It's the time of day when only a wristwatch can confirm a sunrise. And no matter how hard the deer hunter squints, that perfect spot on the treeline isn't yet illuminated. But as the house lights slowly turn up on the world, suddenly a big, brown form appears in the perfect position.
Watching the mystical buck feed, what looks like two spikes coming off his head blend into either a glorious, multi-point rack or a deceptive crown of leafless tree branches.
But before squeezing that trigger or releasing that arrow, a hunter had better identify those antlers for certain — especially if he's in a tree stand by New York's southern Catskills.
In 2005, the state of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) implemented a 3-year, pilot antler restrictions program in two wildlife management units (WMUs) located in the southeastern corner of the Empire State. One year later, antler restrictions expanded to include two more, adjacent WMUs.
The controversy surrounding antler restrictions isn't new. Pennsylvania currently implements a statewide AR program. Sixty-one counties in Texas maintain a limited program and there's talk of expansion. Plus, states like Michigan, Georgia, Arkansas and New Hampshire, as well as many others, have experimented with a similar program in the past.
But the New York regulations for the 2008-2009 deer season stipulate bucks taken across public and private lands in WMUs 3C, 3H, 3J and 3K must have at least one antler with 3 points (or more) that are at least 1-inch long. Hunters under 17 years of age are exempt from the restriction.
And even though the program currently affects only four out of New York's 90 WMUs, the discussion continues to engage deer hunters from across the state.
"The department has taken a position where we don't see a biological need for antler restrictions as a form of deer management in New York," DEC Big Game biologist Jeremy Hurst said. "But we recognize it's a social issue for sportsmen."
The social issue
Proponents of antler restrictions argue a fuller, more robust herd of slightly older, larger-racked bucks will exist if yearling deer are allowed the chance to survive.
"I think it's time to harvest more does and manage hunters from killing small bucks," a pro-antler restrictions voice from Greene County wrote in a recent hunting forum. "It will improve everyone's hunting."
Letting a spike or fork go today because of antler restrictions, may increase the chance of seeing a larger buck and a trophy rack tomorrow.
"I get disappointed when somebody shoots a 1 1/2-year-old buck," a user named Letmegrow posted on the same antler restrictions message board. "Mostly because I like to hunt for big bucks."
But those opposing antler restrictions say the issue boils down to freedom of choice. They want the option to take what they wish, regardless of whether or not they're harvesting animals for trophy or meat. Antler restrictions, by default, mean sacrifices made and shots held.
Tony Gonnetto, the spokesman for the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, has a fundamental problem with any antler restrictions:
"When it comes to somebody saying to people who don't own land or hunt on public land — or that don't want to have antler restrictions or quality deer management on their properties — that you have to, it kind of goes against the vein our country stands for," he said. "And that's freedom."
Gonnetto's Erie County Federation, an outspoken group against antler restrictions from the western part of the state, is one of approximately 50 others initiating and influencing local and state policies at the grassroots level. Besides the thousands of individual, "unorganized" sportsmen and women, many New Yorkers also funnel their local hunting club under larger umbrella groups called a federation, with each federation representing affiliated clubs within a given county.
"The antler restriction was not put into place in response to a (deer) population issue," Hurst said about the program's 2005 introduction. "It was merely the interest of sportsmen asking for a changing buck harvest composition."
Changing the buck harvest composition meant hunters wanted to bag older and typically larger deer. And according to Hurst, the Sullivan and Ulster County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs were the two clubs most vocal in requesting antler restrictions in their nearby WMUs.
"We asked the groups to verify strong support amongst their community of hunters," Hurst said. "They were able to demonstrate they had a large base in support of the proposition."
Through a series of public meetings and hearings over a state-mandated comment period, the DEC learned scarce opposition to the regulations existed in the southeastern portion of the state and subsequently, the measure passed.
Since 2006, the pilot program has stayed in place within the four WMUs. In spite of its "pilot" designation, Hurst said no plans have been made to neither eliminate nor expand the program. However, he did mention the three-year pilot program would require additional time to properly gauge results and for the foreseeable future the program would remain unchanged, mostly likely past the three-year period.
Gray science on browns
"I have been hunting for 31 years, and nothing stirs things up like a good ol' debate about AR. With that being said, I'm all for it," a hunter named Mtnbuck posted on empirehunting.com's deer forum. "If you want the meat, whack a doe. There (are) more than enough around."
Certainly Mr. Hurst and the DEC would not disagree with the poster referencing a healthy population of female deer. The big game biologist feels the department has properly managed the state's antlerless harvest over the years. But linking antler restrictions with an increase in antlerless harvest was not part of the department's initial goal.
Instead, the intention was to shift the composition of the buck harvest in those four WMUs per the request of those hunters in the area. Obviously, the number of deer harvested is quite lower than prior to the antler restriction program, but the scientific results on the overall deer population appear muddied.
"Many times, antler restrictions are put in place in conjunction with population management programs where the entire population is intended to be reduced," Hurst said.
To temper those sportsmen saying antler restrictions make a herd healthier, the DEC's own parameters used to evaluate herd condition and herd health simply can't project any improvement or change based on an antler restriction program. Breeding success is just one part of the equation and breeding success looks fine.
Gonnetto, a 65-year-old bear, turkey and deer hunter who speaks for the Erie County federation, suggests antler restrictions ends up hurting the herd health by lowering the quality of its genetic makeup.
"If you only shoot big deer and let the little crappy bucks go by, are you taking the best of the bunch and leaving the little guys — the ones that aren't going to grow big antlers potentially — to spawn more ugly bucks?" The New York hunter, originally from New Jersey, asked.
Besides genetics, Gonnetto cited nutrition and age as major factors in antler formation. But limiting the young buck take in the hopes a buck can meet all three antler formation criteria increases the numbers of deer-car collisions, malnutrition, deer death from predators and from other diseases.
"A lot of things can happen if you try to save these deer," he said. "I would say probably 30 to 40 percent of them are going die from one of these things I've mentioned."
Gonnetto feels "whatever you do on your own property is your own business." If the land owner wants to raise corn, oats, or clover on his property, it's his right. At the same time, if the hunter wants to save a spike, it should be up to the hunter to decide, not the state.
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