Point of contention|New antler regulations irk some hunters

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 21, 2009

As area hunters take to the woods and fields for opening day of the deer rifle season today, they’re going to have to look a little closer at bucks to make sure they can be taken legally. The four-point minimum is gone this year, and in place of it measurements of antler length and spread will determine whether a buck is legal.

The new rules have been a point of contention among some hunters, said Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Deer Program Coordinator Chad Dacus. However, he said an aggressive education campaign by the MDWFP on the new rules has convinced most hunters the new gauge will ultimately strengthen the state’s deer herd.

“The biggest complaint has been that it’s going to be more difficult to determine spread or main beam length than it used to be when all they had to look for was four points,” Dacus said. “Anything new is always a worry to some hunters, and I can understand that completely. But once we explain to them our reasoning behind it, they understand it. They still might not like it, but they understand it.”

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The whole point of the new antler regulations is to protect all bucks in Mississippi that are 1 1/2 or younger, said Dacus, and allow them to grow and breed. Before the four-point rule took effect in 1995, hunters were allowed to harvest any buck with antlers. Research at Mississippi State University found 50 percent of the bucks taken prior to the four-point rule were 1 1/2 or younger.

“Ten years later the graph had turned upside down, and 60 percent of the bucks harvested were 3 years old or older,” Dacus said. “But there were still areas, especially in the Mississippi Delta where the deer grow more quickly, that the four-point rule only protected a small percentage of the one-year buck class.”

At Delta Outfitters on U.S. 61 North, owner Eddie Buckner said only a few of his customers have said they wish the four-point rule was still in effect this year.

“We’ve had some guys who have come in and complain about it, saying, ‘Well, what do I have to do now, take out a tape measure every time I want to shoot at a buck?’” Buckner said. “But for the most part people around here have been using better management practices for years, and most of them are not even aware of the new rules — they’re only looking for trophy bucks.”

Buckner knows his customers well. Of six hunters who came into his store two days before the opener, five of them just gave a puzzled look when they were asked what they thought of the new buck regulations. “What new regulations?” was the common reply. Jamie Triplett, who belongs to a hunting camp north of Vicksburg, said estimating antler length and spread will be tougher than going by the four-point rule. However, he said no one at his camp has really paid it much attention.

“In our camp, no one is looking for a buck that will barely meet the minimum requirements — they’re looking for the one that walks out and makes you go ‘whooooa,’” he said. “I think it’s going to be good for the deer herd in the long run.”

Along with the new buck regulations, the MDWFP has also created a third deer-hunting zone this year to further protect younger bucks in the Delta region. The south dividing line of the new zone is Interstate 20, meaning hunters in Warren County separated by just four lanes of roadway, will have different sets of criteria to meet for taking a buck. In Zone 1, south of the interstate, bucks must have an inside spread of 10 inches or an antler measuring 13 inches.

In the newly created Zone 3, which encompasses the Delta lands north of Interstate 20 and west of Interstate 55, bucks must have slightly larger racks to be legally taken — the spread must either measure 12 inches or the main antler 15 inches. Zone 2 in southeast Mississippi has the same requirements as Zone 1. The restrictions are tighter in the Delta, said Dacus, because the region has more fertile soil, which generally produces larger bucks than the rest of the state. Before 2005, there were no zones and all hunters abided by the same regulations.

Another concern expressed by hunters is that the new buck regulations will hinder the overall deer harvest. The annual harvest has been slowly recovering since 2005, said Dacus, when Hurricane Katrina is cited as the main reason why about 10,000 fewer deer than the year previous were harvested. Last year, a total of 280,854 deer was killed, up about 5,000 from the 2007-08 season. The 2005 harvest was about 285,000.

“That’s certainly a possibility,” Dacus said of a lower harvest. “However, we’ve visited with the majority of the private hunting clubs, and most of them — especially those in the Delta — have stricter rules than this already. There’s an area north of Eagle Lake where all the clubs impose their own 20-inch main beam requirement. I would say it’s going to take a minimum of three years’ data to really see what kind of impact we’re making.”

The antler spread and length rules were first imposed on a trial basis five years ago in Mississippi Wildlife Management Areas. Dacus said the first year harvest was lower than the year previous due to “a learning curve for the hunters and a growing curve for the deer.” However, since then, Dacus said the total harvest in management areas has actually risen.

“Three years after the new regulations went into effect they were harvesting more bucks, and all of those deer harvested were of better quality,” he said. “I think the biggest positive impact in the future will be to the small landowners who don’t have enough land to really manage the deer in the area. They’re going to see the biggest benefit because the smaller deer in the area are going to have to be left alone and allowed to grow larger.”

The bag limit on bucks is one per day, three per season. The bag limit on does is one per day, five per season.  Those concerned with young hunters having the opportunity to take a buck need not worry, added Dacus. For youths 15 and younger hunting on private or authorized public land, one of the three bucks in the bag limit can be of any antler size.

Dacus and other MDWFP officials have spent the past year giving countless presentations on the new buck regulations to educate hunters on the benefits of protecting developing bucks. They have also been showing hunters how to estimate antler length and spread, which Dacus said is not as difficult as some have supposed. A complete guide to the new regulations, including a video and powerpoint presentation, is available online at www.mdwfp.com/deer.

“A lot of folks initially thought the new restrictions were going to be a lot tighter than they actually are,” he said. “The bottom line is we’re trying to protect deer that most people wouldn’t shoot anyway.”


Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com