The Keystone State's deer herd is still in a state of flux, but biologists are working hard to increase deer densities and hunting opportunities statewide. (October 2008)
Many years have passed since Pennsylvania hunters have had an overall deer outlook similar to what's in store for the 2008 hunting seasons.
Still, for those who truly enjoy the hunt, this coming deer season has plenty to offer.
According to a large portion of vocal hunters, it is all just plain bad.
Brad Nelson, an Allegheny National Forest wildlife biologist, offered a more optimistic outlook. The Allegheny National Forest, traditionally a top destination for deer hunters, now has an average deer density of fewer than 12 per square mile.
Though this is the only area of such large size in Pennsylvania where deer densities are closely monitored, this number is probably similar to those of our state forests of the "Big Woods."
"I think that the quality of the deer hunting is still good," Nelson said with total conviction. "You're not going to see as many deer, but you're going to see bigger deer, bigger racks, and more diverse vegetation.
"If you're willing to spend some time scouting areas and trying to learn the forest, you can figure out where the deer are going to be and have a successful hunt.
"There's still a lot of beautiful country out here to see and to hunt," Nelson noted. "I think the quality of the hunt has not diminished. If all you want to do is see lots of deer -- and that's all you judge the quality of your hunt on -- then maybe you would feel that the quality of Pennsylvania's deer hunting has decreased. But I'm having just as much fun and seeing bigger deer than I ever have in the past."
Nelson is a deer manager who does the job he's assigned to do. But he's also a deer hunter as much as anyone, perhaps more so than most.
FEW CHANGES AHEAD
In general, the statewide deer outlook should be similar to last year's, when Pennsylvania's hunters harvested 323,070 deer -- an 11 percent reduction from the year before.
The breakdown was 109,200 antlered deer (a drop of 19 percent) and 213,870 antlerless deer (a less alarming decline of 5 percent).
"In terms of doe permit allocations and everything, I would say we'll be looking at a harvest around the same level as what we had last year," said Dr. Chris Rosenberry, head of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Deer Management Section.
IT ALL DEPENDS
Some parts of the state experienced drastic drops in deer harvests last year. There was a 22 percent decline in the overall deer harvest in Wildlife Management Unit 2F, which includes the Allegheny National Forest and surrounding area. The largest share of that decline came in a 33 percent drop in the opening-day buck harvest.
"Our program looks at deer health and forest habitat health, as well as the thoughts of the Citizen Advisory Committee and other public input," which includes what they would like, along with what they can tolerate in terms of nuisance deer or car-deer collisions in a given area.
"Information is somewhat limited right now because we haven't established Citizen Advisory Committees in every unit. But we have all three of those measures in place in the south-central part of the state.
"We've had a number of units in that area where we've completed the Citizen Advisory process. They've recommended increasing the herd, and we have agreed to do that.
"For example, WMUs 5A, 4B and 4E are three units where we're recommending increases in the deer population based on our measures of deer health and forest habitat health, as well as what the people have told us," he noted.
"I would say deer numbers are lower in those areas than what they could be and as a result, we're recommending a herd increase."
All three of those wildlife management units rank toward the bottom in total deer harvest. WMU 5A is number 21 out of the 22 wildlife management units. WMU 4B ranks 20th, and WMU 4E ranks 15th.
WMU 5A had a total harvest of 6,200 deer for the 2007-08 hunting seasons. Only 1,000 of those were antlered deer. A total harvest of 5,400 deer was posted the previous year.
Unlike several other WMUs, 5A actually showed an increase of 15 percent -- an impressive figure, even for a WMU with typically low deer harvests.
WMU 5A lies in the south-central part of the Commonwealth, a physiographic unit known as the Piedmont. It's an area with moderate human densities, a medium to high amount of public land and low to medium forest cover, with most of that forest on public land.
There are only three state game lands (SGLs No. 169, No. 249 and No. 305), but Micheaux State Forest dominates the center of the unit.
Interestingly, a little more than 27 percent of the deer tagged in this unit were taken during the archery or the muzzleloader seasons.
This may indicate that hunting during periods of reduced pressure may be a huge advantage.
WMU 4B lies immediately north from WMU 5A, but it is quite different. Human densities run from low to high in various sections. It is ridge-and-valley topography and is moderately forested, with the public land consisting primarily of 16 state game lands. The valleys tend to be agricultural, with rugged ridges where the state game lands lie.
Deer feed in the agricultural valleys at night and then retreat to the forested ridges for shelter. Hunting can be surprisingly good here, but it is challenging because hunters must get up high before the deer do.
The total harvest here last year was 8,000, including 4,500 antlerless deer -- a relatively low percentage indicating a pretty good buck potential.
The harvest total was a drop of 31 percent from the year before, which explains why an increase in deer numbers is desired.
To a large extent, the WMUs' state game lands offer minimal access. There are few access points, and then hunters must walk along the ridgetops. Most of the deer will be hiding along the sides of the ridges in dense cover, where a stealthy approach is
One of the better hunting tactics is to locate trails leading down from the state game lands to feeding areas on surrounding farms. Enterprising hunters may intercept deer moving in the mornings and late afternoons.
After the firearms season begins, deer probably will not go into the open fields during daylight hours. So you should place your stands well into thick cover where the deer will linger while waiting for the cover of darkness.
