Every once in a while you hear of a deer hunting idea that makes you stop and pause. The one that jumps out at me happened back in 2004 when a Texas rancher proposed a new “business” whereby a hunter could go to this rancher’s website and actually shoot a deer. Yes, you read that right. He had a remote-controlled gun with a webcam mounted on it that allowed the visitor to the website to actually shoot. Pay your money and shoot a deer, via the Internet. Hunters responded as negatively as everyone else, and the Texas Wildlife and Parks Department quickly passed a regulation that shut this down before it got started.
Then there was this 2012 deal, another misguided idea that had the support of many hunters. A group called the Big Buck Project in Alabama came up with the idea of buying huge-antlered bucks from game farms and releasing them in the wild. You can see where this is going. The theory was simple: Hunters would improve the genetics for big antlers in an area by releasing big animals that would mate does, and eventually that region would then have bigger-antlered bucks. On the surface it sounds plausible, but as a wildlife biologist, I didn’t have to pause very long to realize that not only was this a bad idea from a disease perspective, but from an antler perspective, it would never work.
However, 35,000 hunters got on the Big Buck Project website to cast votes on which of 10 zones in one Alabama county they would like the big farmed bucks released. First question was, could such releases be legally done? The answer was, at that time, “yes.” Beyond that, even though thousands of hunters signed off on the idea, lots of other hunters did not. Conservation groups and wildlife professionals voiced concerns as well, and within a short period of time, a regulation was passed preventing such releases of game-farmed bucks into the wild. This led to many other states passing similar restrictions, so that such releases could never take place.
In February I attended the 37th annual Southeast Deer Study Group meeting in Athens, Ga. This is a gathering of the top whitetail researchers in the world and a great event because one gets to hear the latest in deer research. This year’s conference was excellent (as it always is), and one of the papers was presented by Dr. Steve Demarais and some of his cohorts from Mississippi State University. When it comes to deer research, Dr. Demarais is no lightweight. His reputation for research is right at the top, and he presented a computer modeling paper simulating what would happen to antlers in an area if you released game-farmed bucks into the wild.
When you “model” deer populations, you have to make some assumptions. One they made was that there was 10 percent buck dispersal every year. We know that a much higher percentage of yearling bucks disperse, but Demarais used this lower figure, just to be very conservative. Then he modeled the release of Boone and Crockett bucks with 200 inches of antler at five population intensities relative to the total population in the wild (1, 5, 10, 25, and 50 percent replacement of the existing native population). Of course you probably can’t financially afford to buy enough game-farm big bucks to equal 1 percent of the bucks in the wild, much less 10 percent or 25 percent, or 50 percent, but just to show what might happen, that was what they modeled.
Remember, these bucks were not released into a large pen. The model was to release them in the wild. If you release big bucks into a fenced area, the results would be different. You can improve antler size of bucks with this approach in fenced areas. It’s expensive, but it can be done. But will it work in the wild?
The model simulated the removal of deer every year (simulating hunting and natural mortality) to keep the population in the area at 2,000 bucks. Finally, the researchers looked at antler changes in the wild bucks 10 years after the initial release. If you expected to find that releasing a number of huge bucks in an area would lead to large improvements on resident wild bucks 10 years later, you are going to be disappointed.
If you bought one hundred 200-inch Boone-and-Crockett bucks and released them in an area to replace 5 percent of the free-ranging population, 10 years later the antler size in that area would increase by 0.8 inches per buck. Are you kidding me? If you replaced 25 percent of free-ranging bucks with 500 pen-raised bucks, you would improve the Boone and Crockett score by 12 inches. One obvious factor here would be the cost to produce those 12 inches gained after 10 years.
The cost to produce a one-inch increase in score was $115,000. So, to get that 12-inch increase after 10 years, the cost would be at least $1.38 million. Thus, releasing monster bucks in an area to get a buck that would score 150 inches up to 162 inches would cost you a measly $1.4 million. And that means it would be impossible. Even if you could do it once, you would have to continue such releases and do intensive management, just to keep antler sizes at those higher levels. Again, that would not be possible.
Bottom line is that there is a limit to what you can do relative to numbers of big bucks out there. Huge-antlered bucks in very large numbers do not occur naturally, and you can’t change that. You can manage, and cull, and improve habitat, and get good bucks in your hunting area, but you cannot release penned deer into the wild on open land and expect big results. Penned areas? That’s a different story. But in the wild? No.
The Mating Process
Let’s switch gears here and look at another deer study presented at this conference. I’ve been at this deer thing for five decades, and during that time my idea of the mating process has evolved. I once believed, and was taught, that everything revolved around scrapes. A dominant buck controlled the scrape and hot does came there and urinated, sending out odiferous signals to that big buck. My thoughts were that mating was all about male dominance. The biggest, baddest bucks challenged others and thus controlled the scrapes and controlled the does.
Attending the annual Deer Study Group Meeting mentioned above has allowed me to modify my thoughts on mate selection in whitetails over time. It’s an evolving learning situation based on research. Several years ago I learned about buck excursions, where mature bucks leave their home range before, during and after the rut, and go as far as five miles only to return one to three days later. A year later I learned that those bucks were probably finding hot does on those excursions. A year after that, I learned that those bucks were going to the same woodlots on those excursions, year after year, during the rut. The suggestion was that they were going there to find hot does.
What wasn’t clear to me then, and still isn’t clear to me, was the fact that bucks were leaving their home ranges where there were plenty of does and going to woodlots far away to find hot does. Still further, bucks from all over were doing the same thing, and also going to those same woodlots to find hot does. Then last year I learned that does were also leaving their home ranges during the rut and going to a woodlot far away. Again, why would a doe go as far as five miles out of her home range to find bucks that are plentiful in her home range?
An even more interesting question was, is it the bucks that seek hot does, or is it the does that select the bucks? At this year’s conference I learned more. Some researchers at Auburn looked at deer breeding in a very large enclosure over a six-year period. Using DNA they could assign parentage to known-age offspring. The theory they examined was that females breed males of similar age and quality (size). It turns out that same-aged bucks do not necessarily mate same-aged does. Also, size of the bucks or does did not matter, as there was no such relationship. Bottom line was that male-female pairings are not related to age or body size. At least not in this study.
One alternative explanation to breeding strategy is that pairings are actually random events and are a function of what males are available when a particular doe comes into heat. However, matings cannot be totally random, because via DNA studies we now know that 3½-year-old bucks mate more does than any other buck age class. If age and size of bucks and does that mate aren’t good predictors, then behavior, dominance, hormone levels, etc. probably play a role — but what about females selecting the bucks? There is some literature that suggests that this happens with red deer in Europe, so who knows?
What I do know is that more and more answers keep coming at every deer study group meeting, and that’s enough to draw me back. I know that conference attracts bright people doing great research. I love learning “stuff” that helps improve my experience in the field every fall.