Solution to 'deer problem' harder than shooting them
November 25, 2007 10:00 AM
A young buck visits a Mt. Lebanon back yard.
By John Hayes Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Seen any deer?
In Upper St. Clair, Hampton, Monroeville and dozens of suburban neighborhoods, where homeowners are losing rhododendrons and other plants, the answer is, "Yes, way too many."
It's the same in rural areas, where farmers are upset about overbrowsing eating into their profits, and on roads across the state, where 2,500 motorists bang into deer every year, causing millions in damage.
Yet a hunter waiting on the same Cameron County stump where his grandfather years ago taught him to hunt, is likely to complain that there aren't as many deer as there used to be.
As hunters gear up for tomorrow's opening day of the two-week antlered deer season, just about everyone agrees Pennsylvania has a deer problem.
But the bigger deer problem, which affects everyone in the state, is that Pennsylvanians can't agree on exactly what the problem is.
"It's not an easy sound bite kind of answer," said Bret Wallingford, a deer biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, the agency responsible for managing the state's wildlife. "Over decades, we allowed the deer population to get too high in relation to available habitat. A culture evolved in which generations of hunters got used to seeing more deer than the land could support. We're attempting to turn that around, and it's understandable that everybody doesn't like it."
The deer are big and they're ravenous. Each deer consumes about 1 ton of "browse" -- tender shoots, twigs and leaves from trees and shrubs -- a year. Adult whitetails have no predators except humans and are prone to exponential population explosions. Females reach sexual maturity in a year and often bear twins -- sometimes triplets -- each year.
Five years ago, the Game Commission launched a controversial, new wildlife management plan that that divided the state into 22 Wildflife Management Units and uses doe-hunting permits, minimum rack sizes on bucks, and special archery and muzzleloader seasons as tools to decrease or stabilize the deer population.
Instead of attempting to count deer through traditional methods -- hunter-supplied harvest reports, surveys at deer processing centers, head counts and aerial surveillance -- the commission now focuses less on deer numbers and more on the impact deer have on habitat and humans to determine if there are too many of them.
"Stop thinking about numbers," says commission spokesman Jerry Feaser. "We have the right amount of deer in each unit when the habitat regenerates to healthy levels, when we have a balanced buck-to-doe ratio, when we stop hearing from hunters that there's not enough deer, and when we stop hearing from farmers and municipalities about negative deer-human contacts."
The management philosophy, which biologists sometimes call "quality deer management," has been successfully applied on private deer preserves and smaller populations in the wild, but it's never been attempted on a scale as large as Pennsylvania.
Since the new plan was implemented, some hunters claim their favorite spots have become less productive. In the high-pressure hunting grounds of the north-central counties, for example, the deer population was intentionally decreased by commission biologists, who said they found evidence of habitat depletion caused by overbrowsing. The depletion was so severe, they said, it hurt all of the forest's creatures, including the deer.
Many hunters, unaccustomed to being used as surgical tools in a government-sponsored wildlife management plan, have revolted. Grumbling is pervasive, hunter Internet blogs are laced with Game Commission conspiracy theories, and a small number have threatened to stop hunting altogether -- which would contribute to an ongoing decline in hunting license sales.
In September the Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania filed a request for a court injunction demanding the Game Commission halt all antlerless deer hunting on state game lands and state forests until it can quantify the deer population and justify the doe hunt. Commonwealth Court has given the commission until January to reply.
"Our feeling on the [management] plan goes hand in hand with the injunction," said Berks County's Greg Levengood, chairman of the Unified Sportsmen board. "How can the Game Commission manage deer without knowing how many are actually out there? That's been our beef from Day 1."
Mr. Levengood agrees that deer populations were once too high in some parts of the state.
"But the pendulum's swung too far the other way," he said. "That's one of the biggest dichotomies of this deer plan -- we're not killing enough deer where we need to, and we're killing too many where we shouldn't."
Unified Sportsmen favors scientific deer management, said Mr. Levengood, "but from what we see there is no science involved. It's all subjective. There's far too many political shenanigans."
Equally skeptical is Mike Maranche of Jefferson Hills, president of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League. He says acidic Pennsylvania soil and pollution blowing in from the west may be contributing to widespread habitat destruction being blamed solely on deer.
"We're conservationists, too," said Mr. Levengood. "We realize you have to take care of habitat, but you also have to take care of the hunters who support this."
Letting science decide
Not necessarily, say biologists and deer experts familiar with the Game Commission program.
"The biologists should be left alone to do their jobs and not worry about public opinion," said Rodney Dryer, an Auburn University-educated deer biologist and hunting guide whose independent consulting business manages some 10,000 acres nationwide, including a tract in Susquehanna County. "[Game Commission biologists] are managing a resource, and what's good for that resource has nothing to do with public opinion."
If commission biologists are making decisions based on reproductive data, roadkill jawbones and deer harvest data, he said, "then they are on the right track," he said.
Kip Adams, a director of education and outreach for the Georgia-based Quality Deer Management Association, said that for years internal politics at the commission pitted biologists against the political branch of the organization for control of deer policy.
"It was bad," said Mr. Adams, who lives in Tioga County. "Some deer biologists have lost their jobs over this issue."
