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The Latest Research on Deer

Whether to Cull White-Tailed Bucks, and What about the Possible Inferiority of Spike Bucks

Click to enlargeEditor’s Note: Today outdoorsmen have begun to learn more about the white-tailed deer. In the past, we haven’t known the right questions to ask. But now scientists and researchers have started studying deer more intensely. Brian Murphy, QDMA executive director, has kept his finger on the pulse of new deer research to inform the members of QDMA and outdoors enthusiasts how to better manage whitetails. This week, we’ll bring you the latest research concerning deer.

Brian Murphy, QDMA executive director, explains that, “A bull elk will round up a whole herd of cows and have perhaps 10 cows in his harem. When each of these cows comes into heat, the bull elk will breed her and then eventually all 10. So, in an elk herd, a single dominant bull will have a much greater impact on the genetics of the herd than a dominant whitetail will.” Murphy reports that what scientists have learned about the way deer breed means good news and bad news. A hunter can’t detrimentally impact a deer herd since so many different bucks contribute to that genetic gene pool. Even if someone bags the wrong buck, or there’s an over-harvest of bucks, still so many bucks will contribute to the gene pool that a herd won’t have a great number of inferior bucks. But people who dream of manipulating the genetics of a deer herd by harvesting poorly-antlered bucks more Click to enlargethan likely can’t impact a herd, especially one on small acreages. “Shooting cull bucks has no statistical chance of making a difference in the quality of your deer herd,” Murphy says. “Whether you should or shouldn’t harvest cull bucks is debatable. That cull buck is taking up space and eating groceries and will breed, so I guess you still should take it. But don’t believe that you’re changing the genetic structure of your deer herd dramatically if you harvest cull white-tailed bucks. Many times malformed antlers have nothing at all to do with genetics.”

Murphy mentions an ongoing study on 10,000 acres on the King Ranch in Texas, conducted by Dr. Mickey Hellickson, chief wildlife biologist on the King Ranch. Over a 6-year period, using hunters on the ground and shooters from helicopters, this study removed every single cull buck found on those 10,000 acres. “After 6 years of absolutely removing every low-quality buck that could be located, the average-age-class buck on the study area was actually smaller than the bucks in the surrounding control areas,” Murphy comments. “They found at the King Ranch that they had zero effect and probably had had a negative effect when they intensively harvested what they would consider cull bucks. This culling program on 10,000 acres was much-more intense than any hunting club could ever duplicate. There were no positive effects that could be shown on a deer herd in the Click to enlargewild by culling inferior bucks.”

The Inferiority of Spike Bucks:
Through the years, biologists and hunters have quoted two studies with different outcomes as the gospel concerning spike bucks, one done on the Carr Wildlife Management Area in Texas and the other conducted by Harry Jacobson at Mississippi State University (MSU). The Texas study reports on the inferiority of spike bucks and proves that 1-1/2-year-old spike bucks don’t produce as many antlers or antlers as large at maturity as branched-antler bucks at 1-1/2-years old do. However, the Jacobson MSU study proves that, at least in the Southeast, late birth and poor nutrition can cause small antlers in 1-1/2-year-old bucks that aren’t genetically inferior. Spike bucks can catch up to the branch-antlered bucks with more age and better food, and often have larger sizes than the bucks that are branch-antlered at 1- to 1-1/2-years old. A more-recent study by Dr. Mickey Hellickson, the chief wildlife biologist at the King Ranch in Texas, who has the largest sample size in the world of wild bucks with monitoring from yearling to 5- and 6-year-old deer, has shown that bucks that start with 3 points at 1-1/2-years of age have statistically-smaller sizes than the bucks with 4 points or more at 1-1/2-years old by the time they reach 5- and 6-years old. The 3-point-and-less 1-1/2-year-old bucks score about 20 inches smaller on Boone & Crockett at 5- and 6-years old than the bucks with 4 points or more at 1-1/2-years old do at ages 5 or 6 years.

In Hellickson’s Texas study, he’s managed all these bucks under a quality-deer-Click to enlargemanagement program or a trophy-deer program and fed all the deer supplementally with highly-nutritional food. The size of the deer herd is kept under high restrictions so that there’s no reason for a deer to have less than 3 points at 1-1/2-years old or older. If you compare this statistic to the late rut in Alabama when does have fawns in August or September, you certainly can see why a buck can’t have 4 to 6 points by hunting season. Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) in Bogart, Georgia, a great organization that Hunter’s Specialties sponsors, concludes that in the South, spikes serve as more of an indication of age and nutrition rather than a sign of inferior genetics. No blanket answer like one shoe fits all explains deer herds. The availability of food, the health of the herd, the size of the herd and many other factors, besides strictly genetics, play roles in antler development. The more we learn about deer, the more we realize that we can best manage deer on a property-by-property basis, since researchers have found very-few absolutes. Never set up a deer-management program
based on what other people have done in other areas. Instead, determine the best type of deer-management program for the hunters in your club, the deer on your property, the soil types, vegetation and the terrain you hunt.

To learn more about QDMA, go to or call 1-800-209-DEER.

Tomorrow: The Importance of Photographing Deer and Developing a Hit List to Learn the Most about Your Land’s Deer Herd

Check back each day this week for more about "The Latest Research on Deer"

Day 1: How Coyotes Impact Deer Herds
Day 2: More on How Coyotes Impact Deer Herds
Day 3: The Truth about the Effects of Breeder White-Tailed Bucks
Day 4: Whether to Cull White-Tailed Bucks, and What about the Possible Inferiority of Spike Bucks
Day 5: The Importance of Photographing Deer and Developing a Hit List to Learn the Most about Your Land’s Deer Herd



Entry 393, Day 4