Wildlife Management Unit 4E lies in the northeast, bordering WMU 4B. It also is ridge-and-valley terrain, but with somewhat less forested habitat.
This area had a harvest last year of 11,400 total deer, a 13 percent decline from the previous year.
|PENNSYLVANIA'S 2007-08 DEER SEASON|
|TOP FIVE ANTLERLESS WMUs|
|TOP FIVE ANTLERED WMUs|
|3. 2A ||6,600|
|4. 5C ||6,500|
|5. 1B (Tie)||6,000|
|5. 1B (Tie)||6,000|
|TOP FIVE COMBINED WMUs|
|WMU||TOTAL DEER HARVEST |
WMU 4E has dense human habitation and a small amount of public land, even with 19 state game lands.
"We are still recommending a goal of stable populations in most of the state," Rosenberry said. "Some of that is due to the fact that in some units, there is no Citizen Advisory Committee. In much of the state right now, if forest habitat health is at too low a level, we expect to see an improvement. But right now, we don't have the data to show that. So we're looking to stabilize the deer herd in most places."
THE BIG WOODS
It's across the Big Woods of the north-central counties where there's probably been the greatest discontent with the current deer situation -- and certainly not without reason. Deer numbers are down and probably stabilizing at current numbers, which will not please many hunters.
The Big Woods is comprised mainly of wildlife management units 2F, 2G and 3B. To keep things more manageable, we'll include WMU 3A.
Note that none of these WMUs is among the leading units for total deer harvest, even though WMU 2F and WMU 2G are very large. Only WMU 3B is in the upper percentile for total deer harvest, and this unit stretches eastward beyond the traditional Big Woods.
WMU 2F, discussed earlier, consists primarily of Allegheny National Forest, where there's an average density of fewer than 12 deer per square mile. Less than a decade ago, the deer density there was about 28 whitetails per square mile.
And during the glory years of Big Woods deer hunting, the density on parts of what is now WMU 2F may have approached 50 deer per square mile! It's easy to see why long-time hunters of this area are disappointed.
For the 2007-08 hunting season, WMU 2G -- the state's largest wildlife management unit -- had a harvest of 11,700 deer, a drop of just 100 deer from the year before. That may be misleading, however, because the antlerless deer harvest increased more than 43 percent, while the antlered deer harvest dropped 29 percent.
In WMU 3B, the total harvest was 16,100 deer, a decline of less than 6 percent from the previous year -- not bad on a comparative basis. This unit has a fair amount of public land available, though not nearly so much as WMU 2F or WMU 2G.
WMU 3B should continue to be one of the better deer-hunting areas north of Interstate Route 80. Hunters should be able to find deer by scouting large public tracts such as SGLs No. 12, No. 13 or No. 57.
WMU 3A is a relatively small unit along the New York border. For the 2007-08 hunting seasons, its total harvest was 11,200 deer -- a decline of nearly 16 percent from the year before. Otherwise, and as with the other Big Woods units, there is relatively little public land.
As usual, the leading WMUs for total deer harvest last year were wildlife management units 2D, 5C,
2A, 2C and 2B. Wildlife management units 2D, 2A, 2C and 2B are clustered around the Pittsburgh area in the Southwest Region and lower Northwest Region. It is all Appalachian Plateau terrain. Human populations vary from medium to heavy.
There is a medium amount of forest cover, but this area might better be described as checkerboard habitat -- a mix of habitat types including wood lots, farms and overgrown farms that make up a good share of some of the best deer habitat in the country.
Total harvests in these units ran from 19,700 to 27,200 deer.
In total, the 2007 harvest of 87,800 animals was a 12 percent drop from the previous year.
If last year's reduced harvest and hunter participation in the Western Region was because of EHD, then game lands in these counties may well be whitetail hotspots this year.
This harvest decline coincided with one of the most significant deer stories of 2007 -- an outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD.
The source of this disease, fatal to deer, was literally blowing in the wind. It was carried by insects on winds blowing up from the south.
Usually, EHD in this magnitude does not reach so far to the north. But last year, it was detected as far north as Massachusetts. It was widespread in southwestern Pennsylvania, occurring among wild deer in Lawrence, Indiana, Allegheny, Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.
How did the disease really affect the deer population? The answer is confusing.
"We now know a little bit more about what it did to hunters," Rodenberry said. "Typically, we look at the buck and antlerless success rates -- two of our indices to get a sense of what happened to the deer population as a result of that disease.
"This year, however -- based on survey work we did in that unit last spring before the commission meeting in April -- we learned that the disease very well may have affected the population.
"But it also affected hunters' willingness to kill a deer in that unit."
That survey indicated that there was less hunter participation, with hunters less willing to harvest a deer.
If last year's reduced harvest and hunter participation in the Western Region were because of EHD, then game lands in these counties might well be whitetail hotspots this year.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission plans to handle this situation by dropping antlerless allocations back to the levels of previous years, until biologists can better understand how the deer population was affected.
Rosenberry said that the commission will continue to recommend reductions in wildlife management units with special regulations areas, including 2B, 5C and 5D.
For more information about deer- hunting opportunities on public land in Pennsylvania, contact the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797.
You can also call (717) 787-4250, or log onto the agency's Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.