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Antlers, age not always linked

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Many people hold to the belief that the age of a buck deer is best determined by the number of points on his antlers.

That is, a spike would be a yearling, a two-point would be celebrating its second birthday, a three-point its third and so on.

In truth, the number of points has little to do with age.

"A yearling, that is, a deer that is 16 months old, could be a spike or two-point or even a small three-point," explained Rudy Drobnick, who has been studying antlers growth in deer for the Utah Division of Wildlife Rescues.

"Antler growth is based on age, food supply and genetics, and all three are tied together and have a role in antler size. Depending on circumstances, one may carry more weight than another," he explained.

"A deer living in the desert, where nutrition is low, may have large antlers because of age because hunting there is more difficult. A younger buck living along the Wasatch Front may have a large set of antlers because nutrition is better. But the old theory of one point equals one year is simply not true."

The only way to accurately tell the age of a deer is by checking its teeth.

Usually, though, a yearling buck is either a spike or a two-point, and a 2 1/2-year-old deer may be a three-point or a small four-point.

Older deer can sport a wide range of horn configurations.

In the record books, deer are categorized in two classes — typical and non-typical. A typical deer has four points on each antler. A non-typical can have any number of points, anywhere from five to antlers that look like a patch of sagebrush. The world-record buck has 22 points on one side and 21 on the other.

It's a fact, too, said Drobnick, that a buck could be typical up to age five or six but then start sprouting extra points up to age 10.

But it's a good bet that a large typical buck will produce offspring with large typical horns, but some of the genetic characteristics of the doe can come into play.

The one thing we do know is that antlers can be traced back to a particular buck much like fingerprints. Antlers, even shed antlers, can be linked to a particular buck, said Drobnick, by comparing size, shape and angle.

There are other identifying marks on deer, such as the shape and size of the white rump patch or the white patch on the throat, but none is as accurate as the identifying shape, size and angle of antlers on a particular deer.

It is a fact, too, said Drobnick, that winter can have an effect on antler growth in the spring.

"A particularly severe winter will draw the constitution and vitality of a buck down, which will result in slower antler growth in the spring. Following a severe winter, bucks will simply have smaller anglers."

In truth, about the only thing antlers can do is place a deer in a general age category — young, prime or old.

Those deer in areas where hunting is limited will generally have larger horn size, simply because they are typically older deer.

As to whether or not deer are growing larger antlers now than a half-century ago, Drobnick said there are no conclusive studies.

"We are seeing larger elk," he said. "Last year we had seven elk taken that scored more than 400 points in the record books and 15 that scored between 375 and 400. It wasn't that long ago we had only two elk in the record books, and both were somewhere between 370 and 380.

"By having spike-only and limited entry hunts, we're allowing for a greater number of older bulls."

Biologists are predicting that hunters can expect to see more of the larger bucks this year because of the mild winter and wet spring.

E-mail: grass@desnews.com