Getting Inside a Trophy Hunter’s Head

When I mentioned to my mom that I had killed a pretty big Alberta moose last season, she asked “How big?” and I said “about 45 inches”. There was a pause at the other end of the line then she said “My goodness, that is not a very tall moose!”

How did we get to the point of reducing animal descriptions down to their antler spread? Maybe part of the noteworthiness of large racks is their relative scarcity. Because we are drawn to gawk at or admire rare things whether they are antiques, body builders, rare cars or out of the ordinary deer, elk, or moose. Most of us will never see a living whitetail whose antlers score 180 cumulative inches of length because they are rare in nature. Large antlers have some symbolic mystique and appear in truck window appliques, wall mounts, magazine covers, and digital media. Alberta and Saskatchewan are the geographic bullseye for exceptionally large whitetails too.

In ecology, Bergman’s rule says that within a species geographic range, the individuals at the northern extremes will, on average, be larger. This seems to hold for moose, deer, wolves, beavers, raccoons and coyotes. The theory is that the larger bodies have lower surface-to-volume ratios, thus, a lower rate of heat loss per unit of body mass. Tellingly, Alberta whitetails are at the northern limit of the historic deer range and yes, they are the largest in the world.

What else explains Canada’s overrepresentation of record book whitetails?

Genetics of Alberta’s whitetails have the best genetics possible for antler growth. Alberta’s subspecies Odocoileus virginanus v. borealis (sometimes labelled subspecies dakotaensis or ochrourus) produces the largest body and antler size of the 16 commonly recognized whitetail subspecies. Over time, our whitetails have been selected for cold temperatures, deep snow, and large body size. Antlers are somewhat proportional to the body that carries them.

Deer densities are generally low this far north, largely due to occasional extreme winters of deep snow, long duration, and low temperatures that cause fawns and infirm deer to perish. Low deer densities also mean that animal-to-animal contact is reduced, and thus, rates of disease and parasite transmission are low, leading to animals with fewer health restrictions on growth.

Nutrition in our southern boreal zone is excellent too where the long summer days, abundant browse and good cover help whitetails thrive. Where agricultural lands occur near bush or woodlots, whitetail productivity, body size and antler size increase even further. For optimal maintenance and maximum body growth, mature bucks need 3–4 kg of food daily (around 10,000 calories) with at least 15% available protein. This nutrition is easily found in summer but in fall and winter, agricultural waste grain, frozen alfalfa and shattered peas greatly improve body condition. Deer in non-agricultural areas must shift to a winter maintenance diet of rough browse on which they tend to lose their summer weight. Calcium and phosphorus are essential elements throughout the summer for large antler production and deer actively seek phosphorus-rich mushrooms, as well as calcium-rich licks and fertilized crops. In rich-soil agriculture areas, it is the norm to see large-bodied deer with abundant pads of body fat and antlers large for their age. Mature does typically produce twins or triplets each year on such ranges.

Deer age is important. To produce large antlers, deer must survive at least their first three years. This is not unusual though because we rarely over-harvest deer (or elk or moose) in Alberta. This huge province contains just over 100,000 hunters and many a November hunting day passes without seeing or hearing another hunter. Hunters here also often select a meaty doe instead of a spindly “teenager” buck they let grow for another season or two, accumulating sufficient age to develop noteworthy headgear. The magic zone for large antlers is 4.5 years to 7.5 years old. Before that, body growth competes for the nutrients required for antler growth and pedicels or bases are small so antlers tend to be thin even if long and multi-pointed. As bucks age, tooth wear, injuries, parasites, and breeding stresses mean antlers may be heavy and full of character but tend to be shorter-tined, and of smaller spread. These old bucks are knowledgeable about fighting and breeding however and may still be active players until they are 8 or 9 years old. Tagged does in regions of low tooth wear have been recorded living and producing fawns into their late teens. Some hunters worry that killing the largest antlered bucks removes the prime specimens from the breeding pool, however, the record book entries do not indicate any such reduction in body or antler size over the last 5 decades. Deer numbers, vigor, area of occupation, and antler size seem to continue to increase across the entire range of whitetails. Horn size on bighorn sheep appears more at risk of species-wide change, thus, regulations now require passing over young dominant animals in favor of old rams past prime fighting and breeding age. It is working with average horn size increasing under management.

That our antlered species can produce so much bony antler growth each year, shed it, then grow it again, is of great interest to modern medicine. Tissues that regenerated bone growth could be useful. There is a lot happening on the skull plate of a male deer, elk or moose. Hormone-sensitive cells expand, flow blood through capillaries, dry, harden and get polished. Bucks cannot see their entire rack but they can feel it the same way we can feel a fly on the back of our head. Bucks “map” their racks by rubbing and play sparing in preparation for more serious fights through the breeding season. Then around February, a line of weakness called the “abscission zone” forms between skull and antler base, allowing the antlers to fall or “cast”. The skin rapidly covers the exposed wounds and new antler growth starts immediately. It is truly amazing that a bull moose can produce and shed 15 kg of antler each year.

Much of the objection to trophy hunting arises from hunter behavior and attitudinal posing associated with “trophyism”. Swagger, disrespectfulness, and braggadocio are distained whether displayed on the tennis court, via internet, or in a boardroom. Why do we expect it to be appreciated in the hunting fields? The hunting opponents cannot seize on the dislike for a braggart’s strut, but they can exercise vindictiveness through ad hominem attacks and restrictions of hunting practices, thus, a concerted demonization of trophy hunting. Frankly, who can blame them? Blowhards, and symbolic conquering is off putting to most. Hunters need to self-police distasteful behavior and realize how it hurts all outdoorspeople.

Even for hunters whose interest is primarily filling the freezer, the largest-antlered bucks typically also have the largest body size, producing up to 60 kg of boned-out meat. The old saying of “The five natural quarters of a deer” fits well because, bad math aside, the neck of an autumn whitetail buck can equal the weight of one hindquarter. The male hormones, called androgens, combined with weeks of intense exercise such as rubbing antlers on tree trunks and in sparring, dramatically develop the neck and shoulder musculature. In fact, mature rutting bucks seem to have small bodies attached to a massive neck and chest, giving them a distinctive front-heavy look that hunters identify at a glance.

Other appealing features of large antlers is what they represent:

Skill — an indication of a hunter’s ability to outwit a mature, experienced animal;

Commitment- to time invested in hunting;

Observational Skills — attentive scouting and an ability to read sign;

Patience and Delayed Gratification — of the willingness to forego shooting smaller animals that present themselves more readily. These are admirable human traits and the antlers on the wall may connote these human strengths of character.

Finally, large antlers become communication links and talking points just like jewelry, art, and gardens. Hunters cannot resist asking other successful hunters “Where did you get THAT?”, then the conversation is off and running as it bolsters the oral tradition so important to both historic and modern hunting.

Like childbirth stories, wedding toasts, or campfire tales, hunter talk is a pleasant common ground where the animal’s antlers become a tangible touchstone of a much larger story. These durable hard parts help us remember and share the events that led up to their place of honor in our homes. It is one way we immortalize and pay honor and respect to the essence of the animals’ being. I hope you have just such a great experience this season.

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Lee Foote

Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.