Pennsylvania's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Pennsylvania's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

We look at deer herd and hunting trends and what they tell us about the best places in the state to fill your tags this season.

What has been happening to the deer population is big news in Pennsylvania. During the 1990s, the deer herd numbers were very high -- in fact, far too high to be sustained by the habitat, according to deer managers of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. So far in the 21st Century efforts have been made through the allocation of antlerless deer licenses to reduce the deer population.

Now things are changing. After more meetings of Citizen Advisory Committees, it has become clear that in several wildlife management units the committees want slight increases in the deer populations. This year we will see numerous reductions in antlerless license allocations. Do not, however, expect the deer situation to change much, at least not soon.

Dr. Chris Rosenberry, head of the Deer Section of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, says he has received no instructions to change the way deer are managed. But it appears that the goals have mostly been achieved. In most of the commonwealth the current plan is to either increase the deer population, or keep it where it is.

Here's a look at what should be in store for hunters in various management units across the state.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 2B, 5C AND 5D

"The only three places where we're looking to reduce deer numbers are units 2B, 5C and 5D," Rosenberry said. "Those are the units around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The objective to reduce deer populations in those units is also supported by completion of Citizen Advisory Committees, (which) recommended reduced deer populations in those three units as well."

At WMU 2B, the antlerless deer license allocation will remain the same as last year, 68,000, but no DMAPs will be available this year. The deer harvest last year was 4,300 antlered deer and 20,000 antlerless deer. While that antlered deer harvest was nearly the same as the 4,000 figure for the previous year, the antlerless harvest was a big increase from the 15,300 taken the year before.

By the numbers it might appear as though this small WMU should be a good destination, and it is for hunters who have a place to hunt within it. It is, however, mostly the urban/suburban Pittsburgh area and contains just one state game land and very little other public land. Hunting access to private land can be difficult for non-local hunters to secure.

The situation is not so different in WMU 5C and WMU 5D. These wmu's are mostly comprised of the Philadelphia urban/suburban area, an area larger than that of Pittsburgh. It just is not a good destination for traveling hunters unless they've done considerable work before the season to line up a place to hunt.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 2A, 1A, 1B AND 2D

For hunters who are looking for the best place to fill their tags, Rosenberry has some advice.

"I would just look at the kill data, the harvest data that we have, the tags that are out there," he said.

And for filling a doe tag, he suggested, "Again we're looking at some of those western units as some of the higher success rates in the state. Those units really are the ones that have the best success rates."

These units are one in the same as the units where the antler restriction is at least four points on a side. It does not take much thought to understand that the area that has the best nutrition for antler growth also has the best nutrition to support more deer, and to replace deer that have been harvested.

"In the units in the four-point area," Rosenberry said, "in general around 10 deer per square mile are being harvested each year in 1B, 1A, 2A, and 2D. And then you get in to Pittsburgh, 2B, there's more than 10 deer per square mile being harvested.

"There are some less developed units in that four-point area. They're doing pretty well, like 10 per square mile, which is above the state average."

One of the characteristics of these units is that there is not a lot of public land.

"One thing I would make a comment on concerning the public land and where the hunters hunt," Rosenberry pointed out, is that "the minority of our hunters hunt exclusively public land. The majority of our hunters do hunt on private land at some point."

Some of the state game lands in these units are reclaimed strip mines or industrial lands. The Southwest Region in particular has had more land added to state game lands than any other region. These reclaimed strip mines tend to be excellent habitat because land managers can virtually design the habitat as they wish.

WMU 2D is actually quite different from the other units in this four-point group. It is similar in land use and in the checkerboard habitat; however, the blocks of the checkerboard lack the swamps and other wetlands for the most part. Wood lots might tend to be somewhat larger, but the agriculture and overgrown fields are there. In fact, overgrown fields in various stages of regrowth provide deer with excellent escape cover.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 2D, 2G, 3C AND 4B

This seemingly odd grouping of wildlife management units have one important thing in common: They were the first four units managed under an experimental season in which antlerless deer were fair game only during the second week of the regular firearms deer season. The first week is antlered deer only.

This arrangement of the seasons was a response to hunter suggestions and complaints. Of course the underlying intent of many of the hunters who favor this is that it will reduce the antlerless deer harvest.

How has this affected the deer management program?

"With that having been done in four other units, that right off the top would reduce the harvest," Rosenberry said. "Then in many of those (units') allocations were also reduced, so that will further reduce the harvest.

"In terms of our deer program, in terms of the way it affects the biologists, in general I would say the goals as far as I have been told have not changed, and that's

what drives our program. That's what drives the biologist's recommendations, what goals have we been given to achieve. It's not going to affect our measures."

