Will Culling “Inferior” Bucks Improve Deer Herd?

By Bob Robb

As deer seasons begin to unfold, one question that always crops up in camp is the culling of so-called “inferior” bucks—which for most means deer with small or weirdly-formed antlers. You still see so-called “professionals” on the cable TV hunting shows taking “management bucks,” but most of that action occurs in Texas under high fence operations. But the real question is: Does shooting these bucks really help the health and composition of your herd?

There has been a lot of research on this subject—much of it in Texas, but also in some other places—and the results may or may not be a surprise to you. The bottom line, though, is this: On high-fence areas of, say, 3,500 acres or less, a tightly-monitored and controlled management program that includes the culling of management bucks will probably improve the overall quality of the remaining bucks. The trouble comes when extrapolating this data to larger tracts of unfenced land, be it public or private. It just doesn’t work like that.

The reason can be summed up in on word—dispersal. Well-known deer researcher Dr. Mickey Hellickson did a comparison study many years ago by culling management-type bucks for eight years straight on a large Texas study area. His plan was to kill all yearling bucks with less than 6 total points and all bucks over 1 ½-years of age with less than 9 total points.  After eight years, Hellickson reported you could not tell any difference in the antler size of the bucks between the two areas.

After all that, Dr. Hellickson believed the primary reason culling doesn’t work in larger, unfenced areas is dispersal.  That is, because yearling bucks disperse during early fall—studies have shown that as many as 70 percent will move five or more miles, and up to 12 miles in more open farm country. This means that bucks are coming onto your property from the neighbors’ and vice versa. If you’ve been culling small bucks and letting those with more potential walk, yet the neighbors are shooting anything with antlers, they are the ones getting the most benefit from your little management program.

It’s also been shown that some bucks with less desirable antlers as yearlings sometimes turn out to be bucks with eye-popping antlers if they live long enough. And many folks forget that bucks are only half the genetic equation in any deer herd. What about genetically-inferior does? How can you tell, and, given that you can’t, how do the cull for a “management” doe?

Studies into culling continue, the most notable being an ongoing 10-year study that began five years ago on the Comanche Ranch in South Texas. The jury is still out on this huge Comanche Ranch study, but so far early indications are that culling doesn’t really help the antler growth of the remaining bucks.

What should you do?  My good friend Dr. David Samuel, former professor of wildlife biology at West Virginia University and one serious whitetail hunter, has accumulated a wealth of knowledge on this topic in his interactions with biologists across the whitetail’s range. His conclusion is that “most biologists believe culling can work on a small, fenced area, but it will not work on unfenced areas of any size. There are just too many uncontrolled variables. Hunters would be better served putting their energies into things they can control, like improving the habitat on the land they hunt.”

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