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Pennsylvania takes gutsy position on deer management

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By Dr. Dave Samuel

Bowhunter Conservation

Pennsylvania Takes Gutsy Position On Deer

In recent years deer management in Pennsylvania has been in
turmoil. Some hunters said the deer herd was way
down in certain localities and last year they led a battle to stop
all doe hunting in the state. Things got very political,
and fortunately the bill was scuttled. But heads rolled, jobs were
lost, and things were a mess.

At one time the deer management program in Pennsylvania was viewed
by other agencies as the model for all to
follow. Today that is definitely not the case. Here is what is
happening. Vern Ross, new director of the
Pennsylvania Game Commission, has appointed Dr. Gary Alt, former
bear biologist, to run the deer management
program. Dr. Alt's assessment is a simple one...over the past 40
years we have mismanaged our deer herds. (I
will add that this has happened not only in Pennsylvania but in
many other states as well). Here is why Dr Alt says
that is the case.

If you look at deer exclosures throughout the state, you can see
that many species of plants are gone from the
forest. Browse lines are abundant in many parts of the state. This
is evident to even the most ardent opponents of
doe hunting. So, why are deer numbers down in certain parts of the
state? Simple. The habitat is not there to
support deer numbers. How do you resolve that? You harvest even
more does to allow the habitat to recover. It
cannot be done any other way.

When you have poor habitat, i.e. environmental damage to the
habitat from overbrowsing, fawn survival will
decrease. The milk does feed fawns is 10 % fat, while cow milk is
3-4 % fat. Fawns need that high nutritive milk.
But when the doe is in poor health, she may not produce as much
good milk, and this leads to lower fawn
survival. Dr Alt suggests that you can link fawn survival to poor
habitat. Poor habitat means poor reproduction,
poor fawn survival. This lowers the number of bucks out there,
because half the fawns are bucks.

Now, let's add another factor to the equation - the fact that
Pennsylvania harvests 75% of all the legal bucks
available in the forests every year. In some parts of the state
they harvest 90 %. This is happening in other states
as well. For example, my state of West Virginia probably harvests
70% of the legal bucks every year. Dr. Alt
thinks that this might be a problem. Since does concentrate their
breeding cycle to a few short days in November
(the time when most does get bred), if there are not enough bucks
out there, then, depending on the time of the
rut, all does
might not get bred. Pennsylvania has begun a study to determine
whether this is, or is not, the situation.

There is also some concern that gun hunting during the rut may have
a behavioral influence on deer getting bred.
Again, studies are being done to consider this.

In taking 75% of all bucks every year, you also eliminate the
chance for quality bucks to be produced. Dr. Alt
suggests that only one Pennsylvania buck in every 100 lives to be 4
or more years old, the age when antler quality
really starts to show. One proposal is to take several areas in
Pennsylvania and consider what happens when
younger buck age classes are not harvested in large numbers.

Here is the kicker, and I think it is imperative for hunters
everywhere (not just Pennsylvania) to understand this.
Deer impact everyone. Even low numbers of deer impact citizens. Who
has the responsibility to manage deer
numbers? Hunters. If habitat, forests, farmlands, etc, are being
changed by deer, then hunters have the
responsibility to manage the deer. Deer are impacting our
environment, and hunters are looked upon to help solve
the problem. And if we ignore this situation, if we continue to
call for no doe hunting, or reduced doe hunting, then
citizens will look for other solutions, solutions that hunters will
not like.

Dr. Alt indicates that there is much work and information needed.
They want to examine how populations are
calculated. Can quality deer management be inplemented in some
areas? What about fawn survival? What about
buck-to-doe ratios? There is a lot to learn.

But one thing is certain, more does must be harvested, and the
Pennsylvania Game Commission has proposed
several ways to get this done. The hard pill for some hunters to
swallow is that we must be harvesting more does,
even though deer numbers are down (in some areas) from where they
were 10 years ago. The habitat cannot
recover if numbers are not lowered.

Consider this analogy. A pasture has 10 cows in it, and after
several months, there is less grass than when the
cows were introduced to that pasture. In fact, some of the grass
has been killed. So, 2 of the cows are removed,
but there is not enough grass to sustain them. They continue to
overgraze the area, more grass dies. Removing the
cows will only work when you get the animals down to a level that
the grass can recover. That is where we are in
parts of Pennsylvania. (And in West Virginia and New Jersey and

If the hunters bite the bullet, and stay with the program, the
result could be much better quality habitat, and much
better quality bucks. And citizens will again trust our management
system. If hunters do not realize the problem,
resist and fight, and if we do not start to implement similar
programs in other states with high deer numbers, then
citizens could take it all away from us. Believe it. People are
upset about deer. In your state, foresters are
complaining because there is no oak regeneration. Farmers complain
like crazy. People are upset about car/deer
collisions. And up until now, most states have just dabbled with
solutions. So, up steps Dr Alt and the
Pennsylvania Game Commission attempting to set new standards for
deer management. It will be most interesting
to see the results. But if hunters do not support some of the new
proposals, the program is doomed to failure. And
so is habitat.

Dave Samuel, Bowhunter Conservation Editor

Dave Samuel

Conservation Editor

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Looks like some of the other literature I;ve been reading. Such as, if there is plenty of food, the Doe's offspring will be higher, instead of twins, tripletts and instead of one survivor three, but that really only compounds the problem if the deer already eat more than the plot they live in can provide. We (friends and family with legal permits) removed a lot of deer from the family's 240 acre area last year. While turkey hunting we notice at least as many full sized deer as we did before the season last year. I hope we are doing enough. I remember when I was a teen it was a rare hunter that brough home meat every deer season, and many hunters especially the ones with no private land to hunt on usually got none. The animals were just scarce. I don't want it to be like tnat for my grandsons. I hope someone figures out how to keep the herds without ruining the land.

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