OUTDOORS FEATURE: Deer management through culling: Feasible or not?

Many hunters managing a property for quality bucks encourage culling deer based on perceived “genetic abnormalities.”

Many hunters managing a property for quality bucks encourage culling deer based on perceived “genetic abnormalities.”

The deer-hunting public’s interest in deer management increases each year, as evidenced by countless print articles and video productions that discuss management-related topics. Ongoing needs for increased doe kill, protection of young bucks, and improved deer habitat are extensively detailed.

Many deer hunters have grasped these concepts and implemented them on their hunting properties. They have improved the habitat on their leases or landholdings as well as the quality of their deer herds.

Their herds are in balance with the habitat, the buck-age structure is much improved, and the adult buck-to-doe ratio is well balanced. Many groups are completely satisfied with their progress, but some hunting organizations want to go farther.

One of the main reasons for dissatisfaction with a deer management program is the size and shape of antlers on the bucks observed and killed each year. Bucks that do not possess what are deemed “normal” antlers are judged inferior by many deer hunters and managers.

In their opinions, any buck that does not meet a specific minimum for antler size must surely be genetically inferior since it is subjected to the same environmental and habitat conditions as bucks with bigger, better-formed antlers.

Removing these deer as “culls” to improve a herd’s antler genetics is the logical next step in many hunters’ and managers’ minds. According to wildlife biologist Chris Cook, there are two important questions to answer before proceeding with a culling program: “Are the problem antler traits genetically caused?” and “Will culling correct the problem?” The answers to both questions are difficult, if not impossible, to answer in most situations.

“Determining the cause of a free-ranging buck’s antler ‘abnormality’ or ‘deficiency’ by looking at the live deer on the hoof is practically impossible,” Cook said. “Deer are subjected every day of their lives to many things that carry a potential impact on antler development.

Injuries, drought, and poor habitat quality all can cause a buck’s antlers to develop abnormally. Many of these factors are completely out of managerial control, even for an expert. For these reasons, most bucks, especially those 2 ½ years old and younger, should as a rule be given the benefit of the doubt when having the quality of their antlers judged.”

Most experts believe injuries to a buck’s body or its growing antlers are usually the main culprits in antler abnormality, not poor genetics.

Some body injuries typically cause antler abnormalities during the year immediately following the injury. Given time, the buck will heal and usually will grow a more typical set of antlers in subsequent years.

The same applies to injuries to the antlers themselves, which normally return to their usual conformation in years following.

“Some types of injuries, such as those affecting the antler pedicle, can cause malformed antlers every year following the injury,” Cook added, “but this is pretty rare. And even in these cases, there is nothing genetically ‘wrong’ with the buck.”

Another argument against culling bucks is a lack of understanding about white-tailed deer genetics. By and large, the genetics of deer, including those determining antler production, are poorly understood.

“What some people don’t understand is that the dam (doe) provides as much or more genetic influence for antler development as does the sire,” Cook explained. “If it is possible to impact a deer herd’s antler genetics by removing specific deer, one would also have to identify and remove the doe that produced the cull buck in question.

Additionally, one would have to believe that it is possible to quickly change thousands of years of genetic development with a rifle or a bow. It simply doesn’t work that way.”

According to Cook, most culling “experts” tend to target bucks with unbalanced or abnormally shaped antlers rather than bucks with antlers that are smaller and well formed. These bucks are habitually labeled as “genetically inferior” or “limited potential” bucks, although their supposed antler abnormalities may have absolutely nothing to do with genetics. On the other hand, most well formed but smaller-antlered bucks are judged to be young, but with good potential.

“Unfortunately, this is completely wrong in many instances,” said Cook. “Some of the ‘genetically inferior’ or ‘limited potential’ bucks are simply young and need time to overcome injuries or a slow start in life.

Conversely, many of the well-formed, smaller-antlered bucks judged to be young are actually average 3 ½ years old or older and have grown their best antlers. Thus, deer that may actually have a genetic abnormality may not be culled.”

The causes of abnormal antler development in white-tailed deer are numerous and difficult to understand. Unfortunately, nearly none of the contributing factors can be identified simply by observing free-ranging bucks in the field.

This, however, does not deter many deer hunters and managers from making misguided or misunderstood management decisions in the name of “culling.”

“In nearly all situations,” Cook concluded, “the effort expended on trying to improve the genetics of a deer herd would be much better spent on practices that can return tangible results, such as continuing to concentrate on habitat improvement and shooting more antlerless deer each season.”

Give it some thought before entering implementing a buck-culling program on your hunting property. You might just be defeating your purpose.