Is Quality Management Working in Arkansas?

Quality deer management was initiated in Arkansas in 1998, primarily in the form of a 3-point antler restriction. After two sub-par harvests in a row, is it time to reconsider?

By Kenn Young

Sometimes you have to understand where you've been before you can fully appreciate where you are.

History books tell us that when the first European settlers came to the region that would become the state of Arkansas, deer were not really as plentiful as many today believe. Mature forest covered much of the area, and the thick overstory cut out sunlight to the ground, leaving little undergrowth on which browsing animals could feed.

But as the number of pioneers grew, large tracts of timberland were cleared for farming. These manmade clearings became new feeding areas for wildlife, and for a relatively brief period the whitetails thrived. But as the evolution continued, too much land was cleared, and numbers once again declined. This demise was further helped along by the coming of market hunting to the state. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, deer, bear and elk, which were plentiful in the area then, were slaughtered by the tens of thousands for their meat and hides.

Naturally, the herd could not withstand both the loss of habitat and intense hunting pressure. By the early parts of this past century, the remaining whitetails had been forced into the most remote areas, and even there they were hounded to the brink of extinction. In addition, a major flood covered much of eastern Arkansas in 1927, pushing the deer there onto spots of high ground. Defenseless and unable to flee, they were slaughtered by unethical individuals. By 1930, biologists estimate that there were no more than 500 whitetails remaining in the entire state!

Many hunters had hoped that with rules against shooting small bucks, more record-class deer such as this would be taken. For whatever reason(s), it hasn't happened. Photo by Bill Kinney,

But man is a funny animal. No sooner had he done virtually everything he could to destroy the deer than a great cry was raised to bring them back.

That turnaround had actually begun as early as 1927, with the formation of the first national refuges in our state. Within these tightly-protected areas, the last remnants of the herd could reproduce and multiply in relative safety. Such sanctuaries were so successful that state-controlled areas were soon formed, and there were some 250,000 acres in the program by 1945.

As numbers began to climb, a massive restocking program began in the early 1940s. In addition to native deer being transplanted from within the state refuges, whitetails were transported here from other states, primarily Wisconsin and Louisiana.

From that point, and with the additional help of established and enforced hunting seasons, bucks-only harvest and increased habitat through modern timber-harvesting methods, the herd steadily grew. By 1960, there were more than 200,000 animals roaming the hills and flatlands, and deer were present in virtually every region. That growth trend continues today, when biologists estimate more than 1,000,000 whitetails inhabit the Natural State! A remarkable turnaround? You bet!

That little history lesson makes it somewhat easier to understand the mindset of both hunters and management personnel in this state during much of the 20th century. To men who grew up in a time of few or no deer, more deer were certainly desirable. The AGFC, until 1996 totally funded by hunters (through license sales and taxes on outdoor equipment), merely gave its supporters what they wanted. Quantity deer management was the order of the day.

But in 1994, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission enacted an antler restriction in the form of a 3-point rule (a buck must have at least 3 points on one side, including the tip of the main beam, to be legal), which was applied at selected state wildlife management areas. That singular act is important, because it was the first step ever taken by our state game agency that was designed strictly to promote and improve buck quality.

Then, in 1997, a group known as the Arkansas County Deer Management Association lobbied for and received a special area designation to operate under the same 3-point guideline that had been instituted three years earlier on the WMAs. Even though this move was brought about primarily by an individual group wanting a different type of management philosophy in their specific area, their interest in promoting better quality and bigger bucks set the stage for other, more sweeping changes in the future.

Interest in bigger deer grew by leaps and bounds from that point. Soon other hunters from different areas questioned the commissioners about enacting similar guidelines in their areas. To gauge how much interest was actually out there, a statewide survey was conducted in the early spring of 1998 to determine just how many hunters were really interested in this "new" approach to deer management. It probably surprised everyone concerned when over 70 percent of those polled stated that they favored "quality" deer management, with the preferred tool being some form of antler restriction.

