The Relationship Between Deer Density and Antler Size

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Does having fewer deer produce bigger bucks?

Can too much of a good thing become ... bad? (Shutterstock / Tony Campbell photo)

The variables that factor into the ever-debatable topic of antler size culminate to create a complexity that goes beyond biology. It also circles back to hunting pressure and hunter behavior. Is there something inherently better about areas with lower deer density? Do these places generally harbor bigger-antlered deer?

In short, there are plenty of studies that suggest a lower deer density is better for producing top-end bucks, but that is not the only reason – hunting pressure and hunter behavior play even bigger roles.

As long as hunters allow bucks to reach full maturity, you’ll have big-antlered bucks despite herd density. It’s only when the herd density gets really high — at least in the Midwest — that you see a drop-off in antler size due to what the experts call “social stress.” This is the agitation that comes from packing too many deer into a small area. With social stress, there is competition for quality food sources and bedding cover.

All said, I don’t know where social stress starts with respect to density. I’m guessing it’s higher than most herds actually achieve. In truly managed areas, efforts are made to ensure proper buck and doe harvests. Up-and-coming genetic standouts are off limits until they reach certain age classes. You can’t have big deer if genetically superior 3- and 4-year-old bucks are cherry picked out of the herd.

As a result, the recipe for the perfect place to own land isn’t simple. There are always compromises and pros and cons. You must know a lot about neighboring properties, hunters that are on them, and overall goals in that neighborhood.

The perfect place is an area where deer are managed correctly. That includes keeping populations within the carrying capacity of the land. The best bucks (genetically speaking) must reach full maturity. It’s best if this is intentional and not accidental, but a default-managed herd can change quickly if neighboring hunters alter their practices.

Overall, when an area is compromised on either leg of this formula (density or age), proceed with caution. Truly understand the dynamics involved before attempting to predict, plan or influence the long-term performance for that property.

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