Genetics and the Hunt

Broad based hunting seasons with the general population hunting is assumed to normally distribute the harvesting of young through mature male animals.  However, without controls and restrictions the maturity and broad based gene pool is still often effected as evidenced by the Pa Whitetail deer hunting program.  For a number of years the antlered season was run without any restrictions other than the antlered deer had to have one antler at least three inches long.  With advances in rifle and scope technology and the easier access to all hunting grounds, the Pa whitetail deer population had few males reaching 4 to 5 years old and most antlered deer harvested were small in antler structure.  That style season did not selectively harvest trophy animals as most of the hunters afield only wanted to say "I got my buck".  A few years ago an antler restriction of at least three points per side was added and a significant change has occurred in the antlered deer population in PA with many more very mature antlered deer resulting.

The Pa Elk Hunt is administered with antlerless and antlered tags.  There is no program currently to cull particular gene pools from the elk population or control the age and genetic make up of the animals that are harvested.  The data collection and interviewing I have done of hunters that desire to hunt bull elk in PA has brought to focus a concern for the long term health of the Pa Elk Herd.  Most of the hunters are only interested in harvesting a "Trophy" bull.  they are paying a significant guide fee and it is like winning the lottery to draw a permit, let a lone an antlered permit.  With a small herd (less than 800) this can create a situation where the breeding bulls with what is considered "trophy racks" can be culled from the herd to the point that the bulls with non-trophy or deformed racks become the primary breeding stock for the Pa Elk Herd.  It is recognized among game biologists that selective culling must be done in small herds to maintain a herd with broad based genetics.  I began researching this topic after seeing five bulls in the same area near Benezett last winter that all had similar deformities of the right antler.  It was obvious from observation that all of these bulls were genetically deformed and had not had some antler damage done during velvet to cause the deformity as some tried to convince me.

Here are images of three of the bulls:
(these images do not follow rules of photography of animals--they are cropped to illustrate antler structure)
This one may be Dad or Grandpa

The other two bulls that were with the above three stayed deeper in the brush and did not provide me with an opportunity to photograph them clearly.  

All of these bulls are within the hunt zone.  If the hunt is continued on the same basis as it is now-bulls like these could become the primary breeding stock of the herd which could result in the majority of the bulls in the herd having antler structure such as this is some other antler form.  Since the Pa Bull Elk are so easily accessible (guides would lead you to believe this is not true-but look at the 100% kill stats in Pa compared to 15% in western states) the Pa Game Commission could implement a program similar to what is done on ranches in Wyoming, Montana and Texas for deer.  That program would have tags that are for specific animals that would be culled from the herd for long term health of the herd.  An outfall of that would be that antlered tags would not be as cherished and the number of applicants might go down. The bottom line is that the Elk Hunt in Pa has not been very well thought out in terms of management of the herd for its long term health.

Jim Borden


  1. Very interesting. Wonderful photos too :)

  2. An interesting article, and it helps highlight the need for change in how the herd is managed.