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Forecast By Mike Bleech

Pennsylvania is as close to its ideal deer numbers as it has been in many years, at least according to the desired numbers specified by the Pennsylvania Game Commission for each wildlife management unit. How this translates to your chances of getting a deer this year is more meaningful information for most deer hunters. Is this positive or negative?

Under changing deer management plans, the total state antlerless deer harvest jumped from 184,224 in 1999 to 301,379 in 2000. For the five-year period from 2000 to 2004, the average harvest was 328,758 antlerless deer. Then the antlerless deer harvest declined for six consecutive years from 2005 to 2010, averaging 213,562 antlerless deer per year. Harvests for the next two years were 208,660 and 209,250. We can say that the antlerless deer harvest managed to reach approximate stabilization. Overall, for the past few years hunters should have seen roughly the same number of antlerless deer.

Antlered deer harvests, in that same time frame, had a similar trend. The 2000 harvest of 203,221 antlered deer was the highest on record to that point, and has been surpassed only once, in the following year, when hunters killed 203,247 antlered deer. Antlered deer harvests then declined for three consecutive years. Disregarding unusually low harvests in 2007 and 2009, which might have been aberrations due to weather conditions, the average antlered deer harvest from 2004 to 2012 has been 125,803 animals.

So for antlered and antlerless deer combined, we are near stability. Of course, this does not mean this is the case in any specific area that a hunter hunts. Nor does it mean that stability pleases every hunter.

This brings us to the point we reach every deer season, that of deciding where we might find the best deer hunting in Pennsylvania. We will try to answer the question by putting together available information, with assistance from Dr. Chris Rosenberry, Deer and Elk Section Supervisor for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

Asked if there are any high spots or low spots where we are going to see any changes this year in the number of deer, Rosenberry replied, “None of our data indicate any changes from year to year, although certainly we see units that are increasing. So if you’re looking for changes, those would be the changes, a couple of the units that are going up in terms of their population numbers.”

Areas where deer numbers have been increasing are WMU 1A, WMU 2D, WMU2G and WMU 3C.

WMU 1A and WMU 2D are bordering units in the western part of the state. WMU 2G is in the heavily forested Allegheny Highlands, which extends north from Interstate 80 in the northcentral part of the state. Topography is not so different in these wildlife management units. However, land use is different. WMU 2D is more heavily populated with people. There are more farms and towns. WMU 2G has much more public land.

WMU 3C is the northeast corner of the state.

“This is the first year we got an increasing trend in (WMU) 1A. The other three units you can take that right back to the reduced antlerless harvests as we had in the change of seasons. In part of our study we kept our allocations the same to see what effect that change in season length had,” Rosenberry said.

The change to running antlered deer and antlerless deer concurrently for seven days, with the same antlerless allocation as before the change, had to be monitored to see what effect the change had. As may have been anticipated, antlerless deer harvests in those units declined.

“And then also in 2010, allocations were cut further, especially in (WMU) 2G, where they were cut nearly in half,” Rosenberry said.

“Basically what it shows is that in Pennsylvania, even in 2G, in the Big Woods, that if you cut back on the antlerless allocation the doe harvest and population can respond. It’s going to continue,” Rosenberry said.

There are various things which might point to the areas which have the best deer hunting potential this year. Deer populations rising in WMU 1A, WMU 2D, WMU 2G and WMU 3C might be an indication that these are good places to hunt.

But what if the populations in these wildlife management units were so low before they started increasing that increasing populations does not necessarily mean a dense population, or even a fair population? So they are not necessarily good bets for hunters looking to fill a deer tag.

One of the most significant factors that can influence deer hunting potential in any given area could be deer density, which is the deer population in relation to the size of the wildlife management unit. But we know neither the deer population in any of the wildlife management units, nor the areas. The best we can do in this regard is to use other information we do know to make estimates.

Antlerless deer harvests and total deer harvests may be good indicators for our search of the best places to hunt. This is even more meaningful when we look at a few recent years rather than last year, or any one year. Averages and trends probably are the best ways to arrange deer harvests for deriving meaningful, reliable information.

Brad Strohm, of Hummelstown, PA bagged this huge buck this past season.

WMU 2D ranked second among all of the wildlife management units, with an average take of 17,931 antlerless deer harvest over the most recent five years, and it is the only one of the four wildlife management units with increasing deer populations that is among the top five in total harvest.

However, among WMUs with increasing harvests, WMU 1A ranked sixth and WMU 3C ranked ninth in the number of total antlerless deer that hunters killed. The difference in average antlerless deer harvest is 11,380 for WMU 1A and 8,608 for WMU 3C, which are meaningful differences.

WMU 2G, on the other hand, is way back at 19th place, with a five-year average harvest of 5,261 antlerless deer.

