of all bucks taken in the Northwest 12 were yearlings.
Every year since 2013, the yearling harvest has remained under 30 percent, while most of Northern Lower Michigan has had a yearling harvest between 44 and 57 percent.
Stewart said the yearling buck harvest has been declining for several years even in areas where there aren’t antler point restrictions in effect.
“There is a cultural shift happening,” Stewart said. “It’s just not as dramatic as in the (Northwest 12).”
Antler point restrictions notwithstanding, overall hunter participation has been on the decline for some time throughout Michigan as a result of younger people not being as active as the generations that preceded them, Stewart said.
While it’s too early to say if antler point restrictions have improved hunter participation numbers compared to other areas where it is rapidly declining, Stewart said it’s safe to say they haven’t exasperated the problem.
In the Northern Lower Peninsula, hunter participation has dropped between 6 and 8 percent, while in the Northwest 12, it has dropped by around 4 percent.
As for claims that antler point restrictions have led to less antlerless deer being harvested, Stewart said the Northwest 12 actually has a slightly more balanced doe to buck harvest ratio than other parts of Northern Lower Michigan.
The problem with less does being taken than bucks is that it can lead to overpopulation, which can cause a host of other problems, Stewart said.
While there may be some parts of Michigan where the management strategy is to grow the herd, Stewart said in most of Northern Lower Michigan, their goal is to lower the population by increasing doe harvests.
In the Northwest 12, the ratio of does to bucks harvested is 0.92 to 1.
This is higher than the rest of Northern Lower Peninsula, which has a ratio of 0.73 to 1, excluding the counties of Presque Isle, Montmorency, Oscoda, Iosco, Alpena and Alcona, where the ratio is 0.87 to 1 as a result of those areas having a hybrid antler point restriction program in effect up until recently.
“We’re still seeing more bucks killed than does, but (the Northwest 12) is the closest to where we want to be,” Stewart said.
The argument regarding soil quality and rack size is interesting, Stewart said, because it’s true that without surplus nutrients, a buck isn’t able to devote adequate resources to grow big antlers.
In the areas where antler point restrictions are in effect, however, Stewart said they have taken historical rack size averages into consideration to ensure the habitat is able to support them.
Other claims that antler point restrictions contribute to crop damage and greater numbers of deer/vehicle collisions haven’t been quantified by statistical research, Stewart said.
APR impact on chronic wasting disease
The big question that still lingers regarding antler point restrictions is how they could potentially affect the spread of chronic wasting disease.
Some antler point restriction critics have pointed out that by increasing the average age of bucks in the herd, this could increase the likelihood of spreading CWD, which has been found to be more prevalent in older deer.
Kip Adams, with QDMA, said antler point restrictions only protect the youngest bucks, not the ones that have a higher potential for getting CWD.
“There are some that will make it to that age but certainly not the majority,” Adams said.
Stewart, with the DNR, said there isn’t definitive data available yet on the impact that antler point restrictions could have on the spread of CWD.
“There is concern associated with aging of bucks and the spread of (CWD),” Stewart said. “But we don’t have that info yet so we don’t know what potential outcomes we are dealing with.”
Stewart said there are plans in the works to research possible correlations between CWD and antler point restrictions in areas where the disease has been detected in Michigan.
The future of antler point restrictions
Amy Trotter, deputy director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said the interplay between antler point restrictions and CWD has been a primary concern of her organization.
“We just don’t know enough yet,” Trotter said. “The question really isn’t settled.”
There is some data available from counties in other states that kept antler point restrictions in areas where CWD was detected but comparing this information to Michigan would be like comparing apples to oranges, Trotter said.
Since there are questions that haven’t been answered quite yet, Trotter said MUCC is reluctant to take a position on antler point restrictions one way or the other.
If MUCC stakeholders would like the organization to take a policy position on the issue, however, Trotter said they are always willing to have that conversation.
If any members have questions about how to develop a resolution on antler point restrictions for discussion, contact Trotter at email@example.com.
A group in the Thumb area of Michigan has proposed implementing mandatory antler point restrictions in Tuscola, Huron, Sanilac, Lapeer and St. Clair counties.
In December, the DNR will mail out formal surveys to hunters in the region to gauge their support of the idea.
Results should be back by springtime, at which time antler point restrictions could be implemented on a trial basis, similar to what occurred in the Northwest 12, or the idea could be dismissed.