With the input from that survey certainly playing a major role in their decision, in April of that year the AGFC commissioners voted into effect a statewide 3-point rule. At the same time they initiated vastly increased doe harvests - again, pretty much on a statewide basis. Both of those measures were viewed, by both the general public and the commissioners themselves, as being the beginning of a comprehensive quality deer management plan.

But exactly what is "quality deer management"?

First of all, it is not trophy management, which a lot of Arkansas hunters still mistakenly believe. Raising bucks strictly for the size of their antlers, popularized in Texas decades ago, is a far different tactic, with far different methods, than what we have here in the Natural State.

The definition of "quality management" that I like best is stated by noted biologists Drs. Karl Miller and Larry Marchinton in their landmark book, Quality Whitetails: The Why And How Of Quality Deer Management. This book, so popular that it has become a bible to deer managers nationwide, defines the concept this way: "Quality deer management is the voluntary use of restraint in the harvesting of young bucks, combined with an appropriate antlerless harvest to maintain a healthy deer population in balance with the habitat."

Now fast-forward to the present. With statewide deer kill down by as much as 40 per cent over the last two seasons, Natural State hunters are for the first time asking a

lot of questions concerning the management plan currently in place. In reality, how those questions are answered will go a long way toward determining how deer hunting will fare in this state well into the 21st century.

What many, myself included, thought would be the final piece of the quality management puzzle for Arkansas occurred in June 2000, when Hugh Durham was hired as director of the AGFC. Especially significant about that move was the fact that Durham had previously been employed by International Paper Company, the state's largest private landowner, and the earliest and staunchest promoter of quality management on a large-scale basis. As an IP biologist, Durham had been directly involved in implementing many of the quality procedures, including both antler restrictions and harvest guidelines, on numerous clubs and leases. Great things seemed to lie ahead.

I did an article for Arkansas Sportsman on the new director not long after he was hired. There are a couple of statements that Hugh made during our hour-long talk that have stayed with me in the years since.

"For decades, deer management in this state has been done with a hammer," Hugh stated. "What I mean by that is that any and all guidelines and rules established have been pretty much done on a statewide basis. But it is ridiculous to try to manage whitetails in the mountains of the Ozarks the same way they are managed in the southern flatlands. The same with the delta and the Ouachitas. Each of those regions is far different from the others, with specific needs and specific problems that must be addressed on a site-specific basis. The present system simply cannot work."

He went on to say that "everyone involved needs to understand that antler restrictions, including the so-called 3-point rule, are not the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. What they are is one step in the right direction. They are designed to quickly push a lot of bucks into an older age bracket, and, in conjunction with other methods, including doe harvest, the can produce dramatic results in a fairly short period of time. They are not, in themselves, a long-term management plan."

Another point Durham made was that when he was hired he was shocked to find that there were virtually no site-specific computerized indices (what you and I would call "records") anywhere to be found. What information was available had been stored away in boxes and never fully made use of.

"My first priority must be to build some world-class indices on not only deer, but all game and fish within this state. Only then will we, the AGFC, be able to do our job effectively."

Hugh Durham is now the ex-director of the AGFC, and at this point, the "world-class indices" he referred to have not been completed.

The new check-station guidelines, which were to have been instituted prior to the 2002-03 season, and which would have provided a variety of information on each deer harvested, would certainly have been valuable in this area. However, the initiation of those requirements was botched, with hunters not even becoming aware of them until after the fall archery season had opened. Because of the resulting confusion, fulfilling those guidelines was made voluntary. Throw into the mix that the whole process of obtaining and recording data was fairly in-depth (in spite of AGFC statements to the contrary), and thus often done poorly by untrained individuals, and many biologists will tell you that most of the information taken in is virtually useless.

So where does that leave us? At this point we have a statewide antler restriction - now in its fifth year of existence - and a lot of questions concerning the effects of doe kill, particularly in the mountain regions. As previously stated, overall deer kill has decreased by some 40 percent over the past two seasons, and now the AGFC is fielding increasingly tough questions about its plans for the future from an ever-growing segment of the state's estimated 300,000 deer hunters.

At their April meeting, the AGFC commissioners voted to reduce season lengths drastically and to curtail doe harvest in many zones. How much those changes were based on sound management principles and how much they were a result of public outcry is open to debate.

