Is there another good year ahead for Pennsylvania deer hunters, or a bad year ahead?
The answer depends on attitude. There can be little doubt that deer hunting this year should be comparable to deer hunting over the past 10 years or so. In this way we can have optimism for the coming deer hunt. Prospects of tagging a deer are quite good in many places, not so good in others. One thing for certain: We have many fine deer-hunting opportunities in Pennsylvania this fall and winter.
Statewide, after each year’s hunting season, the deer population has been on a generally rising trend from 2008 through 2014. Then, then in 2015, the after-hunt population declined. However, the 2015 after-season population still was higher than any of these years other than 2014.
Then some good news: This year the post-hunt deer population jumped higher than any other year during the seven-year period. Deer population levels now point to good hunting this fall.
Deer densities in any given area can vary considerably over a relatively short period of time. A personal experience in deer science that anyone can do: A fellow deer enthusiast, Mike Stimmell, and I have been conducting a deer count at intervals on a section of the Allegheny National Forest by driving a 22-mile circuitous route at night while counting deer with the aid of a spotlight. In two years the average number of deer spotted per drive doubled. Since several drives are conducted each fall, this is a prettygood indication of rapid change in deer density in that area.
This month we look at the better places to fill any deer tags this season in Pennsylvania. Deer research, harvest statistics and deer management will be our primary guides and insights. Read on if you are serious about deer hunting.
Deer management has become more intense and more effective than ever before. Probably the most significant factor affecting deer populations is the health of the habitat. While changes in habitat (aging forests, for example) have led to decreases in state deer populations, hunters of today must try to understand the relationship between deer density and habitat health. The goals of current deer management are healthy deer, healthy habitat and an acceptable level of deer-human conflicts.
Through the largest share of Pennsylvania deer habitat, forest health is of critical importance. High deer density has sometimes disastrous effects on the plant and animal communities, driving some plants to near extinction.
How should deer be managed so they coexist with healthy forests?
For hunters this question means big things, including antlerless deer allocations and DMAP allocations, with the big picture for hunters being deer density management goals. In addition to planning with the goal being deer density control, deer management must look at habitat health. For these to come together, deer hunters must be aware of the relationship between deer density and plants.
The Deer-Forest Study being done by researchers from Penn State, the Pennsylvania Game Commission, DCNR Bureau of Forestry and the U.S. Geological Survey is trying to answer that question by studying four areas in Bald Eagle State Forest, Rothrock State Forest and Susquehannock State Forest. These public land areas represent a diversity of forest habitats.
Deer populations, diversity and forest growth rates are being carefully monitored from 2013 through 2017, with current funding. This research should be even more effective if it can be extended longer. The study also looks at other factors that can influence deer populations, including invasive plants, outbreaks of insects, soil acidity and tree diseases.
Hunters are assisting in this study. If you hunt in any of the areas being studied, you can become part of the effort by going to the Game Commission web site, www.pgc.pa.gov, click on HUNT & TRAP at the top of the page, click on HUNTING, then click on White-Tailed Deer, click on Deer-Forest Study under RESEARCH AND SURVEYS, then click on DCNR Deer Hunter Registration.
To get the latest information on the study check the blog listed on the Deer-Forest Study first page.
For the most current assessment of the deer-hunting situation in Pennsylvania we spoke with Dr. Chris Rosenbery, head of the Game Commission Deer Management Section.
“There is only one place where we’re recommending an increase in deer, Wildlife Management Unit 3A. That’s the only unit in the state where we’re not reaching our deer management goals, and folks want more deer up there,” Rosenbery said.
WMU 3A is a smaller unit in the Northcentral Region, north of U.S. Route 6, between U.S. Route 219 on the west and State Route 14 on the east.
“There are a number of areas across the state where deer numbers are increasing,” Rosenbery said.
Those areas include WMU 1A, WMU 1B, WMU 2D, WMU 3B, WMU 4E and WMU 5D.
“In Wildlife Management Unit 2D, in that unit I would say it translates to good hunting,” Rosenbery said.
Last season, five bucks were harvested per square mile there — the best rate in the state — and 11 total deer were harvested per square mile, second most in the state.
WMU 2B led the state for total deer harvested at 16 per square mile. WMU 2B includes Pittsburgh and surrounding area.
As we progress through information derived from data, you may notice that for WMU 2B, the Pittsburgh area, along with WMU 5C and WMU 5D, the Philadelphia area, some data is not available, so these management areas do not fit neatly into our conclusions. One of the more important things for deer hunters to understand about these units is that land access can be very difficult to get for outsiders. In most places, deer population density limits the number of deer that a hunter is likely to be able to kill, but in areas close to urban centers, access to places to hunt is more likely to be the limiting factor. These are not deer hunter destination areas for hunters who lack inside information.
Looking into the 2016-17 Deer Population Report we can find more interesting clues for locating a good deer hunting area.
Antlerless deer license allocations recommended by Game Commission staff this year include more licenses in eight wildlife management units. Six of these units have increasing deer populations. The other two have stable deer populations that should be reduced.
