Trophy Talk: Does Hunting Hurt Horn & Antler Growth?

For years, one of the arguments the antis used in their tirades against hunting was the idea that hunting lowers the quality of harvested animals by taking out the very best. Wildlife managers have also questioned this, and for certain species they have instituted regulations that protect smaller-horned and antlered males. So the questions are: Do these regulations work to improve horn or antler quality, and does hunting have an impact on the horn or antler size of hunted species?

The factors that might lower the quality of antlers or horns over a long period of time include: intensive hunter harvest of males, genetic change as a result of selective male harvest, climate change, habitat alterations, and the increased desire of hunters to submit smaller but eligible trophies to the record books.

These factors are difficult to assess, but a new study does just that. A team of biologists analyzed more than 22,000 Boone and Crockett records for 25 species from 1900 to 2008. The study was published by The Wildlife Society as a Wildlife Monograph (Vol. 183, Feb. 2013) and is titled, "Effects of Harvest, Culture, and Climate on Trends in Size of Horn-Like Structures in Trophy Ungulates."


These researchers showed that over the 108 years of data examined, antler size for 17 species declined a total of 1.87 percent. For typical whitetail bucks, the decrease was 1.86 percent. This means that a 150-inch buck in 1900 would only be a 148.14-inch buck in 2008.


Typical Coues deer dropped 0.07 percent, as did Alaska-Yukon moose (-0.01 percent) and typical mule deer (-0.08 percent). Caribou species dropped as well, with the Quebec-Labrador caribou dropping 0.64 percent followed by central Canada barren ground caribou (-0.25 percent), mountain caribou (-0.16 percent), and woodland caribou (-0.05 percent). Rocky Mountain elk dropped 0.03 percent, while the Roosevelt elk dropped 0.27 percent. Columbia blacktails (typical) dropped 0.33 percent.

This study also examined the four species of wild sheep and four other horned species. For all eight species they found an overall average decline of 0.68 percent in horn size. However, the news was not all bad as five of the eight species gained in horn size (bison, muskox, pronghorn, mountain goat, bighorn sheep). Desert sheep decreased 0.13 percent as did Dall sheep (-0.14 percent) and Stone sheep (-0.11 percent). The species with the largest increase in horn size over the 108 years was muskox (+0.34 percent). Bison gained (+0.04 percent) in horn size, and so did pronghorns (+0.03 percent), mountain goats (+0.02 percent) and bighorn sheep (+0.07 percent).

The sheep have been of particular interest to wildlife managers. In this study, bighorn sheep showed a slight increase in horn size. Breaking the data down, one sees a slow but steady decline in bighorn sheep horn size until 1980, but a steady increase thereafter. That shift coincided with a more conservative harvest strategy and reintroductions into new areas.

Desert bighorns have slid steadily since 1960, even with harvest restrictions on horn size. That said, factors other than hunting may be playing a role. For example, in Arizona, studies show that the amount of winter moisture is correlated to horn size over the lifetime of an individual male. Since we have seen more persistent droughts and lower winter snowfalls in recent years, this could explain some of the decline in horn size.


There are several other possible factors that could impact antler and horn size over a 100-year period. This study examined those variables relative to horned species and came to this conclusion. "Our results provided no support for a sociological effect (a desire to submit smaller, but eligible species to the record book), effects of large-scale climate, or broad-scale habitat change as the primary explanations for downward trends in (horn) size. In contrast, our results provided moderate support for the hypothesis that intensive harvest may have resulted in a gradual shift in male age structure towards younger males, and limited support for genetic effects as a result of selective male harvest, as potential explanations for observed trends in size of horn-like structures."

In conclusion, given the huge benefits derived from recreational hunting and their overall contributions to conservation, the small declines observed in horn and antler size during the past century may not be all that important. However, now that we know the trends, be assured that wildlife biologists and managers will be more focused on this situation.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

2018 Bowhunter TV Episode 6: Great Start!

2018 Bowhunter TV Episode 6: Great Start!

Guest hunter Christian Berg visits Whitetail Heaven Outfitters in Kentucky and gets his deer-hunting season off to a great start with an amazing velvet buck.

Canyon Ranch Roundup Part 2

Canyon Ranch Roundup Part 2

Bowhunter TV's Derek Mleynek and Equipment Editor Tony J. Peterson head to Texas for a late-season mixed bag hunt in a truly target-rich environment.

Kentucky Bowfishing Competition

Kentucky Bowfishing Competition

Bowhunter Editor Curt Wells has a friendly bowfishing competition with members of the Muzzy Bowfishing team on Kentucky Lake.

Kansas Turkey Bowhunt

Kansas Turkey Bowhunt

Bowhunter contributor Matt Palmquist sets up shop for a turkey hunt in Kansas.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

New year, new look at your whitetail ground How-To

Summer Scouting from Scratch

Tony J. Peterson

New year, new look at your whitetail ground

Black bear meat is dark and rich, and delicious ground up in this Pâté chaud recipe. Recipes

Vietnamese Black Bear Pté Chaud (Meat Pie) Recipe

Jenny Nguyen-Wheatley

Black bear meat is dark and rich, and delicious ground up in this Pâté chaud recipe.

Advances in rangefinding devices have helped bowhunters immensely. Scouting Tools

Advancements in Rangefinder Technology Through the Years

Chuck Adams

Advances in rangefinding devices have helped bowhunters immensely.

Chasing predators is great for calming big-game nerves. Other Game

Tips for Bowhunting Predators

Joe Bell

Chasing predators is great for calming big-game nerves.

See More Trending Articles

More Conservation

Taking long-distance shots at big-game animals has become acceptable, but here's why it isn't the ethical choice. Conservation

Is it Ethical to Take Long-Distance Bowhunting Shots?

Curt Wells

Taking long-distance shots at big-game animals has become acceptable, but here's why it isn't...

The Pope and Young Club serves bowhunters year-round and throws a great gathering every two years. Conservation

The Grand Rendezvous

Dwight Schuh - November 04, 2010

The Pope and Young Club serves bowhunters year-round and throws a great gathering every two...

When it comes to CWD, there are some things we know, and some things we don't know. Conservation

The Scientific Facts & Unknowns of CWD

Dr. Dave Samuel - March 25, 2019

When it comes to CWD, there are some things we know, and some things we don't know.

              By Dr. Dave Samuel    For years, woodland caribou hunting in Newfoundland has been an Conservation

Caribou Numbers Plummet In Newfoundland

Dr. Dave Samuel - November 04, 2010

By Dr. Dave Samuel For years, woodland caribou hunting in Newfoundland has...

See More Conservation

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get Digital Access.

All Bowhunter subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now