So at this point WMU 2D looks like a mighty good guess for the wildlife management unit where a hunter has the best chances for tagging a deer. WMU 1A and WMU 3C are still in the running. But WMU 2G has clearly slipped.

Since differences in the number of days when antlerless deer may be hunted vary from WMU to WMU, and antlerless license allocations vary considerably, the antlerless deer harvest might not tell as much about the size of the deer population as the total deer harvest. Or will it?

WMU 5C led all other wildlife management units for total deer harvest average over the 5-year period from 2008 through 2012, just as it led for antlerless deer harvest average. WMU 2D was second, as with antlerless deer harvests, with an average of 29,105, and so on down the top five in the same order. So nothing changed between the top five wildlife management units of both antlerless deer and total deer averages.

This leaves only one wildlife management unit, WMU 2D, which has ranked among the top in all of our criteria used so far. But any experienced deer hunter knows that numbers can not tell the entire story.

Red flags are flying now that Pennsylvania has joined the growing list of states and provinces affected by Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

“In terms of the deer population, certainly two areas of concern right now would be the two Disease Management Areas related to Chronic Wasting Disease. That’s going to have some effect on hunters in the southcentral part of the state. We’re looking at units there along the Maryland border, and even part of 4G in the central part of the state will be affected by the Disease Management Areas that we have established because of CWD,” Rosenberry said.

CWD was found in a captive deer herd in the fall of 2012 in Adams County. Then in March of this year, the Pennsylvania Game Commission announced that three free-ranging deer that were harvested during the 2012 deer hunting season tested positive for CWD. Two of those were killed in Blair County, and one was killed in Bedford County.

This was no surprise. For some time the eventuality of CWD getting into Pennsylvania has not been considered a matter of if, but when. The Pennsylvania Game Commission was well prepared. They are part of an inter-agency CWD Task Force formed in 2003, along with federal agencies and other state agencies. A Chronic Wasting Disease Response Plan was implemented in July, 2011, by Carl Roe, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

All three CWD positive, free-ranging deer were sampled as part of a testing program for deer at deer processing operations.

Commercial deer farms are regulated by the Department of Agriculture, which detected the CWD-positive deer in captivity.

Hunters must be aware that within the Disease Management Areas, feeding deer, rehabilitating deer and using urine-based deer lures are prohibited. Also, all deer that are killed by hunters within Disease Management Areas during the two-week firearms season must be taken to Pennsylvania Game Commission check stations, or cooperative check stations at taxidermists and deer processors.

Hunters who live in, or plan to hunt in, any Disease Management Area should check the Pennsylvania Game Commission web site, www.pgc.state.pa.us, for much more information about this fatal deer disease.

Another disease, less threatening to the deer population, yet still fatal, had outbreaks last year. One of the areas affected was at Pymatuning where within a specified area about 70 percent of the deer were estimated to have died.

“On the positive side,” Rosenberry said, “across the state we’re seeing our deer population remain productive in terms of reproduction and recruitment of new fawns into the population.”

Another goal of current deer management is keeping damage to the forests done by deer within tolerable limits. This has been successful to a large extent, with there are minor exceptions.

“There are two areas of the state where deer impact is too high,” Rosenberry said. “These are units 3C and 3D. The deer are still having a high effect on forest regeneration in those areas.”

Those units may be looked upon as having good deer hunting opportunities because antlerless allocations may be adjusted to bring the deer population within balance to forest regeneration.

There are also two areas where forest regeneration is good, in WMU 3B and WMU 5A.

For hunters to understand how deer are being managed, it is imperative that they understand this forest regeneration matter.

For as long as anyone hunting today remembers, a large contingent of Pennsylvania hunters have complained that Pennsylvania Game Commission estimates of the deer population both statewide and within individual wildlife management units are not accurate. The hypocrisy of this is that so many hunters have not been cooperating by reporting the deer that they harvest, even though it is required of them to do so.

 

‘Last year 54 percent of Pennsylvania hunters who killed a buck did not report their harvest to the Game Commission. And 70 percent of those who killed an antlerless deer did not report it to the Game Commission,” Rosenberry said. “I would say that, as a biologist, I would love to not work with harvest estimates, but when you have that low level of compliance with the reporting requirement, you’re left with no other choice as a biologist but to estimate the harvest because you can’t make population recommendations on 30 percent of the data. You have to estimate the total harvest and work from there.”

By merely reporting deer kills, which can be done with a supplied post card, on the Internet or by telephone, hunters would solve this problem. And they are the only ones who can solve this problem.

For more information about deer hunting in Pennsylvania contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc,state.pa.us

If you’re planning on hunting private land this season in Pennsylvania, be sure to check out this update on Senate Bill 648 from the Prince Law Offices in Betchtelsville, Pa. This bill affects landowners and sportsmen alike.

And don’t forget to upload your best deer photos to our Camera Corner!