Public opinion began to turn when Gary Alt, one of the state's leading deer experts, toured the state pressing his case to put deer management in the hands of the biologists. He now now studies bears in California.
In 1985, the commission put the deer harvest at 161,428. Citing in part a lack of data from hunters -- too few hunters voluntarily submit "harvest report cards" -- commission biologists began calculating herd populations using circumstantial evidence, including habitat analyses, sex ratio surveys and deer-human contact reports.
In 1986, they logged the deer harvest at 300,000. Last year, they put the deer population estimate at 361,560. Antlerless license allocations and the addition of extra bow and muzzleloader seasons in some Wildlife Management Units are based in part on those figures.
Mr. Dryer said counting cagey deer presents a problem everywhere. Older, smarter whitetails are more adept at hiding in grapevine thickets and on posted private property where hunters aren't allowed.
Many biologists, he said, are ditching quantitative head counts for qualitative analyses that include habitat surveys.
Biologists like to see balance in a herd's buck-to-doe ratio. In Pennsylvania, Mr. Adams says they found a "young age structure."
"Very few bucks were allowed to reach their second birthdays," he said, "less than 1 percent of bucks ever reached maturity and we had a very skewed sex ratio in favor of females."
Trouble in populous areas
The woods surrounding Pittsburgh and Philadelphia present special problems for commission biologists. Hunting pressure is the main tool of deer management, but in some places the deer are too close to humans for safe hunting, and mainstream urban culture includes negative perceptions of guns, hunting and the killing of wildlife.
The use of rifles is banned in Allegheny County, but in much of the wildlife management unit that includes the county and surrounding areas, it is safe and legal to hunt with bows and shotguns. This year, a special extended archery season was added to help cull the urban deer herds. It was largely unsuccessful due to unseasonably warm weather -- neither the deer nor the hunters were very active.
The options available for managing the population in urban areas are limited.
Efforts to sterilize urban does, for example, are impractical, say the biologists.
"Immuno-contraception has worked very well on free-ranging horses," said Mr. Adams. "The problem with deer is the number is very high. The best drugs now require you to shoot a deer with a dart and give that deer a booster shot each year. That's very expensive."
Plus, he said, it's impossible to know which does have been immunized previously without collaring or tagging every doe.
"That just increases the cost," said Mr. Adams. "You'd have to vaccinate 70 to 90 percent of the does each year to keep the herd from growing, which is just not possible."
Mr. Dryer said trapping and relocating deer is just as impractical because of the high number of deer in problem areas.
"It would just be a waste of money when it could be done safely through bow hunting," he said.
The continuing decline in hunting license sales bodes badly for Pennsylvanians overrun by deer. Wildlife management is the responsibility of the Game Commission, which is funded solely through license sales, profits from commercial leases on state game lands, and an excise tax on hunting gear. The Fish and Boat Commission is similarly funded. No money from the state's general fund goes to the Game Commission or Fish and Boat Commission, and Pennsylvanians have rejected attempts to levy similar tariffs on nonhunting and nonfishing sporting goods. Fewer hunters means less money to fix the problem and less access to the main tool of deer management.
Nevertheless, the Game Commission sees signs of success. In the north-central "Pennsylvania Wilds," Wildlife Management Unit 2G, the deer population was intentionally reduced under the new plan and is now in a "stabilization phase."
"[The population] is down from five to eight years ago because we designed the program that way," said Mr. Feaser. "In 2G, when we had achieved the population decline we were looking for, we backed off on the [antlerless] allocation and consequently decreased the harvest. Now we believe, based on our data, the population has stabilized and we're maintaining that."
Still, many hunters balk at being used as tool of the government.
"People don't like to be told what to do," said Mr. Maranche.
Daniel James Hendricks, a lifelong deer hunter from Minnesota, editor of Horizontal Bowhunter magazine and CEO of the American Crossbow Federation, said the reaction of Pennsylvania hunters isn't surprising.
"In my honest opinion, I think hunters should get a spanking," he said. "They're getting spoiled. This happens all over when hunters are asked to take part in wildlife management, it's not just Pennsylvania."
Mr. Hendricks said the hunting industry has done wildlife management a huge disservice by promoting the "glory" of shooting big bucks. "Buck fever" contributes to a culture that values big racks and discounts does.
"But you don't control the herd by taking out the bucks," said Mr. Hendricks, "you take the breeders out. Hunters should be mature enough to be a tool [of wildlife management] to keep the herd healthy."
As Pennsylvania's deer management plan enters its second five-year plan, public opinion, in general, has yet to side with the biologists. But biologists outside the state say they're impressed. Their only recommendation? Smaller, more manageable Wildlife Management Units.
"I hope the rest of the nation is watching Pennsylvania and learning from their trials," said Mr. Dryer.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Nov. 28, 2007) This story as originally published Nov. 25, 2007 about Pennsylvania deer management incorrectly reported the total deer population for 1985 and 1986 at 161,428 and 300,000, respectively. Those numbers represent total deer harvested in those years. Also, the story failed to note that Gary Alt, who helped develop the state's deer management plan, now studies bears in California.