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Here's an article on Dr. Alt and the PA QDM movement:

Copyright 2000 Lancaster Newspapers, Inc.
SUNDAY NEWS (LANCASTER, PA.)
February 27, 2000, Sunday
SECTION: SPORTS, Pg. C-13, JACK HUBLEY

HEADLINE: Doctor of deer;
Dr. Gary Alt says the prescription for healthier deer and healthier forests might be hard to swallow in the short term, but the payoff will be better hunting down the road.

BYLINE: Jack Hubely

Maybe it was the topic.

Maybe the speaker.

Then again, maybe it was a little of each.

Game Commission wildlife biologist Dr. Gary Alt came to town to talk deer management at the Farm and Home Center last Tuesday evening, and with 15 minutes remaining till showtime, it was pretty hard to find a seat.

That's because Gary has more pull with the public than any other wildlife professional in the state. He's bright, well-educated and a polished speaker with impeccable delivery and a relentless sense of humor.

He's also (and this is strictly my own take on the situation) running scared. He spent a quarter of a century building what's probably the most respected bear management program in the country. And now, at the turn of the millennium, when he could be coasting, he's pushed all that aside to take on what is far and away the most daunting wildlife management challenge in the country, the white-tailed deer. And taking the deer management helm in Pennsylvania means commanding a ship with no rudder and lots of leaks.

"We are ranked almost rock bottom, in terms of the way we've managed deer in this state," he told the crowd of about 300 last Tuesday. He told us he's spent the past six months trying to get his arms around the issue and can't believe the magnitude of the problem.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this: For the past 70-odd years the Pennsylvania Game Commission -- the hunter's advocate -- has been trying to put a buck in every pot at the expense of most everything else that lives in Penn's Woods, not to mention the woods itself. As a result, vast areas of the state's big-woods country, primarily in the northcentral region, have been turned into a sylvan feedlot and chewed to nubbins by an overabundant deer herd.

To make matters worse, the hunter and the biologist can walk the same chunk of this forest and come away with vastly different conclusions. The hunter doesn't see a deer all day, figures we've shot 'em all, buys a doe tag and burns it, then clamors for cuts in the antlerless allocation. The biologist looks at
the same piece of real estate, realizes that the depaupered habitat can tolerate almost no pressure from herbivores and asks hunters to further reduce the area's eight deer per square mile to four.

Heresy! cries the hunter. There's maybe eight deer left in the whole county, and if you biologists have your way, they'll soon be gone, too! So, it's obvious when you watch and listen to our chief deer biologist that he's worried. I know from one-on-one conversations with him in recent months that he's agonizing over this, and I'd bet a buck that he's losing sleep.

To fix the deer problem, you start by fixing the habitat. The biologist underscored that point several times during his talk. He believes that some areas with low deer densities will not recover until deer numbers are driven even lower. From the hunter's standpoint, that means that things will have to get worse before they get better. Nobody likes to hear that.

Alt is not worried because he believes the disease can't be cured; he's worried because he's afraid the hunting community won't buy the prescription. A hunter himself, Alt desperately wants hunters to lead the charge -- to be the solution, rather than an impediment to it. But, warns the biologist, if we hunters dig in our heels, close our minds and refuse to allow PGC biologists to do their jobs, all those non-hunting stakeholders -- the nine out of 10 Pennsylvanians who don't pull the trigger on deer but don't care to have
them eating their future forests, agricultural crops and shrubbery and stepping in front of their cars -- will push us aside and solve the problem themselves. Result: hunters lose their management authority, and ultimately, their hunting privileges.

So Dr. Alt is worried. He wants all of us to understand the magnitude of the problem and give his agency a chance to come up with solutions. To that end, he's embarked on a massive public-relations campaign, taking his management message to 49 locations across the state in 79 days.

At this point nothing's cast in stone. But he's got some ideas. He wants to try some new stuff. And he wants to know more about Pennsylvania's deer herd. So he's mounting what he calls the most massive deer research effort in the history of the state.

One thing weighing heavily on his mind is the state's buck/doe ratio. Whitetails give birth to about equal numbers of buck and doe fawns. But any deer hunter who spends opening mornings on stand knows that our herd is dramatically skewed in favor of females. Pennsylvania, says Dr. Alt, kills a larger percentage of its antlered bucks each year -- 75 percent and up -- than any other state in the country. Only one buck in 100 sees its fourth birthday. Alt says he's personally aged 15,000 bucks during his annual visits to butcher shops during the deer seasons, and the oldest buck he's ever examined was 6 years old.

He suspects that the repercussions from this unnatural situation are more pervasive than we realize. Does are sexually receptive to bucks for only a short time, and with relatively few bucks to breed them, how many go unbred? And how many wait until their next cycle, a month later, to be bred? Timing is critical
here in the north country. Does bred in December, rather than in November, will drop their fawns later in the summer, and those youngsters will go into the winter with less body weight and be less likely to survive a tough winter. To get a handle on this situation, Alt's crew will be examining embryos
from roadkilled does this spring to estimate when the young are being conceived. If a significant number of does are being bred late in the season, Alt says he might push for a doe season prior to buck season. Removing females from the population prior to the breeding season should reduce stress on the bucks, result in a higher percentage of does being bred and a lower number of late births.

Hunters, says Alt, can also help the buck/doe situation by getting over their obsession with antlers -- any antlers 3 inches or longer -- on opening morning. "We need to get rid of this tradition of saying, if I don't shoot this buck somebody else will," says the biologist.

If we can do that -- if we can learn to let the yearling bucks walk and stop viewing a doe as a "consolation prize" -- we can end up with a healthier sex ratio and a shot at connecting with mature bucks. Bucks 2 to 4 years old that carry those heart-stopping racks that most of us have no hope of seeing under the current management regime.

To give hunters a firsthand look at what can happen when bucks are allowed to mature, Alt hopes to set up at least one demonstration area in the near future to showcase quality deer management.

Don't look for any earth-shaking changes (or results, for that matter) in the deer program this year. Alt is still in fact-finding mode, and he wants more data from his research projects before making any big moves. For that reason, this year's antlerless allocation will be much the same as last year's.

Down the road, though, we can expect to see some big changes. Alt knows we can't broadbrush deer management by going from the current 67-county management system to 18 even larger deer management units. He knows that surgical management will be necessary in order to address local problems. And he firmly believes that owners of large tracts of forest land should have a hand in
deciding how many deer is the right number on their properties. In other words, deer management is destined to become much more complex. "It's going to be a nightmare to implement, for sure," he told us last Tuesday. But it's a nightmare that the former bear biologist is committed to turning into a dream. "If we work for the common good, we will succeed," he says.

I'd have to say that, in 18 years of covering the Game Commission for this paper, I've never seen such commitment as I see in Gary Alt. Sure, he's going to make a mistake here and there, but I'm willing to bet that the net result will be positive. We, the sportsmen and women of the state, owe it to this guy,
and to ourselves, to give him a chance and not stonewall the agency with meaningless
bickering over details.

Are you guys listening? >>


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Boyd
 
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