Frequently Asked Questions
Why is TPWD using an outside spread instead of other antler characteristics such as points or inside spread?
Using antler points (i.e., 4-points on one antler) as a restriction has been unsuccessful in significantly improving buck age structure because there is a poor relationship between age and number of points, and many young mule deer bucks would meet a restriction based on minimum number of points. Data collected from mule deer and white-tailed deer indicate that the average antler spread increases as bucks mature. In addition, the current white-tailed deer antler restriction that exists within 117 counties has proven to be highly successful in creating a more balanced age structure and shifting harvest to older aged bucks. Unlike the white-tailed deer antler restriction, which has an inside spread measurement criterion, the experimental mule deer antler restriction will use an outside spread measurement. The logic behind using the outside spread is that this average measurement in mature bucks is very close to the distance between ear tips when a buck is standing in the alert position (average inside spread is several inches less than the distance between ear tips) and is the easiest guide to allow accurate field judging by hunters. More importantly, data collected by TPWD shows that using the main beam outside spread should achieve the goal of protecting younger mule deer bucks.
What is the restriction, and how will hunters be able to field judge bucks that are legal for harvest?
To protect young bucks, TPWD has set the minimum legal outside spread of the main beams at 20 inches based upon many years of harvest data. In other words, any buck having main beams with an outside spread smaller than 20 inches is NOT legal to harvest. Additionally, any buck with at least one unbranched antler (e.g., spike) is NOT legal to harvest, unless the outside spread of the main beams is 20 inches or more in width. Based upon data collected by TPWD, the average ear-tip to ear-tip spread of 2 ½ to 8 ½+ year old mule deer bucks with ears in the alert position is about 21 inches. This information on ear-tip to ear-tip measurement can be a useful guide to mule deer hunters attempting to field-judge mule deer bucks with at least a 20-inch main beam outside spread.
On our place we see 1 small buck for every 10 to 30 does. Why doesn’t TPWD open a doe season to close the gap in the sex ratio?
The primary reason for a sex ratio heavily tilted toward does is excessive buck harvest. The purpose of doe harvest as a management tool is not to fix skewed sex ratios; but rather, to limit population growth. This keeps the deer numbers at a level that ensures the best native forages are not over-consumed and allows those forages the opportunity to grow healthy and reproduce. This is often referred to as keeping the population at or below “carrying capacity”, and it results in having an adequate amount of deer forage throughout the year. In most of the area with the experimental antler restriction, we do not see significant over-consumption on native quality forages by mule deer. Therefore, if no overuse of deer food exists, then there is no biological justification to reduce deer numbers through intensive mule deer doe harvest. However, where populations are healthy and can support a conservative doe harvest, TPWD does issue antlerless (doe) permits in the experimental antler restriction area and other parts of the Panhandle to provide more hunting opportunity.
Some hunters and managers often worry that sex ratios skewed toward does will reduce fawn production because bucks will not be able to breed all does. Numerous research projects show that this is not true for mule deer. Even at a sex ratio of 10 does per 1 buck there is no significant decrease in mule deer fawn production. However, tighter sex ratios will reduce the length of the breeding season, which in turn will shorten the fawning season. A shortened fawning season produces a pulse of fawns during a short period of time, which tends to improve fawn survival.
The take-home message is this: If the mule deer population is below carrying capacity, and you see a lot more does than bucks, then the solution is to decrease buck mortality — not increase doe mortality.
Will hunters be able to cull inferior-antlered mule deer bucks?
We know that there are 3 major contributors to antler development; age, nutrition, and genetics. A buck tends to produce his largest set of antlers when these 3 ingredients are at optimum levels. We can more readily manage nutrition and age in a free-range setting. Improving the age structure is as simple as passing up on young bucks (1 ½ to 4 ½ years) and allowing many of them to reach mature age classes. This usually can be accomplished voluntarily or occasionally through antler restriction regulations. Nutrition can be maximized by managing animal numbers (deer and livestock) and managing for plant diversity. Managing genetics in a free-range situation is a bit more challenging. Culling inferior-antlered bucks has become popular in recent decades in an attempt to manipulate deer antler genetics. However, multiple, large scale research projects on free-ranging white-tailed deer have all reported no measurable improvement in antler quality as a result of intensive culling. Shooting genetically inferior-antlered bucks does not ensure that all large antlered bucks will breed all does. Even if these large-antlered bucks were successful at breeding all does, a manager cannot guarantee that the does, which contribute half of the genetics toward antler production, also have the genes to produce a large antlered offspring. Furthermore, even if both the buck and doe had the genetic make-up to produce a large antlered offspring, chances are the young buck will disperse miles from its birth place anyway (demonstrated by several studies). In addition, many offspring do not survive to reproduce.
How far do young bucks go when they disperse? Studies in the western U.S. in mountainous habitat indicate young buck dispersal distances can vary from 15 to 70 miles. Dispersal distance can be affected by habitat structure and continuity, food sources, and deer density and demographics. While no comprehensive young buck dispersal data exists yet for mule deer in the Texas Panhandle (current ongoing study), it can be safely assumed that most mule deer bucks do not remain near their place of birth.
Furthermore, after a mule deer buck has established himself in a new area, he maintains a relatively large annual home range. Recent research in the Texas Panhandle using GPS radio-collars indicates that the average annual home range size of adult mule deer bucks is around 15,000 acres.
Will this regulation result in a mule deer population of mostly narrow-antlered bucks?
No. See genetic explanation above. Rather, an overall improvement is expected. Consider these facts:
- mule deer bucks peak in antler growth at 6 ½ to 8 ½ years of age, and
- during 2005 to 2015 hunting seasons in the 6 counties with the experimental antler restriction, 72% of the bucks aged and measured by TPWD biologists were 4 ½ years old or younger.
