The 2013-14 deer season is nearly over for many states and provinces across the whitetail’s range, and biologists will be crunching data in the coming months to assess the outcome of this past season. However, in preparing QDMA’s 2014 Whitetail Report, I compared harvest data from the three most recent seasons available – 2010-11, 2011-12, and 2012-13 – and identified some extremely interesting facts. The full report is now available as a free PDF on our site, but in this article I want to take a close look at the age structure of the most recent whitetail buck harvest.
QDMA acquired the age structure of the buck harvest data from most state and provincial deer project leaders. Twenty-eight of the 37 whitetail states in the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest reported the percentage of their antlered buck harvest that was 1.5 years old, and 23 states reported the percentage that was also 2.5 and 3.5 years or older. In Canada, only New Brunswick and Nova Scotia reported age structure data, so this analysis will be limited to the United States.
Yearling Buck Harvest
First, there was some very encouraging news in our most recent analysis of the data. In 2012, the average percentage of the antlered buck harvest that was 1.5 years old was 37 percent, which is the lowest national percentage ever reported! The graph on the right shows how the yearling percentage of the antlered buck harvest in the U.S. has changed during the past 25 years.
In 2012, Arkansas averaged the fewest yearlings (8 percent of antlered buck harvest) and New Jersey and New York reported the most (56 percent of antlered buck harvest). Importantly, Arkansas’ number is the lowest yearling harvest percentage ever reported and New Jersey’s number declined 6 percent from 2011. Kudos to the wildlife agencies and hunters in both states. Other notables include Kansas and Texas (14 percent), Oklahoma (15 percent) and Louisiana (17 percent from DMAP areas). Only one of the five lowest states has a statewide antler regulation (Arkansas), revealing that voluntary protection of yearling bucks by hunters is driving the positive trend. Amazingly, Texas shot over 300,000 bucks and less than 1 in 5 was 1.5 years old.
Oklahoma and Texas had the biggest declines in percentage of yearlings from 2011 to 2012 (25 to 15 percent in Oklahoma and 21 to 14 percent in Texas). Rhode Island (31 to 37 percent) and Missouri (48 to 55 percent in non-APR counties) reported the largest increases in yearling buck harvest percentage from 2011 to 2012. Rhode Island has nearly doubled the percentage of yearling bucks harvested from 2010 to 2012 but, at 37 percent, still has the lowest percentage in the Northeast. Other notables include Michigan’s drop from 59 to 53 percent yearlings, New Hampshire’s drop from 49 to 43 percent and New Jersey’s decline from 62 to 56 percent yearlings in the buck harvest. Each state dropped 6 percentage points to get closer to the national average. Arkansas led the Southeast and the nation with less than 1 in 10 bucks being 1.5-years-old! Finally, for the second time in three years, over half of the bucks harvested in Pennsylvania were 2.5 years or older. The Southeast also maintained its region-wide average at 25 percent yearling bucks. Three of four bucks shot in the Southeast are 2.5 years or older!
How Do Wildlife Agencies Estimate Age of the Buck Harvest?
Before we go further, you may be wondering how your state or province estimates the age structure of your deer harvest. Most measure a sample of the harvest using the tooth replacement and wear technique (see page 8 in the 2013 Whitetail Report). Agency staff estimate age at check stations, meat processors, and other places to collect age structure data. See page 10 in the 2012 Whitetail Report for the percentage of deer in the total harvest that agency staff collects data from. They don’t age all deer, and that’s fine because an adequate sample allows them to accurately estimate the overall age structure of the harvest. Plus, as long as their sample efforts are consistent across years, the yearly estimates and long-term trends provide extremely valuable management information. Let’s look at some more state-by-state trends.
Harvest of Older Bucks is on the Rise
Nationally, the average percentage of the antlered buck harvest that was 2.5 years old was similar in 2011 (29 percent) and 2012 (31 percent). In 2012, this statistic ranged from 16 percent in Louisiana (DMAP areas) to 44 percent in Missouri’s APR counties and 45 percent in Vermont.
Twenty-three of 28 states (82 percent) that we received age structure data from were able to also provide the percentage of bucks 3.5 years and older in the harvest; kudos to these states for their data collection efforts. The average percentage of the antlered buck harvest that was 3.5 years and older was 32 percent in 2012, similar to the 32 percent in 2010 and 33 percent in 2011. This is higher than the percentage of 2.5 year olds and not much lower than the percentage of yearlings. This is a testament to how far we’ve come as hunters and managers in the past decade. This statistic ranged from 7 percent in New Jersey to 65 percent in Arkansas, 66 percent in Oklahoma and 67 percent in Texas. Talk about a “Golden Triangle” for deer hunting! Other notables included Louisiana (59 percent in DMAP areas) and Kansas (45 percent), making the south-central United States an apparent hot zone of activity for mature bucks in the harvest in the 2012-13 season. Only 4 of 21 states (19 percent) with comparable data for 2011 and 2012 realized a decline of 5 percent (by percentage) or more in harvested bucks that were 3.5 years and older in 2012. Amazingly, Oklahoma increased the percentage of bucks 3.5 years and older in the harvest from 51 to 66 percent! Regionally, the Southeast averaged the highest percentage of bucks 3.5 years and older (49 percent), followed by the Midwest (27 percent) and Northeast (20 percent). Approximately half of the 1.2 million bucks shot in the Southeast in 2012 were 3.5 years or older.
Check out the 2014 Whitetail Report for complete state-by-state and province-by-province listings, and in the meantime I’ll leave you with two tables showing states with the lowest yearling buck harvest rates and those with the highest harvest rates for bucks 3.5 years and older.