Few states can match Pennsylvania for sheer deer hunting enthusiasm, despite the fact that many of its nearly 1 million hunters have never seen a heavily antlered 31/2-year-old buck in the field. But that’s about to change.
Pennsylvania’s radical statewide antler restriction program, which is being closely followed by wildlife biologists across the country, is starting to yield tangible results, and the first signs indicate that they’re impressive. The age composition of Pennsylvania’s buck population is the best it’s been since before World War II. Bucks are living longer and growing bigger, and hunters now have the opportunity to pursue mature animals in a balanced herd.
Deer older than 21/2 historically have made up less than 1 percent of the bucks taken annually by Pennsylvania’s hunters, with yearlings (11/2-year-olds) accounting for up to 85 percent of the harvest. That began to change in 2002, when the state became the first in the country to impose statewide minimum antler-point restrictions for whitetail deer. In heavily forested areas, legal bucks must have at least 3 points on one side; in more agricultural regions, where antler development is better, bucks must have at least 4 points on one side.
“There’s no question that the restrictions are having a profound effect on buck survival,” says Dr. Gary Alt, deer management leader for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who spearheaded the plan in 1999 after directing the state’s acclaimed bear management project. “In our big-woods study area, about half of the yearlings and a third of the 21/2-year-olds survived the [BRACKET “2003”] hunting seasons, and for the first time in my lifetime, a lot of 3-year-olds are coming into the population.”
The new rules are part of a two-pronged approach to righting what Alt calls “the greatest wrong in the history of wildlife management”-Pennsylvania’s long-term failure to keep deer in balance with the available habitat. Beginning in 2000, the game commission also increased the state’s antlerless permit allocations, and in 2002 it changed the doe-season framework in an effort to dramatically increase the harvest of females.
Bigger, older bucks are the new management strategy’s cake and ice cream, and increased doe harvests are the grains and vegetables that make for a balanced deer herd.
“For more than 70 years, we attempted to manage for more deer than the land could sustain by subjecting bucks to intense hunting pressure, while providing does with too much protection,” says Alt. “That produced an unhealthy breeding ecology and, more important, forests that in some areas are so overbrowsed that they’re practically deserts. The shrubs and young trees are gone. The habitat has been devastated.”
Reducing deer numbers, Alt says, will allow forest ecosystems to recover. In time, they’ll be able to sustain healthier herds. This will also restore public confidence in hunters as wildlife managers. Without these measures, he adds, environmentalists, foresters, farmers, and other affected groups will increasingly look to means other than sport hunting to regulate the whitetail population.
**The Results **
Pennsylvania’s revamped program appears to be succeeding. The doe harvest has increased by 65 percent, to an average of 315,000, whereas the buck kill has decreased by 24 percent, to about 154,000. The total harvests since 2000 have been the largest in the state’s history. During that same time, the yearling-buck take has fallen from 85 percent of all bucks harvested to 57 percent, and the ratio of adult does to adult bucks has gone from 14 to 1 to almost 2 to 1.
A survey by Penn State University shows that after much initial resistance, hunter support for the antler restrictions is growing, with about 75 percent backing the changes. But far fewer hunters favor the other goal of the management plan-inccreased doe harvests.
The game commission has gone too far, too fast, according to Greg Levengood, deer committee chairman of Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania, echoing the sentiments of many hunters. “The areas that have too many deer are off-limits on private land, especially in suburban areas,” he says. “But most of the antlerless permits are filled on state land, because that’s where most people hunt, and state lands already have too few deer.”
Alt dismisses these persistent objections as reflecting a “historic disconnect” of some hunters to the relationship between deer numbers and the quality of the habitat.
Coming to a Deer Herd Near You
Wildlife managers and hunters in states throughout the East-many of which have overabundant deer herds and buck populations skewed toward younger animals-are closely following what has been dubbed the Pennsylvania Experiment. If it succeeds in producing bigger bucks, similar changes will probably be proposed elsewhere, in some instances at the urging of hunters.
“A lot of us are watching Pennsylvania carefully, and not without some concern,” says Vermont deer biologist John Buck. “The hunting community is focused on the antler-restriction side and not on the bigger picture of managing all deer. If Pennsylvania succeeds in changing the culture so that hunters are as supportive of harvesting does as they are of producing bigger bucks, then it will really have accomplished something.”