Longer lives mean more trophy bucks
More than 30 years ago, when the North Dakota Game and Fish Department began managing deer in smaller units and issuing a specific number of buck or doe licenses -- for example, 38,000 total licenses in 1980 -- some want-to-be potential deer hunters actually had to stay home.
Fortunately, that is not the case today. With more than 140,000 licenses available the past few years, just about everyone who wants to hunt deer with a rifle can do so close to home, and often with more than one license in hand if they choose.
While the number of licenses and season structure has changed, hunters really haven't. Most hunters still prefer a buck license over a doe license, but will take a doe license if it means they otherwise wouldn't be able to hunt.
In addition, most hunters with buck licenses would prefer to tag a large-antlered deer as opposed to one with small antlers, but will take a small one rather than risk not filling a tag for the season.
We have reached such an era of plenty with our deer population that some hunters are now no longer satisfied with simply an opportunity to hunt deer. They feel that the harvest of a large-antlered or trophy buck is the only desirable outcome, and that state wildlife agencies should implement some type of management scheme that attempts to produce more big bucks than were previously part of a deer population.
There is only one way for a buck, either whitetail or mule deer, to develop large antlers or even reach trophy size, and that is for it to live long enough. Having more bucks live longer means not shooting as many when they are young.
Reducing harvest of young deer can be accomplished in several ways, but the two that are promoted most often are antler restrictions such as points on a side or minimum inside spread, or significantly reducing the number of buck licenses, allowing more bucks to survive to an older age because fewer would be harvested in all age classes.
Some state wildlife agencies have tried regulations designed to allow more bucks to mature, with varying degrees of success.
Several western states have tried antler restriction zones. However, determining antler points is not always so easy, especially during rifle seasons when shots are taken at long distances or at running deer and antler points or spread is not easily determined.
California, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Montana at one time all tried and dropped antler point restrictions in the last couple of decades because studies revealed that illegal kill was from 40 to 100 percent of the legal kill. In other words, for every 100 legal bucks taken, another 40 to 100 were killed and abandoned because they didn't meet the minimum standards.
Some western states still have some type of trophy or quality management zones, but the preferred method is limiting the number of buck licenses, without antler restrictions. This gives hunters the choice of taking the first "forkie" that comes along, or waiting for a chance at a more mature deer.
North Dakota Game and Fish biologists have evaluated many of these programs over the years, and determined that our current system of limited licenses in smaller units is working well. The state's deer population is balanced and individual harvest success rates are high.
To further improve the odds of seeing more mature bucks in North Dakota, Game and Fish would have to reduce the number of buck licenses from its current level. In coffee cup conversations, take your three card partners and get their response after telling them their odds for drawing a buck tag were just slashed in half. Then share with me how many would prefer half as many buck licenses over the remainder of their hunting days, compared to the current system which actually focuses on providing the opportunity to hunt.