How can annual deer hunting forecasts be boring, yet deer hunting prospects are good? This is what happens when a deer management system is working. Deer populations in the various wildlife management units are quite close to management goals.
“Populations are generally stable,” says Dr. Chris Rosenberry, head of the Deer Management Section of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, no wildlife management units have gone through any significant changes in deer populations.
Deer populations do vary some from year to year. This may be due to any of several natural causes such as winter food conditions, harsh winter weather, poor mast crops or disease. “A stable population does not mean deer numbers are exactly the same. We have stable deer populations that can vary from year to year, but if numbers are high some years and low other years, the trend can be stable — despite the year to year variation,” according to Rosenberry.
Each year, when the Game Commission staff suggests antlerless deer license numbers, the normal ups and downs of deer populations are factored into these numbers. Stability is the result. Hunters may disagree with the goals of current Pennsylvania deer management, still the numbers clearly indicate that the management plan is working. Forests are recovering from decades of overly-abundant deer —albeit slowly.
Hunters should have a deep concern for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). This probably is the greatest threat today for North America’s deer and elk. Rosenberry asks that hunters help by supporting management actions to prevent spread of CWD, and to provide samples within the Disease Management Areas (DMA).
Pennsylvania had four Disease Management Areas, however, DMA 1 has been eliminated. CWD has been detected in DMA 2 among free ranging deer in Bedford County, Blair County, Cambria County and Fulton County. CWD has been detected in captive deer in DMA 2 Bedford County, Franklin County and Fulton County.
In DMA 3, CWD was found in captive deer in 2014 in Jefferson County, then in 2017 it was found in Clearfield County. This year in DMA 4, CWD was found in a facility in Lancaster County.
Hunters should harvest only deer or elk that appear healthy. Do not try to kill, disturb or move an animal that appears to be sick. The correct procedure is to document the location of the sick animal as accurately as possible. A mark on a GPS would be a big help. Then report the animal as soon as possible to the Pennsylvania Game Commission Region Office. Special regulations apply to hunting in one of the Disease Management Areas, so be certain to check and understand all of these before attempting to hunt there.
For a hunter’s best chances to tag a deer, Rosenberry suggested, “Wildlife Management Units 2B, 5C and 5D for abundant deer populations in developed areas. WMU 2D is another area with high harvest densities.”
WMU 2B is essentially Pittsburgh, with WMU 2D bordering WMU 2B to the northeast. WMU 5D is basically Philadelphia, while WMU 5C is suburban and farm land northwest from Philadelphia. Virtually all of these wildlife management units are private land. Gaining permission to hunt is difficult-to-impossible. Among these units, WMU 2D is probably the more likely place to get onto private land. And there are more public hunting lands on WMU 2D that on WMU 2B, WMU 5D and WMU 5C, probably more that the latter three combined.
One good clue to locating other good wildlife management units for deer density is antlerless deer license allocations. Look for the areas where the antlerless deer license allocation is greater than it was the previous year. This should indicate that the antlerless deer population is higher than desired.
Note that two wildlife management units, WMU 2D and WMU 5C, have been the dominant units for total deer harvest. Neither is one of the old traditional deer hunting areas. Both of these units border our two largest population centers, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Gaining deer hunting access to private lands is difficult. Of the two units, WMU 2D has more public hunting land.
WMU 2D, the top deer hunting unit in the southwest quarter of the state, has an average total deer harvest of 28,478 deer over the past five years. WMU 5C has a five-year average harvest of 25,860 deer. Third place WMU 5B has considerably fewer, standing at 25,860 deer. It borders Pittsburgh to the southeast.
Numerous antlerless deer tags can make for good deer hunting if venison is the primary goal of the hunt. But buck numbers are a more realistic measure of a deer population. Bucks clearly are more desirable to deer hunters as well. Of the 13, out of 23, wildlife management units with a total deer harvest of at least 15,000 in 2017, antlered deer made up more than half of the total deer harvest last year in five units.
WMU 2D with 67% of the harvest being antlered deer clearly out distanced all other units in 2017. This gives WMU 2D a legitimate claim as the best wildlife management unit for deer hunting. Some of the best deer habitat is on state game lands, some of which are reclaimed strip mines. Intensive land management has transformed reclaimed strip mines into excellent deer habitat.
WMU 5C led the state last year for total deer harvest, the second time it has done so over the previous five years. This wildlife management unit is close to several major population centers and the deer habitat is good. It has the nearest public hunting lands to Philadelphia. If you live in the southeast quarter, this is a destination worth considering. But note that only 36% of the harvest was antlered deer. Total harvest here is built on antlerless deer tags.
WMU 1B led the northwest quarter with a harvest of 21,300 deer, which was fourth highest in the state last year. This is the area around Erie, which largely is suburban and farm land. Doe harvest leads the total harvest, with 39% of the total harvest being bucks. Some wood lots are large. Several smaller state game lands dot the unit, along with a couple of larger ones.
WMU 1B would be a good destination area for deer hunters, however, most traveling deer hunters in the Northwest Region head to the Allegheny National Forest in WMU 2F. This unit has abundant public land, large state game lands, numerous hunting camps and it is a traditional deer hunting area. WMU 2F ranked 12th for total deer kill. This is one of the wildlife management units with the total kill including more bucks, 57%, than antlerless deer. Its buck harvest was fourth best in the state last year. This unit makes a good argument for best deer hunting destination in Pennsylvania.
At 20,600 deer, WMU 3C leads the Northeast Region for total deer harvest. With 42% of the harvest bucks, it rates fair in this category. It has adequate public land, with a mix of big woods and pastoral land.
WMU 2G ranked 13th for total deer harvest, but with 60% being bucks. WMU 4D ranked sixth in the state for total harvest, with 56% being bucks. These units share a long border, and they make up the center of the state.
WHERE TO HUNT
For good deer populations it is all about the habitat. For good deer hunting, it is all about the access. A major reason for the long deer hunting tradition in Pennsylvania, in addition to plentiful deer, is the amount of public land open to deer hunting. Most of the 2.2 million acres of state forest, 300,000-acres of state parks, 1.5 million acres of state game lands and the 517,000-acres of Allegheny National Forest are open to public hunting. In addition, there are county parks, township parks, the Erie National Wildlife Refuge and several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects (dams) where surrounding land is open to deer hunting.
Collins Pine, the largest private landowner in Pennsylvania, allows public hunting. Some private organizations like Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, keep land open to public use. In general, gaining permission to hunt on private land is easier than in most states. However, the amount of private land open to hunting is declining in the state. This declining trend began as hunting leases became increasingly popular.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission has had a Hunter Access Program since 1936. More than 13,000 landowners and tenants with land totaling about 2.6-million acres are involved. Landowners must have at least 50-acres to enroll. Landowners benefit because hunters and trappers help to control populations of game animals and furbearers that may be causing problems, and because of Game Commission patrols which deter lawbreakers.