Is the 4-Point Rule Working?

The requirement that legal bucks have at least 4 points has been in effect for a couple of seasons. Is it working? Let's have a look.

Nose to the ground, a buck ambles down a game trail in the Delta National Forest. He continues to work his way closer toward your tree stand. It's a heavy-racked 8-point with a thickened neck and love on his mind. Thousands of hunters across Mississippi say this is an increasingly common occurrence seven years after the groundbreaking 4-point rule was put into effect.

"Hunters are seeing an older age-class of deer when they hunt, which means bigger antlers. For most hunters bigger is better," said Larry Castle, deer coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP). "We've had an 85 percent approval rating since the law went into effect, and the average age of bucks harvested has risen from 2.1 years to 3 years old."

Obviously, most hunters in Mississippi are strongly in favor of the 4-point rule for bucks. They say they have been seeing more and bigger bucks since the rule was put into practice in 1995. Getting a larger percentage of bucks past their second birthday was the aim of the regulation. But are there other effects?

In the intervening years a lot of research has been completed both in laboratory-style studies and in real-life situations on the effects of point restrictions on antler development. These studies and evidence from some wildlife management areas suggest that harvest rates of older bucks have not increased substantially and the overall quality of harvested bucks within age-classes is going down.

One can even find grounds for the argument that the statewide imposition of the regulation has actually had no effect or has decreased the Boone and Crocket scores on bucks harvested in wildlife management areas (WMAs) across the state.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

"We are drawing a tine-line that places most bucks harvested at the upper end of 1 1/2 (years of age)," pointed out Stephen Demarais, professor of Wildlife Management at Mississippi State University, in discussing the harvest on Sunflower WMA.

His statistics show a decrease of 19 inches of antlers in the Boone and Crockett (B&C) 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 forewarned, because the restrictive rule protects smaller antlered yearlings and allows the harvest of larger antlered yearlings.

Graduate student Bronson Strickland, along with Demarais, Castle and others, produced a 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 and leaving a large proportion of the smaller-antlered young bucks can reduce antler size of bucks at 4 years of age. The researchers found similar results when they compared antler development within ages for the four seasons prior to the antler restrictions (1991-1994 seasons) with those from the first three seasons after the regulations (1996-1998).

The biggest effect documented in Mississippi was in the Delta region at Sunflower WMA.

"In the years before the regulation, 2 1/2-year-old bucks harvested averaged 87 inches on the Boone and Crockett scale. After the 4-point, they averaged 78 inches," Demarais explained. "Before the regulation, a 3 1/2-year-old deer averaged 113 inches; now it's down to 94 inches."

Such statistics suggest that harvested bucks are actually losing some of the length and mass of antler that the 4-point rule was set up to increase.

The rule is designed to protect yearling deer, which it clearly accomplishes. In the process, however, it seems to best protect the yearling bucks produced each year with the smallest racks.

The second goal is to have these yearling deer that survive harvested in older age-classes. Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence that this is happening. On many WMAs, the total number of bucks harvested within older age-classes didn't change much. The major difference was that the average age of harvested bucks increased by only about a year. There was no significant increase in the number of 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old bucks being harvested.

The researchers found that the negative effects were not universal throughout the state. There was a similar, but not as significant, decrease in antler size at some WMAs in the Upper Coastal Plain. At WMAs in the Lower Coastal Plain, there were no measurable negative effects on antler development. The overall statewide effect still appears to be smaller antler mass on the deer that make it to maturity.

"We have to be very careful with selective harvest regulations because we are hi-grading our deer population on our better quality soils," said Demarais.

The professor is harking back to a timber-harvest term for cutting out only the healthiest, best-quality trees and leaving inferior specimens to continue regeneration.

"The better quality deer are being removed, leaving bucks with less quality to carry on breeding. The 4- to 8-point yearlings are being taken before they have a chance to enter the breeding population."

Demarais suggests that the answer to this problem is to set the bar a bit higher. If antler restrictions are to be imposed, they should be stricter.

Of course, there are some good things coming out of the 4-point rule as well. Game managers and hunters across the state agree that it encourages table hunters to shoot more does, rather than taking a spike buck for the larder. The regulation also got hunters thinking about deer from a quality management perspective. For the first time in 50 years, younger bucks have at least one round in the breeding cycle, providing additional diversity to the gene pool.

"Every time a hunter pulls the trigger, he's making a management decision," said Randy Browning, a field biologist in Hattiesburg with the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation. "There was a time when a hunter wouldn't let a spike come out of the woods; now most stop and let the young deer walk."

