Multi-year MSU study tracks tagged deer

By Karen Brasher | Mississippi State University

STARKVILLE – Hunters in the Lowndes County area may find deer with colored ear tags wandering in the woods this fall.
The tagged deer are part of a Mississippi State University Forest and Wildlife Research Center study to determine antler size and growth rates for wild, male, white-tailed deer.
The study objective is to determine if antler size in young bucks is an indication of their future size as mature deer.
The study is centered in Lowndes County on the 40,000-acre Tombigbee Cooperative, which covers areas around the Tombigbee River and beyond. MSU scientists are collaborating with Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks biologists.
“We have studied yearling antler development and found it to be an indicator of antler development in older ages,” said Steve Demarais, wildlife biologist in the university’s wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture department.
“However, our studies are generally confined to research pens, where deer have un- limited access to protein pellets.”
Demarais said understanding antler development under field conditions helps provide a scientific basis for setting hunting regulations, especially related to antler restrictions and harvest rates for younger bucks.
The study began in January 2011 and will last five to 10 years. For the first five years, scientists will use nets and boxes to capture the deer.
“From January through March, we will capture and take measurements of young deer, one and a half years old or younger,” Demarais said. “During the early months of the year, deer can be aged with certainty using tooth replacement patterns.”
Trail cameras will be set up each fall by landowners and hunters in the Tombigbee Cooperative to photograph deer.
“Trail cameras will allow us to follow the antler development of tagged deer as they mature, using our commercial software, BuckScore, to estimate antler size from the photographs,” said Bronson Strickland, associate MSU Extension professor of wildlife ecology and management.
Strickland said antler size reaches its maximum at maturity, which is five to six years of age, so the photographs will help determine the antler growth rate of known-aged deer in the wild.
The study will help scientists and biologists try to understand the criteria needed to protect younger bucks.
“Within the deer management community, there has been extensive debate over using yearling antler size as a predictor of the rack size at maturity,” Demarais said.
“If yearlings with below-average antlers will have below-average antlers at maturity, then these yearlings could be targeted for harvest as part of overall population control. However, if yearling antler size is not a valid predictor of future antler size, the yearlings should be allowed to grow older so that they can more accurately reflect their genetic potential for antler growth.”