By Shawn Perich
Presiding over my office is a set of antlers from a whitetail buck my father killed north of Two Harbors in 1963. Exceptionally wide and symmetrical, the 10-point rack has set a high bar for me. I’ve killed a few nice bucks over the years, but none have carried a better set of antlers than Dad’s. Maybe the bucks were bigger 50 years ago.
Newly published research in the Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Monographs shows the size of trophy big game animals throughout North America has decreased during the 100-plus years the Boone and Crockett Club has kept records. A detailed analysis of over 22,000 record book entries found declines in most species. The researchers believe trophies are somewhat smaller than they used to be due to decades of hunting pressure focused on male animals.
Kevin Monteith, a postdoctoral research scientist for the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Wyoming, conducted the research, along with colleagues from Idaho State University, the University of Montana and the state wildlife agencies in California and Arizona. The researchers, all hunters, analyzed Boone and Crockett entries for North American horned and antlered game species from 1900 to 2008. They found most species popular with hunters, including white-tailed and mule deer, showed long-term declines in horn and antler sizes ranging from about one percent to over three percent.
Some exceptions were lightly hunted species such as bison and bighorn sheep. Pronghorn, though heavily hunted, often grow their largest horns at relatively young ages and did not show a decline. Rocky Mountain goats, which have horns that are difficult to judge in the field, remained steady. Muskox, which greatly expanded their Arctic range, had increased horn sizes.
Careful, further analysis ruled out other possible causes for the declines in trophy sizes, including habitat loss and climate change. Although substantially more hunters began entering trophies for record book recognition beginning in the 1950s and 60s, the sizes of the top one-third of entries still showed declines. The researchers found only limited support for a hypothesis that killing the largest trophy animals over time has depleted the gene pool.
Big game animals must live to an old age in order to grow their largest horns or antlers. The researchers believe today’s hunters are killing younger trophy animals, which may have grown bigger headgear had they lived another year or two. Across North America, the demand from hunters for trophy animals somewhat exceeds the available supply.
Whether the declining size of trophy animals predicates a change in management strategies is uncertain, say the researchers. They suggest the declines may be inconsequential compared to the hunting opportunities big game species provide. The dramatic increase in entries occurring since the 1950s also attests to the success of modern wildlife management.
In 1900, the starting point for this research analysis, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which brought an end to commercial market hunting. Big game population levels were at a low point, decimated by market hunting, habitat loss and the transformation of the landscape brought about by settlement and industrialization. Within that context, it is a wonder we have any hunting today, much less trophy hunting. The 20th Century was truly the century of wildlife in North America, as scientific management, coupled with land and water conservation, restored big game populations and allowed them to thrive. Regulated, public hunting was the cornerstone of this process, providing management funding through license fees and a core constituency to support wildlife programs.
The restoration of horned and antlered big game was often accomplished by protecting the females of the species so they could produce more offspring and increase the population. Harvesting males has less overall effect on the population, because they may mate with more than one female. For decades, bucks-only harvest regulations were common. Even today, when regulations often encourage the harvest of non-antlered females, many hunters prefer to kill bucks.
Across North America, big game populations are thriving and big game hunters are more numerous than they’ve ever been. Arguably, the last 20 years have been the best of times for big game hunters, which has led to a surging interest—some would call it an obsession—in trophy hunting. Many hunters now demand wildlife managers manipulate big game harvests to produce more trophy-sized males.
A Minnesota example of trophy management is the antler point restriction enacted in the Southeast, which is up for evaluation and possible reauthorization by the State Legislature this year. During the past three hunting seasons, hunters could only harvest bucks with at least four points on one antler. The restriction is intended to allow bucks to reach maturity before being legal to harvest and thus create a population with more large-antlered bucks. Although it hasn’t been universally popular with hunters in the Southeast, many believe it has been effective at increasing the number of bigger bucks in a heavily hunted population.
Monteith’s research indicates that while an antler point restriction may create more nice bucks, it won’t necessarily result in more truly trophy deer. Heavy hunting pressure remains a reality. Most hunters who see a legal buck are likely to shoot it, even though the buck might grow even larger antlers if it was allowed to live longer. If that is so, hunting regulations alone aren’t likely to produce true trophies in public hunting areas.
If hunters want to see and perhaps harvest outstanding record book trophies, they’ll have to show restraint far beyond what is required in hunting regulations. For instance, Minnesota muskie anglers have lobbied for a high minimum size—now 48 inches on most lakes—and a limit of one to ensure more fish reach trophy sizes. Many anglers choose to catch, photograph and release legal muskies, including fish so large they may challenge the state record, because they believe the continuation of high quality fishing is more important than hanging trophy fish on the wall. Maybe it’s time for hunters to adopt a similar ethic of restraint.
You can’t shoot a trophy animal and then let it go. But you can make the decision not to squeeze the trigger in the first place. While I’m not suggesting the average Joe pass up the opportunity of a lifetime to shoot a nice buck, Monteith’s research seems to suggest the obsessive trophy hunters may be their own worst enemies. Perhaps if they killed fewer trophies, all hunters would have a little better chance to kill a truly outstanding animal.
After all, as Dad used to say, “You can’t eat antlers.”