The afternoon sun was just seconds away from dropping behind the magnificent Catskill Mountains in southern New York when Bernie Antal spotted movement in a heavy clump of mountain laurel. Even in the rapidly fading light, he could see antlers on one of the deer. From its actions, Bernie determined he was looking at a buck tending a doe. With legal shooting time coming to a close, he reluctantly watched as the deer slowly moved deeper into the stand of mountain laurel. There was no doubt in his mind that he’d be back there before the next morning’s first light!
It was Nov. 20, 2007. Bernie was hunting in Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 3H, one of four such units that make up the Pilot Antler Restriction Program in the Southern Catskills. The experimental program is the result of a small number of ardent deer hunters coming up with a cohesive proposal and presenting it to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for their approval and implementation. After gaining overwhelming support from the local deer hunting community, the program began in WMUs 3C and 3J in 2005. The next year it was expanded to include units 3H and 3K.
PROTECTING THOSE YEARLINGS
The program was designed to last for three hunting seasons in each unit, and DEC biologists were to monitor the deer take within the units to obtain valuable biological data. The program requires that bucks taken within the designated units have at least one antler with 3 points or more that are at least 1 inch long. The rationale behind this is simple. Since most yearling bucks in the Catskills are either spikes or forkies, adherence to the program would allow bucks to reach 2 1/2 years of age before being taken. An exception to this regulation is that hunters under 17 years of age may take any buck that has at least one antler that is 3 inches in length or longer.
So what’s been going on in these WMUs? In terms of protecting yearling bucks, the program has been an overwhelming success. Prior to 2005 in WMU 3C, yearling bucks constituted 58 percent of the buck take. They now represent only 23 percent. The harvest of 2 1/2-year-olds has increased from a historical average of 31 percent to 42 percent.
What’s even more interesting is the fact that the take of 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks has gone from 11 percent to a whopping 35 percent. This means that over one-third of the bucks being harvested in these study areas are 3 1/2 years old or older. That’s unprecedented in New York. The data is very much the same in the other WMUs, with the exception being that slightly fewer older bucks were taken in units 3H and 3J.
THE PROGRAM WORKS!
Looking at the data from a statewide perspective, we see that yearlings still amount to 64 percent of the total take, 2 1/2-year-olds account for 25 percent, and bucks that are 3 1/2 years old or older account for a mere 12 percent. It’s obvious that the antler restriction program is working!
One of the ways the DEC measures the buck population is by the number of bucks taken per square mile. Prior to the start of the program, the average number of bucks taken per square mile within the study units was 2.5. Following the 2007 season, the number dropped to 1.8 bucks per square mile. This was a decrease for sure, but not nearly as significant as one would expect when you consider that, historically, over 70 percent of the bucks in the woods were yearlings when the hunting season opened.