The Real Skinny On Shooting Cull Bucks

Research says spike-on-one-side bucks aren't genetically inferior.

Mike Bolton | November 26, 2013

So, you’ve made managing your deer herd on your beloved piece of hunting property a priority. You read everything you can get your hands on about deer management. You’ve attended deer-management seminars. You plant high-protein food plots. You kill does as recommended to get your buck-to-doe ratio closer to the desired balance.

You take the best information available and strive to do all the right things.

Then one day you are sitting in your deer stand, and a mature buck with a nice 4-point rack on one side and a scraggly spike on the other steps out. Dang… if only both sides matched, he’d be a really nice buck.

That’s obviously not a buck you want spreading its genetics in your deer herd, you think to yourself. Everything you’ve read, watched and been told says that’s a cull buck. You pull the trigger.

In your efforts to enhance the quality of your deer herd by removing what you believe is an inferior buck you instead just hurt your deer herd, a soon-to-be-published study by Auburn University says.

It’s a common belief by many wildlife managers and hunters that bucks with a spike on one side are genetically inferior deer and should be removed from the herd. What the study showed, however, was that the chances are great that the buck had a spike on one side due to an injury, not a genetic mutation.

So what, you say?

While a buck like that might never be a trophy if it never has anything but a spike on that one side because of injury, there is harm in culling it from the herd, according to the researchers that conducted the study.

Malformations caused by injuries typically affect only one side of the deer’s rack. That leaves the normal half for a hunter’s assessment of its true genetic antler make-up. While a buck can pass on its genetics to its offspring, it can’t pass on antler malformations caused by injuries. Culling the buck might mean the loss of years of it producing healthy offspring with normal, symmetrical antlers.

The Auburn research project was conducted by Gabriel R. Karns, a postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University who was at Auburn University at the time of the study, and renowned white-tailed deer expert Steve Ditchkoff, a professor of wildlife at Auburn.

The study focused on what was defined as spike-on-one-side bucks. A plea for hunters to donate spike-on-one-side bucks during the 2010 and 2011 deer seasons resulted in 71 such bucks for the study, Ditchkoff said.

Injuries to the bucks such as broken legs or prior gunshot wounds were documented. Ditchkoff explained that after removing all soft tissue from each sample, the buck’s age was determined and any signs of damage or abnormalities to the skull or the pedicle, the portion of the skull to which the antlers attach, were documented.

It is well-known that buck injuries resulting from, say, being struck by a vehicle or a survivable gunshot wound, manifests itself the following season by producing a deformed rack on the opposite side of the deer’s rack from the wound.

The Auburn study found that the failure of antlers to be shed cleanly and naturally resulted in damage to a pedicle. The premature shedding of those antlers took part of the pedicle with it, forever dooming the buck to an inferior rack on one side. In some cases where the antlers had failed to cleanly separate from the pedicles, the antler had not only fractured off portions of the pedicle but the surrounding cranium as well.

Such an injury can happen anytime a buck is in velvet or sporting antlers if it receives a blow capable of breaking the antlers from the head. Those injuries may be caused from fighting with other bucks, vehicle collisions, running into trees and other ways. Pedicle injuries appear to be more common late in the season as the antlers loosen but aren’t quite ready to shed, Ditchkoff said.

The injury restricts the normal flow of blood and nutrients needed for normal antler development, much like putting a thumb over the end of a garden hose, Karns said. That leads to the malformed antler.

The study also found that once the buck’s skull or pedicle is injured, any following antler growth re-aggravates the injury resulting in a lifetime of abnormal antlers.

“The vast majority of the deer we looked at were malformed on one side because of a damaged pedicle, not genetics,” Ditchkoff said. “We believe most of the damaged pedicles came during the shedding process but how we really aren’t sure.

“All these hunters are watching these TV shows, and they are being told that deer with a spike on one side is a management cull. Their first thought is that they need to get that deer out of their herd. A spike on one side is usually not genetics-related. A buck can’t pass an injury on to its offspring.

“A lot of hunters believe that they are improving their herd when in actuality they have hurt it.”

Removing “cull bucks” from a herd as a management tool has been hotly debated and practiced by hunters for many years. Many hunters believe any abnormality from one side of a rack to the other must be caused by genetics, but that doesn’t make good sense, Karns says. He says there are not separate genetic codes for each side of the rack, thus most deer antlers are fairly symmetrical.

Ditchkoff says he has long suspected that any great variance in a deer’s rack from one side to the other must be caused by an injury, not genetics. Karns said he and Ditchkoff decided to investigate Ditchkoff’s theory while he was at Auburn University pursuing a doctorate in wildlife sciences

The goal of the study, Karns said, was to determine if malformed antlers on just one side of a buck’s head could be traced back to an injury rather than genetics.

He said ongoing research shows it is extremely difficult or even impossible for hunters and landowners to change the genetics in a non-captive herd by removing certain bucks.

Chuck Sykes, director of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, is a wildlife manager and white-tailed deer biologist. He has managed deer-hunting land for individuals across Georgia, Alabama and the country for decades. He has long been an opponent to culling bucks because he doesn’t believe most hunters are able to identify what is truly a cull buck.

“Thank goodness research has finally backed up what on-the-ground experience showed,” he said of the university study.

“I think most hunters use the term cull as an excuse to shoot something. In my opinion a cull buck is a buck of a certain age that you no longer want in your herd. Culling shouldn’t be based on antler characteristics.

“Some places you have 6-point bucks that are 3 or more years old that hunters are letting walk, and then they want to shoot something for a cull that has 4 points on one side and a spike on the other.

“A lot of it can be traced back to these TV shows that push shooting cull bucks. You get a hunter who goes a three-day stretch without seeing a buck to kill, so he kills a buck and says, ‘It was a cull buck, so I took him.’”

Sykes has an opinion on why we see spikes-on-one-side bucks, but he stressed it was only an opinion. He believes when there is late rutting activity, the antlers are starting to loosen but aren’t quite ready to shed when those bucks are still fighting with other bucks. An antler could be knocked off, taking part of the pedicle with it.

Sykes says his recommendation to hunters is that if you can’t accurately gauge the age of a buck and see that it will never be better than a 4-point or 6-point, let it walk.

“Let’s be honest here,” he said. “Landowners need all the able-bodied males they can get. In Texas somewhere where they have a good bucks-to-doe ratio it might be different, but here they shouldn’t be culling any bucks in my opinion.

“They should be shooting a 5-year-old spike instead of 3-year-old 10-points. If they don’t understand facts, they aren’t ready to make right decision. A hunter is hurting himself instead of helping.

“They need to understand that a doe has just as much or more to do with producing a quality offspring. The best thing most hunters need to do is to stop worrying about culls and worry about habitat.”

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