A look at the history of antler point restrictions

A curious spike horn buck strolls through an autumn forest.

Oct. 18, 2012

For many years, Michigan restricted hunters to a bucks-only harvest in order to protect the reproductive capacity of the herd. This approach sustained deer populations that, at times, were scarce but still allowed recreational opportunity and a chance to put food on the table. As deer became increasingly numerous and widespread, however, it became obvious to wildlife managers that a continued focus on maximizing deer production was no longer the best approach.

Meanwhile, hunters - who became increasingly successful as the herd increased in size - began seeking different challenges. Many hunters no longer found it satisfying to simply kill a buck; instead, these hunters wanted to seek older bucks with larger antlers - "quality bucks," to coin a phrase.

A beautiful shot of a fork point buck.The single most important factor in determining antler size is age. Although genetics and nutrition play into the equation, virtually all bucks grow larger antlers as they age. Given Michigan's tradition of allowing all hunters the opportunity to kill a buck every year and its large hunter population, the majority of Michigan bucks were killed the first year they sported legal antlers.

So, as some hunters began lobbying for a way to pass more of those bucks into an older age class, the idea of antler-point restrictions (APRs) was broached. APRs require that deer have a certain number of antler points before they can be legally harvested - a radical idea in Michigan.

"Michigan's basic statewide deer hunting regulation - an 'antlered deer' defined as one with at least one antler that measured 3 inches or more - was adopted in 1921 and has remained essentially unchanged," said Brent Rudolph, the Department of Natural Resources deer and elk coordinator. "Hunters were restricted to one buck when that definition was adopted, though any hunting camps that had four or more hunters in it could get a permit to take an additional 'camp buck' for camp meat."

In 1956 - by which time the herd had grown significantly - the state began to allow hunters to take some antlerless deer, too, by making licenses good for "any deer" in specified areas with high deer numbers. It was a controversial regulation.

Henry Lerrett, 13, and Zach Parrett, 16, stand proudly with healthy-racked bucks at their camp.Nine years later, antlerless deer hunting was expanded to allow archery hunters to take a deer of either sex with their bow license. But there were so few archery hunters and their success rate was so low, the rule seemed rather inconsequential.

But 21 years later, in 1986, the Legislature created the second-buck license, allowing hunters to purchase an additional deer tag for firearms or archery season (though the second archery tag was good in the Lower Peninsula, only). Because the regulations would not affect the herd's reproductive capacity, there was no biological impact in allowing additional buck harvest. So the season limit was suddenly doubled; hunters who used both firearms and bows could take up to four bucks annually, putting even more pressure on the buck population.

Two antlers taken in Eaton County.Five years later (in 1991) the rule was changed to limit hunters to two bucks annually, though they could still buy up to four buck tags - two for firearms and two for archery - so the law was difficult to enforce.

"In 1997, Michigan enacted APRs for the first time," Rudolph said. "Hunters who used a second-buck tag were not allowed to take a deer unless it had at least four antler points on one side."

The following year, second-buck licenses for both archery and firearm hunting were eliminated when the Legislature created the combination license. The combination license is good for two bucks - both may be taken in either season, or one each in archery and firearm. Though hunters may still choose to purchase both an archery and firearm license instead of the combo license, any hunter taking two bucks – regardless of the licenses they use - must ensure at least one of them has four or more points on one side.

Also in 1997, the DNR enacted APRs in three deer management units on all tags, requiring that harvested bucks have at least one forked antler to be legal on South Fox Island, Drummond Island and in a portion of Iosco County (DMU 101). "These areas were all essentially viewed as experimental approaches to reducing harvest pressure on young bucks," Rudolph explained.

In 1999, hunters in a portion of Clare County (DMU 107) successfully lobbied the Natural Resources Commission to enact APRs restricting the harvest to bucks with at least three antler points on one side. Deliberations over the proposal had been ongoing for quite some time, and similar discussions were being held around the state as interest in APRs increased.

After the DMU 107 rule was enacted, the NRC established a uniform process for considering future APR proposals. A key feature of that process was that implementation required a survey to determine support among individuals in proposed APR areas. Two-thirds majority was required in order to create a restricted harvest area. That same level of support would be required in order to keep the APR in place after five years under the restriction.

"With that process in place, some new APR areas were established and some proposals failed," Rudolph explained. "Likewise, some restrictions were supported and retained after the initial years, and some lacked sufficient support and were removed - including the Clare County area.

"There were some concerns that the proposal process was too divisive and demanded too much department time, so the NRC declared a moratorium on accepting proposal for any new APR areas in 1996."

During the moratorium, some Upper Peninsula hunters approached the NRC with a different proposal: Allow hunters who do not buy combo tags the opportunity to take any legal buck, but be limited to a single buck. At the same time those who chose to buy a combo tag would be limited to a buck with at least three points on a side for one of those bucks with the four-point restriction on a second buck. This "hunter's choice" approach - implementing restrictions while leaving an option open to hunters as to which restriction they would face - seemed to address several hunter concerns at once.

The NRC agreed to implement the rules, which have now been in place in the Upper Peninsula since 2009. (A similar regulation has been enacted in DMU 487, the six-county area in the northeast Lower Peninsula where bovine tuberculosis is a problem in the herd.)

In 2011, a proposal was submitted to consider establishing a three-point APR in 12 counties in the northwest Lower Peninsula (Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Missaukee, Osceola and Wexford counties). Meanwhile, the NRC assembled a work group to provide input regarding whether the process for APR proposals should be modified. The moratorium on considering proposals was lifted, several changes were made, and the proposal for northwest Michigan came into consideration. A slightly modified version of the public support survey, which continues the two-thirds requirement of hunters surveyed, remains a key feature.

The survey for northwest Michigan was initiated in September 2012, with potential APR implementation forthcoming for the 2013 season, Rudolph said.

Although antler-point restrictions remain a topic sure to prompt healthy debate, the Department of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Commission will continue to explore ways to provide diverse hunting opportunities that will satisfy the desires of deer hunters.

Learn more about our state's many hunting seasons at www.michigan.gov/hunting.