There are two things that I find vaguely disturbing at this point. First, as nearly as I can determine (several AGFC biologists were asked to respond and refused), there are no plans to modify the 3-point restriction.

"Antler restrictions are not cure-alls for bad genetics or poor food source," says Larry Castle, deer program coordinator for the state of Mississippi. "Mississippi currently has a 4-point restriction statewide. In some areas we have seen substantial improvement, in others none at all. Generally, our concern is that we may be degrading future deer populations by the continued removal of the 'better' [larger-antlered] members of the yearling age-class."

Stephen Demarais, professor of Wildlife Management at Mississippi State University, concurs with Castle's opinion. After intensive monitoring of buck kill on the state's Sunflower WMA, his statistics show a decrease of 19 inches of antlers in the Boone and Crockett scores of 3 1/2-year-old bucks taken on the WMA since the 4-point rule was adopted. This is exactly the effect that some biologists predicted: Over time, the restrictive rule protects smaller-antlered yearlings and allows the harvest of larger-antlered yearlings.

A Mississippi State University graduate student named Bronson Strickland has recently produced (in association with Demarais, Castle and others) a widely read paper titled "Effects of Selective-Harvest Strategies on White-Tailed Deer Antler Size." The study used antler measurements from pen-raised deer to simulate the effects of antler-based selective-harvest strategies on the breeding population for a number of years. Those findings were then compared to antler statistics from bucks harvested on Mississippi's WMAs. The simulations showed that selectively removing a large proportion of the larger-antlered young bucks while leaving a large proportion of the smaller-antlered young bucks can reduce the antler size of bucks, beginning at 4 years of age.

The 3-point rule has now been in use for five years here in Arkansas. Are we on the verge of seeing antler size beginning to decrease?

Catherine Helm is one of the prime forces behind the annual Arkansas Big Buck Classic, one of the nation's largest deer shows. She is directly involved with the event's highly popular statewide big buck contest.

"When the 3-point rule first went into effect we saw an immediate and dramatic increase in antler size of the bucks entered in our contest," Helm stated. "But in the last couple of years that trend has leveled off and maybe even decreased a little bit."

Those comments, by someone who annually sees a majority of the state's largest bucks, certainly seems to correlate with the opinions mentioned above.

The second thing I find d

isturbing is that for the coming season the commissioners have gone to a three-deer limit in many zones. In those areas, a hunter can legally harvest two bucks while taking only one doe.

On the surface that lower antlerless harvest would seem to be good, since most biologists agree that the statewide doe harvest implemented in 1998 has had an adverse effect on deer numbers, particularly in the mountains. So at this point, taking one doe in all areas except the south would seem to be prudent.

But for years we hunters have been told that the heavy doe harvest was necessary to bring our buck-to-doe ratios into balance. Indeed, that is true in a healthy herd, and for many years we heard that our buck-to-doe ratio was far out of kilter and was a major problem that must be cured. Whether we've killed too many does or not, today that ratio is certainly closer to being at that magical 1:1 point than at any time in my life.

So why are we now going to return to the old days, by taking two bucks for every doe? Could this undo all that we've worked for?

With Hugh Durham gone, is there a lack of leadership and direction when it comes to deer management in this state? Arkansas has now been without a deer project leader since Mike Cartwright was made the elk coordinator several years ago. Naturally, everyone assumed that Durham would be directly involved in this area, but it never really seemed to happen. The position has repeatedly been advertised, but with no takers. A low base salary makes the possibility of hiring someone qualified and experienced rather remote.

Today the lack of direction in this area is definitely showing.

"What point restrictions do often accomplish," says Larry Castle, "is to begin to educate hunters on what it takes to produce bigger and better deer, to make him start thinking before he pulls the trigger. In that context, it is one step in the process to where we need to be."

A majority of Arkansas deer hunters have clearly reached that point. It would also appear that a majority can still be said to support the quality management concept - at least as a concept. But if the management idea is to work, there has to be someone to promote and implement the other steps rapidly becoming necessary. The AGFC, primarily through its commissioners, has some very hard decisions to make.

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