The fact is, few bucks reach maturity within the experimental antler restriction area regardless of antler spread. The experimental antler restriction is an attempt to increase age structure of the buck segment of the population. A greater proportion of mature mule deer bucks in the population is expected to increase average antler size, including spread.
Will bucks with at least 1 unbranched antler (i.e, spike) be legal?
No. Here are some facts to consider:
- nearly all spike mule deer bucks are 1 ½ years old (yearling),
- on average, over 30% (a much higher percentage during drought) of 1 ½ year old mule deer bucks have at least 1 unbranched antler,
- a buck’s first set of antlers are strongly influenced by environmental factors such as rainfall, his time of birth, and his mother’s maternal ability and milk production,
- the purpose of the antler restriction is to increase the age structure of the buck herd, and
- the targeted harvest of bucks with at least 1 unbranched antler, that are primarily yearling bucks, would be counter-productive.
Could there be mature mule deer bucks that have an outside spread of less than 20 inches?
Yes, there will be some mature mule deer bucks that may not meet the outside spread minimum. These bucks will be given the opportunity to live another year. Keep in mind that age and nutrition have a strong influence on antler development. For example, antler growth during drought is less than antler growth within a “wet” year. TPWD will re-evaluate the antler restriction if data suggest that an adjustment in the minimum outside spread would improve results.
Will properties enrolled in the Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP) Conservation Option be exempt from the experimental antler restriction?
Yes. Properties enrolled in the MLDP Conservation Option receive property-specific harvest recommendations, and landowners/authorized agents agree to a limited number of tags. The number of tags issued by TPWD typically is conservative, which targets only a small percentage of the buck population to maintain an older buck age structure and closer sex ratios.
Antler restrictions may put unwanted hardships on youth or first-time hunters. Will antler restrictions reduce their participation in mule deer hunting?
The last thing TPWD wants to do with the experimental mule deer antler restriction regulation is to discourage youth from hunting, or anyone for that matter. The white-tailed deer antler restriction has proven to have had no negative impacts to youth deer hunting participation within the 117-white-tailed deer antler restriction counties. In fact, many sportsmen express that their hunting enjoyment and opportunity has increased exponentially because of the antler restriction. Common positive feedback from hunters regarding the white-tailed deer antler restriction include seeing more bucks than ever before, being able to observe rutting behavior from older bucks, participating in active management and making a difference, and teaching kids the biological reasoning and need to follow antler restriction regulations. We believe the experimental mule deer antler restriction will have a similar effect.
Will the experimental mule deer antler restriction limit my ability to harvest a mule deer buck?
TPWD acknowledges that not all hunters are pleased with antler restriction regulations or other deer hunting regulations. It is important to understand that TPWD uses hunting regulations to manage wildlife populations throughout the state. These harvest strategies are based on biological data including deer population, deer harvest, and hunter harvest surveys. These data allow our biologists to assess impacts of a regulated harvest strategy on the deer population within a management unit. In counties where the experimental mule deer antler restriction regulation is being implemented, biological data clearly indicate there is very poor age structure in the buck segment of the mule deer population as well as a sex ratio heavily weighted toward does. In addition, poor buck age structure and an unbalanced sex ratio leads to less hunter satisfaction. This experimental regulation is designed to reduce hunting pressure on young bucks and shift the age structure toward older bucks, ultimately allowing for greater harvest of these older age class bucks. The white-tailed deer antler restriction has been shown to be successful in shifting the age structure in the counties with this regulation, while still maintaining similar harvest rates to pre-antler restriction. Therefore, we would like to test this harvest strategy for mule deer.
This antler restriction is going to cause more hunters to leave “illegal” bucks in the pasture to avoid a ticket. Will some hunters shoot first and then check for spread?
TPWD does not know how many hunter-harvested deer may be left in the field. But in the 117-white-tailed deer antler restriction counties, that number has been too small to affect the goals of the antler restriction regulation. You simply cannot have such a shift in age structure if a significant number of bucks are dying (even if hidden) at young ages. If that were occurring, then the regulation could not have met the intended objectives. In fact, the buck population would be even lower than ever, because someone who leaves a harvested deer in the field might go for another (because there’s still an unused buck tag). In addition, TPWD game wardens do an exceptional job at enforcing our game laws. With education and outreach, game warden patrols, as well as with the widespread interest in an experimental mule deer antler restriction within these counties, we think this situation will be a very rare occurrence. However, if you are aware of this sort of activity, you are strongly encouraged to contact your local TPWD game warden to follow up on these incidences.
I am overrun with mule deer on my cropland, the antler restriction will reduce the amount of deer I can harvest. What can I do about it?
There is no easy solution to this problem, deer can travel long distances to use cropland when quality, native forage/vegetation is unavailable to them during winter months or dry periods. Many agricultural crops, especially irrigated ones, provide nutritious forage that deer cannot ignore. Other than building a high fence, there is no way to eliminate deer use of crop fields. There has been some success using a staggered 4-wire electric fence, with wires at different heights and distances to exclude most deer. For more information, see Texas A&M Agrilife Today webpage — Four-wire Electric Fence System Best Control of Deer Access to Food Plots.
Since 2010, TPWD has been issuing antlerless mule deer permits in areas with moderate to high mule deer numbers. The purpose of the permits is to allow landowners to recoup some benefit from the deer herd and provide more hunting opportunity. Whether it’s allowing friends and family to hunt or leasing their hunting rights to generate some income from deer hunting. TPWD will not issue these permits for any individual to “wipe out” all deer on their crop field. This is not our mission and attempting to eliminate a deer herd can severely impact deer numbers for neighboring property owners, who may not share the same goal of eliminating or significantly reducing deer numbers.