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Antlers Big and Small

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors November-December 2016 issue

It’s that time of year when hunters talk about antlers.

The discussions happen all fall but really pick up during Montana’s five-week deer and elk general season, which started October 22. That’s probably because so many people are afield now: about 240,000 gun hunters versus maybe 40,000 archers back in September at the peak of archery season.

Also, it seems every hunter wants a trophy rack to hang on the wall at some time in his or her life. Even many meat hunters will admit to wanting just one big bull elk or buck deer before they head to the happy hunting grounds in the sky.

All that antler lust has spawned mis-perceptions about what it takes for a male deer or elk to grow a big rack.

First, deer and elk grow antlers, not horns. Most people know the difference—antlers grow only on male members of the deer family, and they fall off each spring and grow back during summer. Most people also know that horns are permanent and found on mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and bison.

As is so often true in nature, there are exceptions. Both male and female caribou, a member of the deer family, have antlers. And though antelope (pronghorn) have horns, they shed the outer covering, or sheath, each year.

To add to the confusion, people who collect the antlers that deer and elk drop sometimes call themselves “horn hunters.”

Genetics, nutrition, and age play major roles in horn growth. Generally, genetics determines the form of antlers while nutrition and age dictate size.

Inheritance seems easy enough to understand. A mature bull elk with seven perfectly symmetrical antler points on each side of its head will likely produce equally impressive male offspring.

As for age, the longer a bull or buck lives, the bigger its rack grows—to a point. Once the animal reaches extreme old age, antler size declines.

Not all bulls or bucks grow a trophy rack, no matter how nutritious their diet. Some mule deer, for example, may never grow antlers larger than two points on one side and three on the other, measuring 16 inches at the widest. Those deer carry what could be called a “small-antler” gene.

One study of white-tailed deer compared the offspring of yearling (one-and-a- half-year-old) bucks that had relatively large-branched antlers to the offspring of yearlings that had only spike (small, unbranched) antlers. Both sets of the captive deer were fed identical diets. The yearlings with larger antlers sired only 5 percent spikes, while the spike yearlings produced 44 percent spike-antlered yearlings.

The study concluded that if hunters want to see more large-antlered deer, they need to harvest more spike yearlings and allow bigger-racked yearlings to survive and pass on their genes.

Regarding nutrition, scientific evidence shows that diet greatly influences antler growth. One study of mule deer showed that in wet years, when more nutritious vegetation is available, there are fewer spike yearlings and more yearlings with forked antlers.

What’s it all mean? Given the right forage conditions and genetics, and allowed to live for at least a few years, buck deer or bull elk can sprout impressive antlers.

But it’s still up to us hunters to get out there and find them .Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.