Hunters who direct their anger at the deer biologists are misdirecting that anger. While the biologists do make suggestions, those suggestions are their recommendations for achieving the goals that are given to them.

"In terms of any change to our measures, we're still the ones who are going to decide what measures we need to work with and the modifications that are necessary," Rosenberry said.

Those results may have some impact on the four study units biologists been working in; until the results are in, the implications of the management changes won't be known.

"What we've noticed is with the shortening the season hunters are hunting about the same number of days, seeing about the same number of deer, and we have not seen an increase in satisfaction," Rosenberry answered.

What has been accomplished is that there has been a decrease of about 20 percent in the antlerless deer harvest. However, unless that equates with deer goals in those units, antlerless license allocations will be increased accordingly.

Author Mike Bleech with a decent doe that he took with a crossbow. Photo courtesy of Mike Bleech.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 5A, 5B

According to Rosenberry, average hunter success rate statewide is 23 percent. For several years, at least, WMU 5A, and to a somewhat lesser extent 5B, have had low deer density. Hunter success has been similarly low.

"Some of our lowest numbers are in the 5 units," Rosenberry said.

This is the primary area where the Game Commission wants to increase the deer population.

"The deer numbers apparently are not too far from where people want them, if you go based on what we do with our Citizens Advisory Committee. They recommended an increase, but they recommended a small increase. That's the unit where we had made the recommendation to increase (the herd numbers)," Rosenberry said. "The deer populations, if things continue, should go up."

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 2F, 2G, 3A

WMU 2F, WMU 2G and WMU 3A make up the "Big Woods," the traditional Pennsylvania deer woods. The area earned its reputation when there were few deer anywhere else in Pennsylvania. At that time the forest was regenerating from over-harvest and vast fires fueled by timbering debris.

Here more than anywhere else hunters are vocal about low deer density. On a comparative basis, based on how many deer typical hunters see, those hunters have reason to be concerned. Solutions to their problems are not as clear. Nor is the situation quite as bad as some believe, though it is worse than it was a little more that a decade ago.

Hunter success rates are not so bad. Surprisingly, in fact, antlerless deer hunter success rate is 31 percent in WMU 2F. But that is much better than elsewhere in the Big Woods, and it may be due to the number of antlerless license allocations. Buck hunter success is not as good, 5,200, down from 7,000 the year before. This year the antlerless license allocation is 22,148, down considerably from 28,000 last year.

Antlerless hunter success in WMU 2G is only 16 percent, which brings down the area average considerably. The antlerless license allocation is down even more dramatically here, from 26,000 in 2009-10 to 15,210 this season.

In WMU 3A, which is not actually considered part of the Big Woods, antlerless hunter success rate is right on the state average at 23 percent. The antlerless license allocation drops just slightly here, from 26,000 to 25,247 licenses this season.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 4A, 4B, 4C, 4D, 4E

Those wildlife management units beginning with the number 4 are reasonably similar. According to Rosenberry, hunter success rates are "not too bad."

This is largely the ridge and valley area. There are numerous state game lands; however, access is not always easy. The state game lands tend to be located on top of rugged ridges. Between are agricultural valleys. Deer come down to feed at crop fields, then retreat to the wooded ridge tops.

Hunters who have access through private land to reach the ridge tops are very lucky. Without that, access is generally only from the ends, or very few points between the ends, of long, narrow state game lands.

Often, the reward for hunters who get farther into these state game lands than most hunters is that they find a surprising number of deer.

WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT UNITS 3B, 3C, 3D

Antlerless deer success rates vary considerably in the northeastern wildlife management units. Last year for WMU 3B it was 21 percent; for 3C it was 26 percent; and for 3D it was 17 percent. According to Rosenberry, total hunter success rates are generally a little above average.

WMU 3D is the Pocono Plateau. A very large share of the land is posted against hunting or locked up in deer hunting leases. Yet there are some large state game lands, with extensive swamps that make complete access difficult.

WMU 3B is mostly hilly or mountainous, forested land with some very large state Game Lands.

Most of WMU 3C is very nice deer habitat, though with much less public land than on WMU 3B. It is mostly a hunt for local hunters who get access to public land.

Hunting patterns here are a very good example of Rosenberry's statement about the amount of hunting on public land versus private land. The Game Commission seems to be pleased with deer density here, since the decrease in antlerless license allocation is slight, from 27,000 to 26,359 licenses. Antlerless license allocations have decreased in all but three wildlife management units. They remain unchanged in two, and increase in one, WMU 5C.

The state is going into a new version of the deer management plan, which will include more surveys of hunter opinions. And there are additional units where the first week of the regular firearms season is antlered deer only.

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