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"GC uncertain if deer plan working

Thursday, January 5, 2006 10:19 AM EST

By Bob Frye Capital Correspondent

Harrisburg — Some hunters would tell you that the Pennsylvania Game Commis-sion’s effort to reduce the size of the deer herd has worked too well. Others would say the job has only just begun.

Who is right?

Apparently, no one knows for sure - not even the commissioners who are in charge of setting seasons, bag limits, and antlerless license allocations. That’s because the agency has not yet started to gauge the effectiveness of its own program, or even decided on what measures to use in doing that.

The commission’s deer plan calls for managing whitetails to produce three things: healthy deer, healthy habitat, and a reduced number of deer-human conflicts. At the agency’s October meeting, Commissioner Dan Hill, of Erie County, asked Game Commission staff to tell him how they were measuring those things.

“If you listened closely to what Cal (DuBrock, director of the commission’s bureau of wildlife management,) said in October, they don’t have the measures,”Hill said recently. “They were trying to build them.”

They’re still trying, it seems. Chris Rosenberry, head of the commission’s deer management section, said the question of what measures to use is “all stuff to be determined.”

There’s been some discussion within the agency of collecting embryos from does to gauge deer health, though there remain concerns about how biologists would get them. There’s also been talk of using regeneration data collected annually from sites all across the state by the U.S. Forest Service to measure forest health.

Nothing has been decided, however, and won’t be when commissioners are asked to finalize seasons and bag limits for 2006-07 in January.

“We are still developing (measures) and basically running through a review process,” Rosenberry said. “We plan to have those sorts of things on board and operational by the time of the April meeting, when we make antlerless license allocation recommendations to the commissioners.”

The idea of monitoring the deer program is not new. Gary Alt, then head of the commission’s deer team, said as early as 2002 that he wanted to establish several forest regeneration study areas around the state, each with different deer seasons and bag limits. That, he said, would determine how effective hunters were in killing deer, and how habitat responded to various levels of deer harvest.

Those studies never took place, though, before Alt quit the commission.

Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials have also talked of measuring forest health. DCNR biologist Merlin Benner said last summer that his agency planned to monitor habitat on a number of sites in 2006. Some of those would overlap with areas where the Game Commission is examining hunter impact on doe populations.

Rosenberry said he has not met with anyone from DCNR in several months, however, and does not know the status of its project. Benner could not be reached for comment.

Clearly, however, it’s beyond time to put some system of measuring the deer program in place, Hill said.

Right now, for example, some hunters, commissioners and even agency staff refer to parts of the state as “cold spots” with admittedly few deer. But are deer scarce enough in those places that habitat regeneration is now occurring, as hoped? Are deer numbers even lower than they need to be? Or do deer populations there have to be maintained at their current levels for a while longer to allow forests to recover from decades of overbrowsing?

As things stand, without a system of measurements in place, no one - not even the commission - can offer a credible answer to those questions, Hill said.

“It’s completely fair to say, after five years of management, how is it working and how do you know it’s working? It’s completely fair,” Hill said. “Otherwise, how do you have the debate?”

In the meantime, the controversy over deer rages on.

Roxane Palone, a commissioner from Greene County, remains convinced the agency is on the right track. Commissioners need measurements, she agreed, but they also need to be consistent in maintaining seasons and bag limits while they are established and applied.

“Now is not the time to make big changes because there’s not enough data to make those decisions. Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions,” Palone said.

Commissioner Russ Schleiden, of Centre County, agreed. The commission’s deer plan was never meant to simply lower deer numbers for its own sake. The goal has been to lower deer numbers so the habitat can restore itself.

Right now, he’s not sure the people saying they want more deer can justify their demands.

“I’ve never heard them say we’ve studied the habitat, it’s recovered, it’s fine, and there are still no deer. I haven’t heard that,” Schleiden said.

“Until our people can get the data they want and come down with some recommendations based on what they see differently, I can’t see where we should change yet. I would hope that our people stay the course.”

Commissioner Greg Isabella, of Philadelphia, believes the commission is “very close to where we want to be” in terms of deer management. That’s not to say it can’t be tweaked, he said. It was always designed to be flexible.

But some hunters have to align their expectations with reality, too.

“I’ve talked to people this year who shot a deer. And they were happy to shoot a deer. But then they turn around and say there aren’t enough deer and they want more. I’m stymied,” Isabella said.

Others, like Commissioner Tom Boop, of Northumberland County, believe the commission has killed too many deer in places like northcentral Pennsylvania. He’s not convinced that deer are causing problems with forest regeneration in those areas now if they ever were.

Boop tried unsuccessfully to reduce the length of the doe season in more than half of the state’s 22 wildlife management units last year. He said he’ll propose the same thing again in January, as well as push the Game Commission and DCNR to do more timber cuts.

He worries that if those steps aren’t taken, and deer numbers remain as low as 10 per square mile in places, hunters will walk away from their sport.

“Sport hunting will not survive in Pennsylvania with those numbers. At least deer hunting won’t,” Boop said.

Deer hunting — and by extension the Game Commission — won’t even survive if deer harvests remain high, but most of the kill occurs in southwestern and southeastern Pennsylvania, said Commissioner Steve Mohr, of Lancaster County. The commission needs to find a way to create habitat and put deer in the northcentral counties where many hunters have camps, he said.

If it doesn’t, and license sales, the commission’s main source of revenue, continue to fall - they were down 7 percent as of the end of November - outside forces will take over the agency, not so much by a merger as through a “hostile takeover.”

“It’s a bad situation. I don’t have the answers, that’s for sure. But if someone doesn’t sit down and figure something out soon, we’re all doomed,” Mohr said.

Commission President John Riley, of Monroe County, admitted that solving the deer situation has become “a much bigger problem than we anticipated.”

“I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of accolades for what we’ve done. But we’re going to stick to our guns and do what we think is right,” Riley said. “We have to make determinations based on the science.”

What is really sad about this article is that the PGC has the data to evaluate the results from the plan. They have the harvest data, they have the results from the survey teams that measure and age deer at the deer processors, they have the results from the annual winter mortality surveys and they have the results from the roadkill deer WCO's check for embryos.

IMHO they aren't releasing the results because they can't figure out a way to spin the data so it shows that AR's and HR produced the results Dr.Alt said it would.
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