Data behind these antlerless allocation recommendations are figures on how many licenses are required to harvest each antlerless deer in the wildlife management units. Generally we can assume that the fewer licenses that are needed, the better the hunting is, at least for hunters who are mainly interested in putting some meat in the feezer. It is a simple matter of better success rate.
Projections for the number of licenses it will take to harvest each antlerless deer in 2016-17 are given for both seven-day seasons and 12-day seasons. This essentially is a Game Commission projection of antlerless deer hunter success. Here we see that the fewest licenses it will take to harvest each antlerless deer are in WMU 3C, where an estimated 3.1 will be needed during a seven-day antlerless deer season. Essentially antlerless-tag hunters have a 33 percent success rate.
Often deer data are compared directly from unit to unit. Direct comparison of raw harvest rates between WMUs, however, does notallow for differences in acreage of the WMUs, which vary in size from 3,117 square miles for WMU 2G down to 1,001 square miles for WMU 2H. But we can easily get per-acre harvest rates by dividing the post-season deer population by the area in square miles of each unit.
Leading the state at the end of the previous deer season, WMU 2D, located just to the northeast of the Pittsburgh area, has the greatest deer density at 47.4 deer per square mile. For the number of antlerless deer licenses needed to harvest each antlerless deer, it ranks second in the state at 3.2 per deer. This is an area of wood lots and rolling farmland. There are relatively few state game lands. Look for other kinds of land open to deer hunting such as Corps of Engineers flood control projects.
Access to private land is the best way to hunt WMU 2D, but access may not be easy to get. This area is generally hunter-friendly, but some landowners want hunting limited to family and friends, and even that limitation may result in fairly heavy hunting pressure.
WMU 3C is second in deer density with a post-hunt deer population of 38.0 per square mile. It rates at the top for fewest antlerless licenses needed to harvest each antlerless deer. Terrain is variable and in some places quite steep. Some places include fairly large “How do you plow these rocks?”farms. This is a fine unit to hunt deer in, if you find a place to hunt.
Coming in as the third unit, WMU 4E had a post-hunt deer population that averaged 37.7 per square mile. This rugged area has very large state game lands and state forest sections, but it also has a lot of private land. It is one of the smaller units, covering just 1,736 acres. It rates as a better than average deer hunting destination. It ranks as requiring the fifth fewest antlerless licenses to harvest each antlerless deer. All in all, an impressive deer-hunting opportunity.
At fourth best, WMU 4B has a post-hunt population of 36.4 deer per square mile. The number of antlerless licenses required to harvest each antlerless deer ranks near the middle of all units at 4.5 per deer. This ridge and valley area had long, thin state forest tracts and state game lands lying along ridge tops. Valleys are largely farmland where deer get good nutrition. For hunters who are willing to put forth the effort to walk away from access points, this can be very fine deer hunting.
WMU 3B ranked fifth for deer population with 34.6 per square mile, and it is about average for number of antlerless licenses needed to harvest each antlerless deer at 4.4 licenses. It has large sections of state game lands and state forests, making it a very hunter-friendly area.
WMU 1B ranks in the top 10 for deer population per square mile and for fewest antlerless licenses needed to harvest each deer. WMU 2E is number two for fewest antlerless licenses for each antlerless deer harvester and number six for after hunt deer population per square mile.
Wildlife management units with the lowest deer population per square mile, starting at the bottom, are 13.8 at WMU 3D, 15.4 at WMU 5A and 15.4 at WMU 2H. Unfortunately, WMU 3D is a major destination area for deer hunters, including many from out of state. However, the flip side to that data is that deer there may be larger.
On the most localized level, nothing is more important to deer hunting success than intense scouting. Many of the best places for deer hunting are hidden in units that do not show good numbers.
Many of the more successful deer hunters here, and elsewhere, operate several trail cameras. The more you know about the areas you hunt, the better your chances of scoring on deer. Or scouting may indicate that you should change hunting areas.
Effective placement of trail cameras is essential to effective trail camera use. This is a complex subject. One of the more common answers is placing trail cameras in funnels, places where deer moment is constricted so one, maybe two, cameras will reveal most deer using the surrounding area.
Last year Pennsylvania hunters had the safest hunting season recorded since 1915 when safety statistics started being recorded. In 2015, 23 hunting-related shooting incidents were reported, the fewest ever. Two involved fatalities. Even this can be improved with hunter orange regulations and hunter education.
Dr. Rosenbery added items of great concern to hunters.
“For hunters in Pennsylvania,” he said, “since we have new deer management areas, three new areas, be aware of CWD and how that may be related to the deer management areas.”
There are special regulations relating to importation of deer parts by hunters returning from out of state cervid (deer family) hunts.
“If people are successful, please report the harvest,” Rosenbery added.
This is both a legal and an ethical issue. No one wins when deer harvests are not reported.
More information about deer and deer hunting in Pennsylvania is available from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc,state.pa.us.