The o

ther attitude change concerns harvesting does. This practice has finally become acceptable among a large proportion of hunters in the state.

"The 4-point rule has been great in terms of helping us reach our hunting club's objectives," noted Ronnie Bailey of Long Beach, who has a family farm and lease in Greene County. "We worked with a state biologist to manage our herd properly, but our 320 acres is surrounded by paper company land and private land that was leased out."

Their club had a rule that allowed spikes to walk, but as soon as the deer left their property they were harvested on the surrounding land.

"Before the regulation, the biologist told us we were wasting our time trying to protect the young deer," said Bailey. "Now, everyone is on the same page and we have a more balanced herd."

Bailey believes the biggest effect of the 4-point rule is encouraging more hunters to take does.

"Years ago, on an average day we'd see 40 to 50 deer during a hunt on the property, but a 100-pound buck was huge," Bailey recalled. "Seven or eight of every 10 animals would be does. Since the 4-point rule, the number of bucks has gone up considerably, and it appears that the overall weight of deer in the area has improved."

Prior to the 4-point rule going into effect, the club provided jawbones to the state as part of the Deer Management Assistance Program and kept a careful record of each deer harvested. Biologists from the MDWFP issued the club additional doe permits to help balance the buck-to-doe ratio. In return the club received a detailed printout listing of all the deer taken in the area and got a lot of help from their area biologist.

"This allowed us to see where we've been and where we are going," Bailey explained. "Each year we saw fewer deer, but the weight and antler mass of the animals harvested increased. This year, with fewer days in the woods, the six hunters in the club harvested two 6-points and a 4-point, in addition to two does, which is about right for the general pool of deer available due to the soil's nutrition and the small acreage of the hunting property."

Mississippi's deer herd is somewhere around 1,800,000 animals, and those numbers have remained somewhere below 2 million for nearly a decade. Within that herd, not all of our deer get an equal break. Coastal deer and those in some other parts of the state will never reach the size attained in the black soil Delta region. A 2 1/2-year-old deer from the Mississippi River bottoms near Rolling Fork may be a 170-pound 8-point. The same age-class deer along the lower Pascagoula River would have to be winter wet to tip the scale at 110 pounds and may not get his fourth point until his third year.

Soil quality and the resulting nutrition of the forage it supports have major effects on the size and condition of deer that grow up in an area. In addition many areas of the state have seen a major change in land use during the last decade. Large farms were broken up and paper company lands that traditionally provided huge tracts of managed woodlands have being sold off. New 5-acre "farms" are cutting down woods and turning farm fields into pasture. For generations the edge lands provided deer with nearly perfect habitat. Now thousands of acres hold only a few horses, goats or cows or just provide status yards.

In other areas, urbanization has jammed deer into the few remaining corridors of woods, causing overcrowding. The deer then move into backyard gardens and onto roadsides to find groceries. Besides destroying expensive shrubs and lawns, the animals become hazards in our roadways.

Mississippi's legislative plunge into a statewide mandated 4-point rule broke new ground in wildlife management. We were revolutionary - the first state in the region to implement such a statewide antler regulation for white-tailed deer. The program was put into effect because the Legislature thought it was an idea whose time had come and that it would have a positive effect on Mississippi's deer. The 4-point rule was an amazing step, and one that has been studied, modified and tried to some extent in an increasing number of states.

New times and new problems often require new solutions. Perhaps deer experts like Stephen Demarais think it may be time to revisit and modify, or add to the regulations. The best way to improve our deer herd now may be to allow flexibility in the application of the 4-point rule. Wildlife biologists incorporating specific biological data into local harvest objectives to develop antler-based harvest recommendations that are best suited to regional circumstances might be a good option. The decision on the number of antler points a legal deer would have to sport could be based on a number of factors in a soil region. The area's natural ability to produce large-antlered bucks, animal population density, the goals of landowners and hunters, and the overall quality of deer forage could be included in the equation.

As the regulation stands now, it is one-size-fits-all management with no consideration for specific situations. Since the implementation of the 4-point rule, the MDWFP has returned to the Legislature each year seeking the ability to control and customize harvest regulations in certain areas of the state. They also want to get special permit ability for deer herds that have specific problems caused by overproduction, weather or disease. For the past four years, the Legislature turned down the idea.

"We've made some great steps, progressive steps; this is revolutionary groundwork," said Bo Sloan of the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services. "The seeds have been planted; now all we've got to do is continue to evaluate what we know, and make the next step."

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